Robin Ince interview

Barry chats to comedian Robin Ince about his stand-up, Johnny Ball, his upcoming book and a whole lot more...

A former writer for The 11 O’Clock Show and Meet Ricky Gervais, Robin Ince moved into stand-up and later devised the cult alternative comedy shows the Book Club and The School For Gifted Children. More recently he’s shot into the public consciousness by curating the Nine Lessons and Carols For Godless People events, celebrating science with a plethora of comedians and musicians. And now? He’s spared us some time for a natter….

What got you into comedy?

It’s really hard to work out where it started. I was always a fan of Laurel and Hardy, I was a fan of Charlie Chaplin and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and all those things when I was a young child. It was probably 1982 and I’d just become a teenager and The Comic Strip Presents… and The Young Ones started on television. At that point my dual obsessions were music, bands like The Smiths and Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson.

You know on exercise books metal fans would write ‘Iron Maiden’ and do all different kinds of designs? I used to put all the different designs of the early episodes of The Comic Strip Presents… on, like War and Five Go Mad In Dorset and it wasn’t long after that when I was about 14 years old that I started going to some of the comedy clubs in London and just watching. From the earliest age I’d always wanted to be a writer or performer of some kind and I think it was The Young Ones and The Comic Strip that made me think about stand-up.

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So what were you doing before you started stand-up?

I worked in a children’s bookshop and I did bar work. I started doing stand-up when I was about 22. In Edinburgh I did a thing called So You Think You’re Funny? and I got second place in that.

The trouble was, when I started off in stand-up, was I did all right – the only trouble was I could never ring people, so I found it very difficult to get gigs. Even if someone came up to me and said, “I’m running a club, ring me,” every day I’d think, “No, I won’t ring them today.” So, I played the same five clubs over and over again and then got to the point after a year of doing it of realising I was doing something wrong; that I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do in stand-up. So I would kind of just take long breaks and work in theatrical lighting warehouses and things like that.

What were your first gigs like?

I’d always have a couple of pints of strongish lager before going on and then you find that interesting thing that you notice your timing is out and so you cut down to one. Adrenaline versus alcohol is quite interesting.

Most of them were fine. It was really about a year and a half, two years in where I became rubbish, which is a worse thing. It was much better for friends of mine who started off rubbish and got better. To actually start off reasonably well and do well in competitions and then become rubbish means people lose a lot trust in you at that point.

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But you got through that…

A while back at the turn of this century I cut down on stand-up and I was doing lots of other things, writing and doing radio and telly shows and stuff like that, and I almost thought I would give up stand-up altogether. There was a point in about 2003 that I became particularly inspired about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to talk about.

How do you think your comedy has evolved since those early gigs?

I now am very specific about what I talk about. I have a lot of notebooks and I write stuff down. I often find myself going, “That’s a very simple observational joke. It’s not a bad joke, but I can’t do it because I’ve now got this agenda which is about rationalism and science and an attack on various elements of the media.” I try now and focus on these particular things that celebrate science or demean things that are wrong in popular culture or the media as a whole.

You’ve kind of cornered that market.

It’s probably a market not many people can be part of. It’s not as if I play to enormous audiences, but what’s nice is that I feel I’m communicating to the right kind of people. It is a niche area that I’m in and I found it very interesting that the first time I did a proper tour of the UK quite a lot of the audience had come along because they’d seen the extras on Ricky Gervais’ DVD or seen me tour with him, and I found that the last tour I did, in 2009, people were much more there because they had heard of the science side and the angry, railing against the media side.

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And now your gigs come with reading lists.

Yesterday I didn’t have time to do a reading list so I just went through my house and thought, “I don’t need that book anymore and I’ve read that one enough times,” so the audience at the end, rather than getting a reading list, were getting books and DVDs from my bookshelves. It’s a starting point.

Every day someone will write to me via Twitter or Facebook and say, “Who was that guy you were reading out from?” and I can say it was Richard Feynman or Jacob Bronowski. I know that people have gone off and bought books by Carl Sagan because they’ve come to shows.

So I do have this kind of bookish agenda and I have no problem with that; it really excites me. Last night after my gig there was a woman I was chatting to who used to work for NASA. There’s a huge library of the urine from all the space missions and every astronaut’s is kept and they’ve worked out a way of storing it to keep it fresh. I, more often than not, learn something from the audience, which is great.

You have a son now, and I’ve noticed little bits of whimsical dad material creeping its way in.

Last night I was doing the launch for the Glasgow Comedy Festival and I only had seven minutes. I had some harsh things I wanted to talk about – some columns Jan Moir had written and things about the right wing in this country and so, if I did some ‘I have the funniest son in the world’ material, it cushions the blow.

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It’s genuinely true that if there’s a book with a turtle in and I go, “Archie, who eats turtles?”  he goes, “Charles Darwin.” He knows which DVDs have got Clint Eastwood on and I’ll say “Go and get Clint Eastwood,” and he’ll go and get him. He uses the DVD cases as trains and he knocked one to the floor and he went, “Sorry, Clint Eastwood.”

If you watch old George Carlin, he would do these really fantastic attacks on the nature of humanity and what’s wrong with society and some very bleak things about politics and then he’d go, “Hey, whatever happened to fanny farts?” It’s that thing where, if you’re just railing non-stop and there’s no moment of comfort where people can relax, the bombardment may become null and void.

Do you cater your material to different crowds?

I believe in going out there and, whatever the crowd is, doing what I do. I might not sometimes be as harsh, or I might be harsher, but I never do stuff that I dislike or things which I didn’t think should be discussed on stage, whereas five years ago I probably would’ve done.

You’re a regular on the festival circuit – what do you find appealing about them?

When I play Glastonbury I find I’m playing to people who have similar concerns but you can try to push it further and try to take them into an area that’s quite uncomfortable. I used to say that my favourite audience were slightly drunk librarians. The last full-length show that I did I did some stuff about The Mail and The Express but then started to question The Guardian and The Independent – newspapers that we’re generally happy with. Don’t just question the obvious, which is to say The Mail and The Express are rubbish, but kind of know a lot of what they do is harshly right wing and deliberately contrarian. So, I’m getting paid to be at a festival to go and watch loads of bands. And then just stand for half an hour and talk about things that I want to talk about.

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It’s also fantastic where sometimes I find in meetings with television people you find them going, “Our demographic won’t understand this,” or, “Teenagers won’t understand this,” and then you play Reading to two thousand people or so. You’re playing to drunk 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds and they do get everything and then can get jokes about Tycho Brahe and genetic coding and the human genome – all these kind of things. You can play to people who, we’re told, cannot understand ideas.

You’re a big music fan and you have had Martin White playing accordion alongside your stand-up as well as all the musicians who perform at the Lessons And Carols events. Are comedy and music a natural pairing?

Getting the balance is very difficult. Matt Lucas supported Blur in the mid-90s as Sir Bernard Chumley and it didn’t really work because the audience were there to see music.

To be honest, none of the science and Christmas shows I do should really work. If you look on paper at the idea that Al Murray’s going to go on as the pub landlord and do an enormous piece about the bacon receptor in the brain and then end by doing a burly version of What A Wonderful World and then Brian Cox comes on immediately afterwards to do a lecture about what we can see via the Hubble telescope and the nature of the universe… technically, on paper, those things shouldn’t mix but they find the right audience.

I described those kinds of shows as the equivalent of channel surfing. You’re sitting in a theatre but you are going, “I’m going to look at the Discovery Channel now. Oh, there’s something really brilliant on that music channel. Oh, I’ll watch the comedy channel now.”

The similarity between everyone who’s on at 9 Lessons And Carols is that they’re all very passionate people. It’s fantastic to go into the green room during the gig to watch Robyn Hitchcock talking to Alan Moore and Dara Ó Briain chatting to Richard Dawkins. It’s a nice mix.

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Do you find music influences you at all?

I don’t think so. Again, it’s the same. All the bands I like most, and all the musicians I like are people who are passionate and are saying something. I love great narrative songwriters like Darren Hayman from Hefner. He’s written a new album about Harlem New Town called Pram Town and he’s about to write an album about the Essex Witch Trials. So, I think the influence is merely to be in rooms with people who really want to say something and feel that there’s some kind of meaning to their work.

Can comedians be more radical than musicians?

Yes, if you’re talking about things that you really believe in, and I think that that’s something that can be really underused sometimes on the circuit. I. My sister, for instance, loves the Manic Street Preachers but she’s also a Daily Mail reader so I don’t think that when she listens to A Design For Life she’s particularly noticing the fact that there is a story within that about libraries giving people power and the notion of working class book clubs. You just hear the tune and the words go out the window. With stand-up you are focusing very specifically on the words and the meaning behind them, which is why, of course, you can fall flat on your face frequently.

Last year’s  Lessons And Carols was even bigger than 2008’s, and it’s just been shown on BBC4. You mentioned last year that your dream would be to hold an event at every religious holiday. Do you feel you’ve created a monster?

I’ve changed my mind about that. I did want to do Rational Ramadan last year and, interestingly, no theatre would touch it. I wonder why? I don’t think any of our shows are an attack on religion; the idea was Rational Ramadan would combine science and talking about the Islamic contributions to science, and talking about myths in the media and no-one would actually touch it. Now I think I just want to put on as many science shows and woo people in, and I don’t really care about the religious side.

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I started doing them because of an argument I had with Stephen Green from Christian Voice and now I think it’s more that I really like audiences leaving the gig and being fired up and going to buy Carl Sagan and going to buy their first telescope. Even things like calling it 9 Lessons And Carols For Godless People, I’m thinking of dropping the Godless People part now. A lot of religious people come and they’re often surprised by the lack of God-bashing. There was a Catholic newspaper the year before last who went, “The one pity was that there didn’t seem to be anything attacking God, really,” and I don’t think we need that.

You’re not going to woo anyone over by attacking what they believe – you woo people over by showing them something more exciting and more interesting. Like when you tell them there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach in the whole of the world. That’s a better fact than going, “Another bit of the Bible that’s rubbish is this.”

We did three in 2008 and six last year and I’d love to keep building it. I initially fund it myself and things like Hammersmith, once you take into account everything there – the 27-piece orchestra, 21 acts, huge screens – it means that even if I get a sell out, I’m pretty much breaking even. I’ve been very good at coming up with ideas that can be reasonably successful and yet still make me no money whatsoever.

How about the Darwin Birthday Celebrations series of gigs you did around the country?

The Darwin shows were slightly smaller, it was Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, me, Gavin Osbourne and Josie Long, and I would like to keep building on it because we played places like the Lowry in Manchester and had fantastic audiences.

I’m going to start doing a family-friendly science show on Saturday mornings. I want to get well-known scientists giving a half-hour lecture, an experiment that goes bang at the end and singer-songwriters singing songs about science. I’ve just written to David Attenborough – please, David Attenborough, say yes!

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There are so many incredible things to be discovered about the universe and science has progressed so incredibly throughout the last 150 years and everything we have nowadays is pretty much built on the foundations of science and yet we have an increasingly scientific illiterate population. And so, yeah, I am on this terrible mission now.

Perhaps you could revive Johnny Ball’s career?

That was very interesting. Someone bootlegged it and gave me a copy of Johnny’s set. Basically, Johnny did a set that was about three times longer than it was meant to be. He was on quite late and the last eight or nine minutes was about why he doesn’t believe there’s a man-made contribution to global warming. The way it was reported by the only journalist who was there was, “Johnny Ball started raving and then it all went a little bit mad and it was all very confusing.” Then Dara Ó Briain came on and said something like, “That was like seeing Tinky Winky wanking on stage.”

But then it was reported by everybody as, “Poor Johnny Ball, he just tries to make one joke about global warming and everyone boos him off.” It didn’t happen like that! He’d been talking for eight minutes on that subject and then once he came up to Climategate with the East Anglia thing, there were enough scientists in there who were getting bored of the way it was getting misrepresented in the press. That’s when people started to shout out, “This is rubbish, this is not true!” and that’s what led to the slow handclapping.

Interestingly, if it had been any other act I would’ve walked on and taken them off stage because when you’ve got sixteen acts on a night you can’t have someone going ten minutes over. But because of what he was talking about, I thought I couldn’t go on because if I did say, “Johnny you’re way over – we have to move on.”…

… It starts up the censorship argument?

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Yeah! But as it was they still got everything they wanted, those who don’t want to believe in climate change and the manmade contribution to it.

The original idea for the Godless shows grew out of an experience you had on a debate show, but you had done similar Book Club Christmas shows in the past at the Bloomsbury. Do you see the more scientific shows as an evolution of The Book Club or more complementary?

There was one night at the Book Club where I thought everything had gone wrong. With no sense of design it had become very popular very quickly. It had a lot of critics coming and it started to get described as the shot in the arm that comedy circuits needed – this left-field variety-style show. So, once it started going downhill a bit, I thought I have to get rid of it.

One night I decided I didn’t think the show was good enough and I told everyone after, “That’s it, we’re killing it off now,” and then I thought, I’ve still got another date at this venue, I’ll do the other thing that I’ve wanted to do, which is to get these philosophers and scientists and have these little mini-lectures and comedians talking about things that really inspire them.

What I would say is that the Book Club is a kind of negative show. It’s a fun show, but it is going, “Have you seen this book? It’s rubbish. This book’s rubbish as well,” whereas The School For Gifted Children shows are going, “Have you seen this book? It’s fantastic. Do you know about this idea? It’s brilliant. Have you heard about this man? He’s amazing.” So it’s a more positive show.

You have a Book Club book coming out in July. What’s that going to be about?

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Each chapter takes in a genre of books that I’ve been buying from Oxfam and Help the Aged. One chapter is on giant terrorising animals – a fantastic genre from the 1970s which was about killer cats, killer rats, killer crabs, killer bears, killer flies, killer ants… Pretty much every animal at one point became a killer.

Another chapter is about what makes a great Mills and Boon novel, another’s about science fiction poetry; another’s about action books for men, Temptation In A Private Zoo, which is one of my favourites that I’ve ever found. So each one is about what makes a certain genre and how these books are designed and how the plots work.

Does the book mark an end for the live shows?

I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of these books so I might as well have some use for them and just bring it back every few months. I’ve also got bigger ideas for it now. I met a great post-rock band called Vessels at Barrow-in-Furness, and I thought it’d be great, rather than just having Martin White on his accordion, to get a post-rock band to provide a fantastic kind of noisescape and also get people like Alan Moore to talk about their favourite weird books. I mean, Alan obviously has an enormous collection of ephemera and books that are esoteric. So, I think I’d still like to do big special versions of it, but for now, the main thing I’m going to work on is the science side and rationalist shows.

Have you thought about the guest list of this year’s Christmas show?

I really hope that Robert Smith might do this year and hopefully Neil Hannon, who couldn’t do last year’s, but is quite interested. Simon Le Bon wrote a piece for The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas and I believe some Duran Duran records have been burnt in America as a result. I thought it’d be great to have him with a 27-piece orchestra doing Hungry Like The Wolf. And I always like the surprises, like in the first year, to have Jarvis Cocker doing I Believe In Father Christmas immediately before Richard Dawkins came on was just a really special moment.

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Last year the wishlist was Tom Baker, who was really into it, he just was unavailable, David Attenborough, who was off filming something and the last one was Alan Moore and we got him.

Alan Moore did 20 minutes and he stands there in this fantastic garb and his flowing hair, and huge beard and his fantastic opening line was, “The centaur is officially an insect.” He could’ve stayed on for an hour because he’s just a fascinating man. So, I always like to find people you wouldn’t necessarily think of. I’ve got a big lot of scientists and I’d love to get Ann Druyan in, who was Carl Sagan’s wife and she’s a great science communicator. She was going to do something last year, but I couldn’t finance getting her over. I’m certain there are some comedians I haven’t even tapped into yet who’d love to do it as well.

Your latest solo show was recorded recently. What was involved in the decision to release it as an audio CD rather than a DVD?

It was merely that someone asked, “Do you want to do a CD?” and I thought, “Well, I’ve written three shows since I did the DVD and before long I won’t remember any of this stuff.”

Looking back, I think I did around two hours that night but I still, on the train home, was going, “I totally forgot that bit. I missed that bit.”

I think each time I’ve seen you, you’ve apologised for not having enough time for all your material.

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It happens every time! I was doing a gig at the Lyric in Hammersmith with Richard Herring the other day and I did find myself thinking I’ve just hit my stride now at 20 minutes and I’ve got to get off. I’d just realised what I meant to talk about.

I watched Razzle Dazzle yesterday, the children’s dance competition mockumentary you co-wrote. Was that a fun experience?

It’s just fantastic to have made a film. I can look at it now and I can see many things that I think are probably wrong with it, but for a very low-budget film I think it’s not a bad first effort. It’s not going to be like Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, but I think all the performances are fantastic.

Everything I’ve made I avoid because all I can see is what went wrong. It played quite a few festivals and it did very well at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I had to go and do a Q&A one day and I rang up the director and I went, “Have you got a copy?” and he went, “You still haven’t seen the film?” and I went, “No, I can’t remember the names of anyone. I can’t really remember the plot.”

So, at three in the morning on my Apple computer I was watching the film and just going, “Why was that cut out? That doesn’t work. That doesn’t seem right.” And then finally I saw it properly. It opened the New York Children’s Film Festival in this great lovely big cinema somewhere off 5th Avenue with an audience predominantly of children and their parents. I bit my nails down to the quick and sat there the first ten minutes. Nothing. No reaction. And then at the eleventh minute everyone started laughing and I realised part of it was it’s an Australian film; they’re keying into the voices.

By the end of it I thought, “God, it’s something that I’ve done that I’m not ashamed of. I can actually look at this and think it’s not bad.” When I think of the comedy films that have come out in Britain and I compare it to what we did, as arrogant as this sounds, I think it’s not a bad film. I don’t think it’s a great original work of art, but I think it’s an entertaining ninety minutes.

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One of my favourite things is the choreographer John ‘Cha-Cha’ O’Connell – he was the choreographer for Strictly Ballroom and is also called ‘Cha-Cha’ so I liked that – he came up with some fantastic ideas.

We deliberately wrote the script to be exactly ninety minutes long but somehow we ended up with over three hours of material, so then there was the problem of how on earth do we turn this into a ninety minute film? A common thing with everything I do is the presumption that I haven’t written enough or I haven’t got enough ideas and then I actually find myself going, “Oh, we better chuck all those things away.” But it was a great thing to do and I hope that I’ll get to make another film at some point.

Was there any room for improvisation? It seemed very Christopher Guest-esque.

Christopher Guest shoots about 100 hours and then spends a year editing the film. My friend Carolyn and me wrote it to be an improvised film but we realised with the budget we had we didn’t have that luxury, so then we did heavily script it. I was actually doing the rewriting while it was being filmed. While everyone else was on the set having a great time, I was in a tiny little room about forty miles out of Sydney just writing changes every single day.

But there is some improvisation in it. Ben Miller was fantastic in rehearsal; he was the kind of person you just keep taking notes going, “That is a much better line, that’s a much better idea.”

We didn’t necessarily want it to be a mockumentary – that was mainly for budgetary reasons because you can do lots of short cuts if you have talking heads – but watching Christopher Guest’s stuff is interesting because ,even though they’re called mockumentaries, a lot of them after the first ten minutes could never be documentaries, whereas one thing we did very specifically was this has to have a documentary truth. This has to be exactly what you would have got if it was a documentary. So, we had to have a lot of different rules about how you have to film it.

I know Ricky and Steve felt the same way with The Office.

Which was, of course, influenced by Christopher Guest as well. Very often you are going to have a lead character who doesn’t necessarily know their own errors.That’s what David Brent has, of course. He doesn’t know his own weaknesses, he doesn’t comprehend his own stupidity and I think in writing comedy you’re always going to have that bombastic nature of characters.

You said you’d love to make another film. I read you’d already started work on a wrestling film and a horror film?

Basically, I’ve got about three different films. The wrestling film I wrote with the director of Razzle Dazzle and every year we write two or three drafts and go, “That’s it. We’ve finally got it right,” and two weeks later we go, “It’s not right.” So, I think we’ve now got to the part where we’ve torn apart so much it probably makes no sense. I’m about to start work on it again.

Part of the process of writing creatively is imagining how it might turn out. In the end result I can only see the mistakes. The little daydreams I had when we were making Razzle Dazzle – I wonder what it will be like? Thank you very much for this award – they’re my favourite bits – when something has potential. After the thing has gone from actually having potential to being a completed work, that can often be the time you go, “Oh that didn’t work out.”

So it’s the writing process you enjoy the most?

I love the first two drafts and then, as Carolyn will tell you, I become very obstreperous and a very difficult individual going, “Why are we getting rid of that? Why are we putting that scene in?” So, by the time it gets to the third draft, I’m a horrible person to work with.

A month or so ago you had a great Radio 4 series with Brian Cox – The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I have a huge amount of respect for the producer, Sasha, because she has to take two hours and turn it into 25 minutes. I think we’re getting better at it because the first show with Dara Ó Briain and Alice Roberts… we were all so excited and had so many things to talk about that by the time it was cut down it probably sounded like nonsense, just people screaming in a teapot. I think we’re slightly getting better now at least – only recording for an hour and a half.

You’ve had some great guests on.

Victor Stock, the Dean of Guildford Cathedral, was fantastic, really interesting to talk to. I think it’s nice when you can have religious people on who aren’t on television, where they only want the insane people. People shouting, people arguing and by the end of the show you’ve learnt nothing whatsoever.

And there are two more series of that to come, is that right?

We’re doing two more series of Infinite Monkey Cage and I think Brian and me are probably going to do a podcast version as well, just because then we’d have no constraint. We can really rail about anyone we think is a lunatic.

So with the book, the CD, the radio show, the podcasts, the Saturday show you mentioned, another 9 Lessons… You’ve got a lot on your plate for 2010!

The year I got married my wife said to me, “Do you know we’ve spent three days together this year. Two of which were getting married?” I always work flat out and I do like working but now, in the same way I was saying about stand-up, there are things that I just go, “No, I shouldn’t be talking about this.” Annoyingly, part of that is adverts. There was a beer advert last year that I turned down and there was an advert against beer – Josie did one of them – alcohol warning ones that I felt I couldn’t do because what I do on stage is very opinionated.

I was thinking as we were walking up here that it was in one of these buildings that I did my last talking head show and I used to do loads of those bloody things, I was so bad at turning anything down.

Getting the chance to work with Alan Moore or Brian Cox, or Simon Singh or any of these people, Darren Hayman, Robyn Hitchcock… it’s fun and as long as I can make enough money to live and buy the first microscope for my son, that’s all I really need. You suddenly get to middle age and rather than go, “Now I should just decline and lay back and sit in my own presumptions,” I’m more fired up than I’ve ever been with everything that I work on. Again my wife will go, “Can’t you do stuff that earns more money?”, but I just think it’s really a fantastic privilege to be in this world, to be able to do all the things that I get the chance to do and to be able to stand on stage and, most of the time, get away with it.

There’s so much ironic stand-up at the moment. Cynical stand-up and if someone comes up to you after a gig and says, “Well, you did that joke about that fat person and I don’t agree with that,” and they go, “Oh, it’s a joke, it’s just a joke.” Whereas anything that I do I can always back it up. I might find out afterwards that I was wrong, but at the time I genuinely believe in everything I’m doing and I think there are more and more stand-ups doing that as well. And there are some brilliant stand-ups doing it. Annoyingly. Stand-ups much better than me. Bastards.

Robin Ince, thank you very much!