Robin Ince: ‘I have a great advantage in terms of writing comedy about science: I don’t really understand it’

The comedian who is touring a new science show tells us how it is good to have scientist Brian Cox to call on

Cracking wise about topics that most people have to have a PhD to understand is perhaps not the best course of action for a stand-up. Robin Ince is not dissuaded. The comedian loves to make jokes out of esoteric quantum physics. He’s well-qualified, he insists. “I have a great advantage in terms of writing comedy about science – I can easily put myself in the position of an audience who don’t really understand physics because I don’t really understand physics.”

For the last five years, Ince has gradually introduced more and more science into his stand-up. This time, with his show Happiness Through Science, he’s throwing caution to the wind and doing his own experiment with a one-man science routine –even though he doesn’t really get it himself. “When I first started, I’d be reading these books about physics and thinking, ‘Well this joke has a 97-minute set-up and a 12- second punchline by the time you explain everything. There is also another problem: you have to try to be as precise as possible. Often, before even going in to a routine, I have to say, ‘Of course there is still much debate about this idea.’ Everything has to be given a proviso – something you don’t have to do if you are doing a routine about going around Marks & Spencer’s.”

Ince spends most of his time wading through science books he doesn’t understand to find his material. He’s got help, though, in the form of his science crew and enviable friendships which consist of everyone’s favourite scientist Brian Cox, scientist and libel campaigner Simon Singh and science writer Ben Goldacre.

Star Trek

“It is fantastic having Brian and Simon and Ben. We don’t like preamble in our phone conversations, I’ve noticed. I will just ring up Brian while walking across a park and straightaway ask him a question like, ‘What speed do I need to travel to eventually reach the next star system?’ I will just ring people up and, without saying hello, say, ‘I’m on in five minutes and I need to know this.’”

Together the team presented Radio 4 science show The Infinite Monkey Cage, which they recently took on tour – singlehandedly raising the game of backstage pre-show chatter. “ Once we were trying to work out how far Star Trek would have really gotten if they went on a five- year mission, taking into account that you can’t actually go faster than the speed of light. Therefore, at the speed they are travelling, would they get anywhere or would there just be someone in the back going, ‘Are we there yet?’” recalls Ince. “Usually, backstage talk is all about who’s on TV and who’s not and whether you are using your drinks tokens.”

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Now Ince is going it alone again. He’s an experienced act, but surely making Schr�edinger’s cat or the Large Hadron Collider funny is a tough gig. Ince thinks his comedy comes from the audience watching “a middle-aged man getting very confused on stage about particles. Everytime I talk about Schr�edinger’s cat and the fact that you’ve got a cat in a box that is dead and alive – not dead or alive – dead and alive, people think is it or isn’t it? Nah.. it’s and. It’s hard for me to understand that too.”

Even though the topic is tough to understand, Ince hopes his audience might take the leap of faith with him – and thinks they will be rewarded for it. “I used to have these people say to me, ‘Science is so cold.’ I’d think, ‘You must have just read the wrong books because I think it is astonishing.’”