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'A comedian's words can throw out lifebelts'

Our editor Jon Sutton reviews 'I'm a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian's Take on What Makes us Human', by Robin Ince, and meets the author. We also publish an exclusive extract.

22 November 2018

Is the child the father of the man? Is there a real you? Where does imagination come from? What's the line between creativity and madness? Can we laugh in the face of death? These are a few of life's big questions, and your shelves may be filled with books by psychologists seeking to provide some answers. But there are good reasons why you should find space for this one, offering a 'comedian's take'.  

Stand-ups professionally examine our quirks on stage night after night, a cartoonish embodiment of all that it is to be human. In the words of Penn Jillette, 'In show business you show what you're feeling. So yes, they show the angst, but they're showing the angst of humanity.' Ince concludes from this that 'perhaps it is only by noticing and drawing on the absurdist and surreal that we can see the conflicts, incidents and coincidences that make all human beings such a curious and special species?'

Ince isn't just any comedian. In his foreword, Stewart Lee – probably the master of dissecting the comedian's art – hails Ince's 'subtly significant influence on the trajectory of the better parts of British stand-up over the last few decades'. Lee points to 'the connections he made in large-scale shows between comedy and the world of politics, philosophy and science'. You can see why The Observer recently described Ince as a 'becardiganed polymath'. 

Wearing cardigans, along with knowing about stuff, doesn't tend to endear a boy to his schoolmates. So Ince's book begins with an autobiographical feel, his formative years feeling like a 'freak' and a 'weirdo'. A car crash when he was two, in which his mother was seriously injured, sets up the stereotypical 'creation story' of the comedian. But the scientifically-minded Ince veers away from this, drawing on Spike Milligan's view that depressive episodes simply show up more in a comedian, 'like a black ink stain on a white shirt or an archbishop on a tricycle'. 

And who isn't a weirdo, anyway? One of Ince's main points is that comedians might 'go out of their way to highlight their own absurdities, weaknesses and ridiculousness', but perhaps we all should. Ince's anecdotes are a good advertisement for 'living ridiculously, but also more kindly and helpfully'. 

Along a journey that's never dull – managing to have both real purpose and an 'ooh look a squirrel' quality – Ince meets many of the best (and most entertaining) psychologists we have to offer. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Sophie Scott, Charles Fernyhough, Essi Viding, Dean Burnett and others take him under their wing and ruffle his hair… Ince has such an endearingly earnest air around him when he meets scientists, reflected in his general rule: 'if a stranger approaches you and asks you if you'll take part in a scientific experiment, say "yes"'. 

Many of his conclusions won't surprise an audience of psychologists – that 'we are an amalgam', that whatever your anxiety someone somewhere will share it, and that comedy can 'very often be the best way to deal with life'. But in addition to being royally entertained I was also educated, including on young comedians identifying with being on the autistic spectrum, and a beautifully handled chapter on our personal fear of mortality. 

In any case, I'm here for Ince and his creative peers. I'll never tire of reading Alan Moore's views on imagination, Noel Fielding on surrealism, Tim Minchin on taboo. We should be grateful that psychology has those like Ince offering a walkway to the 'wonkier' people of the world, along with bridges to audiences far and wide. And we should be proud that he can find such willing and knowledgeable guides within our ranks.

- I'm a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian's Take on What Makes us Human is published by Atlantic Books, priced £16.99 in hardback. 

As a 'becardiganed polymath', you've had one foot in psychology for a good few years now. What are your impressions, of psychology and psychologists?

I used to think that the attraction of psychology was wanting to get to the bottom of your own peculiarities under the guise of taking on a profession that prodded other minds… so you needed to first of all be perplexed by your own brain and wondering if it was doing the things a human brain was meant to, or if you were odder than the average human. Did it start from a root concern that you were not as you should be? I like talking to psychologists and neuroscientists because it seems to be an area where there is no choice but to accept that there have been major errors of judgement in the recent past and knowing that 'mistakes were made' makes it even more fascinating in working out how we can work out why we are as we are, and how and why we can go wrong. I love reading about Freud, Jung, Klein and Laing, I am fascinated in this science of so many 'maybes' and 'perhaps'. 

Most of the psychologists you met for the book – Essi Viding, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Sophie Scott, Dean Burnett, Charles Fernyhough, etc – are brilliant scientists but also very funny people in person. Was that important for the book, or a coincidence?  

Dean and Sophie I first met because I like putting on shows that mix up science and comedy, so very often the first people I meet in any field are people who are keen to be on stage too. Sarah-Jayne lives down the road from me, so that came in useful, and Essi and Charles came into it on the advice of others. My experience of science generally, and it may not be a usual one, is that researchers are gregarious when it comes to excitedly talking about their work. I find the green rooms of science festivals far more social than the green rooms of literature festivals.

There's an old idea that analysing a joke is like dissecting a frog – no one laughs and the frog dies. And yet in recent years, some of the best stuff I've read or listened to has been analysis of humour.  

I don't think I am dissecting jokes themselves so much as what the wish to turn our lives into punchlines and stories tells us about being human. There may be some discussion of why you want to tell a certain joke, but not why the joke itself 'works'.

There has been a change in a section of stand-up comedy. With much of the post-war comedy, the comedian was wearing a mask on stage, they were using gags to maintain their 'secret'. Now, there are an increasing number of comedians who are very revealing on stage; the connection they make with the audience is more than just the connection from a laugh… a comedian's words can throw out lifebelts and give people a feeling they have permission to talk about things they have kept hidden, the taboos that lie within. I think of comedians like Hannah Gadsby and Richard Gadd among many others. The act is no longer just an act. I have found that by talking about anxiety, impulsive thoughts, death, love and fear, people can want to share with you.

Some of the experts you meet suggest that the idea of comedy as a product of childhood trauma or adult neuroses is a stereotype rather than a phenomenon. Do you now agree?

It is all still a mess of ideas. I think the important thing is to realise that no one act or incident imprints a certainty of destiny. Nature and nurture bump and rattle and collide, but I also think it is important to not be fearful about working out why you may be as you are.

I like that Stewart Lee called the book 'Deceptively deep'. Is that something you cultivate or value in yourself as a person?  

I don't think I am deep, I am just interested in a lot of things. In fact maybe I am broadly shallow, a wide puddle of interests that may evaporate all together on a sunny day. But my life is spent perpetually ruminating… I am more 'what if' than 'it is' and I hope the book is not a set of answers but a series of possibilities, some of which may be useful to others. 

The book is in some ways a more interesting way of doing an autobiography. As an avid reader, what's your favourite 'psychobiography'?

In recent months I have found After Kathy Acker by Chris Krauss and You are Raoul Moat by Andrew Hankinson disconcerting and fascinating for quite different reasons.

After writing the book, did you feel you knew yourself better?

Yes, it has led to me starting therapy and it has led to me discussing things from my past that have started to illuminate me. I find it odd to think that when I wrote it I was sheepish in thinking that being involved in a major car accident at the age of three, which I thought I had caused, and whose repercussions hung over the rest of all our childhoods, was something that I should be embarrassed to consider trauma. It doesn't necessarily make things easier, but it does make some of it all more comprehensible, and that is useful.

There's more than a hint of 'l'appel du vide' (the call of the void) in your anecdotes and style of writing. Would you say that's common to most comedians? The funniest thing I've heard Russell Brand say was about his internal monologue on waiting in line to meet the Queen… 

I had to look 'l'appel du vide' up, but now I have, I think there is, at least among the sort of comics I hang out with. A fly-eating frog has a limited number of choices: we have the imagination to consider all the possibilities and undoubtedly they will include many that would bring shame or a murder rap upon us.

What lesson from the life of a comedian would you hope the average reader takes from the book?

I hope it reminds people that we are absurd and that however steadfast the person in front of you appears, you have no idea what is actually going on in their mind… the disparity between our outward appearance and the life in the mind may be considerable. 


The following is extracted from I'm a Joke and So Are You by Robin Ince published by Atlantic Books Ltd at £16.99, copyright © Robin Ince, 2018.

As a child, there was one film that I never missed when it was shown on television, and I was fortunate that it was shown a lot. It starred Richard Burton as a malevolent force who would intone, 'I am the man with the power to create catastrophe.' He was a man who had killed his parents, sent planes into tower blocks and caused manned space missions to fail, all with the power of his mind. The Medusa Touch is not in the top ten of Burton's most celebrated films, but there is something about it that keeps me coming back to it on rainy Sundays.

I was surprised and interested to realize that I was not the only person who had an obsession with this film, and that for some it has been a lifelong inspiration. Professor Charles Fernyhough believes the film has had a positive life-changing effect on him since he first saw it when he was eleven years old. He became fascinated by the power of the mind, and has spent much of his life ever since investigating that power, though not with the end-aim of creating telekinetic chaos, as far as I can work out.

From Durham University, he leads 'Hearing the Voice', which is a research project that examines the phenomenon of hearing inner voices. The project aims to show another side of hearing voices, beyond the common way of linking them to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and psychosis. The project aims to show that hearing voices 'can also be an important aspect of many ordinary people's lives' and that they 'seek to examine this phenomenon from as many different relevant perspectives as possible'.

Though I might argue with my inner voices, I am reasonably comfortable with them. I am in a situation where rather than suppress what might be viewed by many as peculiar behaviour, I can actively reveal those voices, use them in my creative processes and get paid to do so, too. For many people in more constrained environments, the inner voices stay hidden, and it seems that the less they are outwardly expressed, the more controlling and perturbing they can become.

Am I persistently eavesdropping on my thoughts because I wonder if I can turn them into anything else – a sketch, a story, a routine, a threat?

It can be very difficult and unnerving to convey your own inner life to other people and, as such, many people would not want to. Imagine for a moment voicing all the opinions, observations and ideas that buzz around your head on any given day, or even on any particular Tube journey, and then ask yourself whether you'd feel comfortable with sharing all those thoughts with someone else? Your partner, say, or your children? The comedian Gordon Southern used to talk about being caught out at that moment when your partner looks at you, smiling, and says, 'What are you thinking?' 'Oh, I was just planning your murder.'

I can socially embarrass my wife, when I have not found a good enough alibi to avoid parties, by voicing thoughts that should frequently have been caught by the net of censorship, which is meant to guard our brain and sieve what will eventually come out of our mouths. Apparently my enthusiasm for a stuffed goat that I'd recently seen at an art event did not oil the wheels of polite conversation with near-strangers over a bottle of Campari. Similarly, an interest in cannibalism and wondering what human flesh tastes like is apparently not meant to be broached until at least a third invitation. You see, it's not just me who is not keen on going to parties; my wife is not keen on me going to parties, either – at least, not if she is with me. I burble.

As I've suggested, some of my favourite gigs, though, are often ones that just become a creative outpouring of free association, using my inner dialogue with myself to generate ideas and riff out loud. But if I'm honest, I can't say that these riffs represent every thought that passes through my mind. When I become particularly frenetic, I can imagine it is my inner mind that is being voiced, but it is an inner mind flushed out and aware that it is being watched, an inner mind that is being judged and knows it needs to be entertaining. It is my inner monologue sped up and showing off.

Charles Fernyhough believes that talking to yourself out loud would certainly be evolutionarily unwise. He says, 'The person who is hiding behind a bush saying, "I hope that sabre-toothed tiger doesn't find us" doesn't last long, plus, if you talk to yourself aloud, you are giving away your secrets.' So we keep our voices to ourselves to give us a competitive edge, and it greatly helps us, as a sophisticated social species with an impressive ability – and need – to lie.

There is something too of sophisticated evolutionary development about the reading voice we have inside our heads. Reading this page now, you can experience it as if you are not experiencing the meaning of the words directly, but more as if they are being fed to you by an internal author-voice inside your head. And yet reading quietly and internally to oneself wasn't the way one read at all until around the fourth century ad, after St Ambrose rejected the usual Roman way of reading and declaiming sentences out loud. Up until that point, libraries were incredibly noisy places.

Now, though, many outward expressions of our internal thinking are frowned upon and are seen as a little bit backward. I have sat on a bus and had a thought and then started smiling, and perhaps even gently laughing out loud, just a soft chuckle, and to judge from the looks around me, you would think I had pulled out a crossbow. The evidence of the silent thoughts of others can be disconcerting.

Charles Fernyhough thinks that if we could see other people's thoughts, it would be like Wittgenstein's lion trying to have a conversation with a human. In Wittgenstein's philosophy, 'if a lion could speak, we could not understand him'. His theory is that a lion's existence is so different from a human being's that, despite a common language, we would not be able to translate the meaning and intention of the lion's words. They would not make any sense to us, because we would not be able to find common grounds of communication. For Fernyhough, despite being the same species, the same can be said of much of our inner life. It is so unique to us as individuals – its erratic nature so attached to our personality – that any canny telepath would be quite bewildered, when listening to the minds of others.

We know so little about the nature of these internal conversations of the mind, and yet of all the people you talk to in a day, you don't converse with any of them nearly as much as you talk to yourself. Imagine attempting to keep a diary that chronicled all your thoughts; you would soon need reinforced shelves. Beyond that, you would always be trying to catch up with yourself, trying to notice the new thoughts as you jotted down the old ones.

And it does seem to be a conversation, in that there can be a toing and froing as there is between different individuals. Fernyhough describes inner speech as 'dialogic, not monologic', explaining that our inner voice is like a conversation, and not just a singular commentary or critique.

So to some degree or another, we all experience the sensation of hearing voices in our heads, having some form of interior monologue that somehow seems separate from us. For some creative professions – perhaps even comedy – drawing on those interior voices is a useful tool to have at one's disposal. Problems arise, though, if you are not sure the voice that you're hearing belongs to you. It often has that feeling of 'other', but some people begin to wonder whether someone else has entered their mind.

Most of us don't even think about how our thoughts are self-generated, but for other people, this seemingly obvious connection is not so easy. For some, the thoughts in their head become a second or third person, perhaps even a devil or god. They do not believe they are the controller and creator of the voices in their head.

Today we view such people and their beliefs as aberrant and needing of help, but is it possible that there was a time when all inner monologues were presumed to be words from beyond you? This is something that intrigued the American psychologist Julian Jaynes, who wrote just one book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), which became something of a cult bestseller. He was fascinated by introspection. He had spent some of his early years experimenting on worms and protozoa, to see how they could learn, but decided this would teach him nothing useful about consciousness, so he started to examine the history of the mind.

In his book Jaynes puts forward the argument that we did not know that our inner monologue was our inner monologue until about three thousand years ago. Until then, the two hemispheres of the brain communicated with each other, but as if separate entities, with that communication being mistaken for orders from an outside entity, maybe a god. As an example of this development Jaynes argued that Homer's The Iliad shows no representation of introspection, whereas the later Odyssey does, and so he pinpointed the awareness of the inner voice as beginning around three thousand years ago. This theory may also help to explain why throughout much of the Old Testament God speaks directly to his people, but why we haven't heard so much from him directly lately. Perhaps this is why God is angrier in the Old Testament, because we were listening to the 'I've stubbed my toe' and 'Oh shit, I've set this bush on fire' part of our internal voices and, as we know, that can consist of quite a lot of fury and not a little self-loathing.

One of the ways in which the 'Hearing the Voice' project tries to help those who have found their lives blighted by their inner voices is by showing them how artists use their inner dialogues in creativity. As a writer and novelist himself, Fernyhough explains how writers can view their inner voices as that mysterious muse that suddenly comes to them and gives them inspiration. He told me that the author Pat Barker, best known for her First World War novels, puts an imagined Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in a room with her and waits for them to start talking. They do not talk to her, as she is not in the story, but she just has to invite them in and then listen.

Sitting in a rain-assaulted tent at the 'End of the Road' Literary Festival, David Keenan, author of  This Is Memorial Device, told me that when he was writing his novel he would become very angry with certain characters and think, 'Why the hell are you doing that?' and then remind himself that he was in charge of controlling what his perpetrators did, or at least he thought he was in charge.

Charles Fernyhough was interested in whether stand-up comedians sit down and wait for the voices to come, as Pat Barker does. I explained that as far as I was concerned, there was no waiting involved, but that sometimes the inside of my head was like Edvard Munch's The Scream – one of me, the one I like to think is the main me in the me-gang, with his hands clasped over his ears, wishing the incessant babble would stop. The problem I felt was not waiting for the voice; it was waiting for the voice to say something that appeared to be useful.

I don't wait for the voices, I told Fernyhough, but I do sometimes ask them to slow down. Running away with the idea now, I told him that rather than editing the voices, for me it was a case of hacking away at the incessant stream in my head and trying to make sure that I took from it the best bits, while leaving behind the dross. Sometimes, I explained, it seemed as if five voices would pop up all at once, all with humdinger lines that I was excited by, and I would find myself getting flustered and telling them, 'Not all at once – one at a time, one at a time.' Usually, in the rapid writing-down process, I would lose one or two of the ideas, and I would have a nagging suspicion that those lost ideas were the best. Later, in bed and on the cusp of sleep, the lost ideas would come back to me and I'd leap out of bed, seeking a pencil to write them down, often injuring myself in the process. Head bandaged by morning, I'd realize the injury was for nothing, the ideas being mediocre at best. That hypnagogic state of elation at your new ideas was premature delight, at best.

Fernyhough looked at me politely, or was that sympathetically? He smiled and explained that this was perhaps the nearest I would ever get to communicating with the Wittgenstein's lion part of my brain, which he had mentioned earlier. And I realized that as well as others' brains being a mystery to us, we haven't even got round to deciphering what our own brains have to say.

I wondered again about the species of comedians, and about that survey. Perhaps we are what might be called 'self-taught psychotics': individuals who only come across as psychotic in surveys because we want to hear voices, we want them to energize our creative juices. Perhaps, too, because we use our eccentricities for pleasure and profit, when it comes to answering surveys we may have an acceptance of what others fear as a problem, as an unwanted form of psychosis, so we might put down what others hold back.

Charles believes that those who are distressed by hearing voices are not tuning into them clearly enough. Artists have to tune into these voices, as they often want to use them for creative effect. But for many people, hearing voices doesn't have any pragmatic use, and quite naturally they just want them to go away.

How does the 'Hearing the Voice' project help those battling with hostile voices in their head? How can you start a useful dialogue with your voices? Keith Harris would have been pleased, as Fernyhough explained how glove puppets have been used in therapy to create a physical representation of the unwanted voice, or voices, for the patient. This reminds me of ventriloquism, something that has always given me the creeps. The combination of a dead-eyed dummy that is then used as a comic prop to give voice to the internal dialogue of the ventriloquist, often instigating the most antagonistic and shocking conversation, has always disquieted me, but listening to Charles, it takes on a deep psychological relevance…