Preview: Happiness Through Science

Robin Ince tells Andy Murray how his love of science fuels his stand-up routines

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In his long, illustrious career as a stand-up comedian, Robin Ince has revealed himself to be a man of many passions. He’s presented live shows extolling the virtues of popular culture, obsessive collecting, great books and appallingly bad books. But in recent years, he’s started to focus on his greatest enthusiasm: the joy and wonder of science.

“People often say: ‘What’s funny about science?’ And I think, well, you’ve basically got everything in the known universe, and conjecture about the unknown universe, to play with for ideas,” he says. “That covers a lot of ground.

“Other people have already covered getting drunk and going to the supermarket, so I’m able to have everything else. Also, I can still talk about going to the supermarket, but from an evolutionary psychological position.”

As a young boy, Ince adored science, initially inspired by the likes of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Carl Sagan’s TV documentary series Cosmos. But this natural fascination suffered at school. “My interest disappeared thanks to reasonably dull science teaching as a teenager.”

In later life he set about forging a career as an estimable comedy writer and performer. By his own admission, though, this course faltered slightly about ten years ago.

“I found something that I really wanted to talk about.”

“I’d got bored of stand-up. As it became increasingly mainstream, there was a point where I thought, I don’t know if I can bothered to do stand-up any more. But then I found something that I really wanted to talk about.”

The something in question was science, which he’d fallen in love with all over again, having conducted his own reading into the subject as an adult. “Once you open up that first book, that re-ignites the excitement you had when you were a child when you were first looking at the stars and the moon and having that frog spawn in a jar in the corner of your nursery school. Once you get back into that you think, there’s so much to talk about here.”

An admirer of popular science writers such as Richard Feynman, Jim Al-Khalili and Alice Roberts, Ince’s enthusiasm began to fuel subject matter for his act.

“My shows have become like compilation tapes that you’re giving at that first date, when you go: ‘Hey, here’s some bands, I hope you like them!’

“That’s really what I’m doing. I’m not offering much more than just saying, here’s some ideas that really excite me. Hopefully you’ll want to take some of them away and go and buy books by wonderful people who know what they’re talking about.”

Since 2009 Ince’s profile has been boosted by the Radio 4 show The Infinite Monkey Cage, a light-hearted but never empty-headed look at issues in modern science, which he co-hosts with the field’s current poster boy, Professor Brian Cox. It’s been a hit, drawing large and broad audiences. Ince’s role is to keep matters breezy and accessible enough to appeal to all-comers.

“I count myself as like an idiot bridge.”

“I count myself as like an idiot bridge. It’s wonderful to be sitting there surrounded by scientists, trying to ensure that they express themselves in a way that everyone can understand.

“There are times where I don’t always have to play an idiot, though. I‘m a natural born idiot as well, so that helps.”

Ince’s current touring show, Happiness Through Science, draws on the same wellspring, and it’s been attracting all sorts of audiences.

“Even though I see what I do as quite niche, this tour has been bringing in a good mix in terms of male and female, young and old. I’ve done it in schools, I’ve done it at teachers conferences, I’ve done it in all manner of different places.

“Every now and again, though, I’ll turn up to a gig and notice that I’ve been advertised as the next stand-up night after they’ve had Jim Davidson. Bringing in ideas about multiverse theory can be more difficult in those situations.”

Robin Ince: Happiness Through Science, various dates including Liverpool, Leeds, Chorley and Salford. See Photo: Steve Ullathorne

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