Glasgow Comedy Festival

10 Questions for John Robins

My name is Lloyd Langford. They were looking for things for the Glasgow Comedy Festival website and so I thought I'd interview John Robins, as he interests me as both a performer and as a person. We're both doing shows at the festival. Cheers.

 

10 Questions for John Robins
Like me, you lived with other comics at the start of your career.  Was that helpful in terms of getting a feel for the circuit or was it frustrating seeing others where you wanted to be?
It was 100% helpful. They were all at different stages of their careers, and I was very lucky to have access to their thoughts, experiences and advice about comedy and working as a comedian. To be around people who set their standards so high meant I always pushed myself and wanted what they had. It wasn't frustrating because only through them did I realise that comedy was a viable career! Around the time I was starting in 2005 what's now known as "the open mic circuit" (horrible phrase) was emerging, and without the examples they set I would have become distracted by treading water for a long time doing gigs that eventually become counter productive. Another aspect was living in Bristol, there was a clear progression marked out by the four or five clubs in the area, from the open mic gig, to the club gigs, to the bigger theatres. If I'd started in London, without their guidance, I'd have got lost.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, or said, onstage?
Oh God! See answer to Q 4! I've done, and said things on stage I regret hugely. And whilst those instances were rare and a long time ago, sometimes they haunt me in the silence of the night. Mainly saying something mean to an audience member (three times) something mean to a comedian (two times) or being naked (one time)
I know of your passion for music, particularly Queen and Frank Zappa. Given the chance, would you swap stand up comedy for a career in rock ‘n’ roll?
That's really tough. Someone should write a book on this question!  If you were to ask "comedy or music", I think the answer is always "music". Music can grab you by the soul in seconds, with two or three words, or a chord change. I've honestly not seen that done in comedy, yet, in the same way. Also, I'm massively envious of a musicians ability to work and work in private, perfect something, record it, release it and say "that's me, that's what I do, at my very best, and it's there, unchanging for the rest of time". Comedy is the only art form where you have to practise and rehearse and draft in public. When Bob Dylan first improvised a few lyrics and chords for 'Like A Rolling Stone', no crowd shouted "you're shit" because he tripped over a word. The first, and last time anyone heard that song it was completely fucking perfect, and always will be. Comedians can never, ever get that. So in terms of the process I'd rather be a musician. That said, being a poor to mediocre guitarist, the closest I'll ever get to improvising and getting into a groove like Zappa did live, is when I'm making stuff up on stage, talking to the audience, and that is my very best feeling.
Do you ever drink alcohol before performing?
Rarely, with mixed results (see Q 2). I never drink before doing straight stand-up. Firstly it puts a barrier between me and booze for at least a percentage of the week. Secondly, because I think it's unfair for a performer to start relaxing before they've done their job, often to people who work very hard and spend good money to be entertained. I get up late, I work for a reletively small amount of time, I think I owe it to an audience to be professional for twenty minutes! Thirdly, for me it just blunts my sword performance-wise. That said, if I'm MCing a gig, and I feel comfortable, I might have a drink or two as the show goes on, but never before the end of the first section.
 
What’s your one pop culture secret? Something or someone you think is brilliant but unfairly underrated or unheralded? 
Good question! Film-wise I'd say 'American Movie', a documentary I saw about fifteen years ago about a guy trying to make a horror film. It's hilarious and utterly devoid of the kookiness which annoys me about similar documentaries that have been made since. Music-wise, no good music is unheralded in some realm. But Zappa is sorely under-discussed. Critics hated him because they like nothing more than to pigeon hole someone and tell you why they're cool or not. Zappa was A. too prolific and diverse and B. always ahead of them in his satire, so they kind of dismissed him. His output can be a bit daunting though! (Start with 'Hot Rats' then go crazy). Not enough people know Magnolia Electric Company for my liking (and the tragic brilliance of the late Jason Molina).
What’s the best stand up comedy performance you’ve ever seen?
In terms of opening my eyes to what was possible in comedy, Phil Kay at Late 'n' Live in Edinburgh 2005. In terms of how to use a stage and deliver a line, Ian Cognito at various gigs when I was starting out in the South West. In terms of making me think "fuck me I need to work harder" Tim Key's 'Masterslut'. Until you actually see a show everyone raves about I think most comics form a (generally negative) image of what it's like. It was like nothing I've seen before or since. I saw the last ever performance in London and I'm so glad I did. Then butt-loads of Daniel Kitson's shows (obvs). But, I'll be honest, the best gig I have ever seen a comic have, and I want this in writing, was Dougie Dunlop, at the Trowbridge Arc Theatre, 9th May, 2008. I have never seen an audience laugh that hard.
If you could only work in one medium (stage, radio or television), which one would you choose?
I always thought it would be on stage. But the reaction Elis and I get from the people who listen to our show and podcast has made me realise what a rare privilege broadcasting on radio is. It's so intimate. And the most intense relationships I've had with performers has always been audio-based (music, radio, podcasts), so I hope I can to continue on the radio for a long time. 
You have a time machine. You can go as far back or as far forward as you like. Where and when do you go?
Freshers week, St Anne's College, Oxford, 2001. And I'd take my friend Robin. 
What’s your favourite venue for performing comedy. And why?
I think it's related to the experiences you've had there, when you feel the way a truly great gig makes you feel, you never, ever forget that room. So, The Comedy Box in Bristol and The Sunday Special at Up The Creek in Greenwich. You just can't replicate the feeling of 250 people in a low-ceilinged club at a massive venue (says a man who has never been asked to)
Of your own career, of what are you most proud?
My podcast with Elis. 

10 Questions for John Robins

Like me, you lived with other comics at the start of your career.  Was that helpful in terms of getting a feel for the circuit or was it frustrating seeing others where you wanted to be?

It was 100% helpful. They were all at different stages of their careers, and I was very lucky to have access to their thoughts, experiences and advice about comedy and working as a comedian. To be around people who set their standards so high meant I always pushed myself and wanted what they had. It wasn't frustrating because only through them did I realise that comedy was a viable career! Around the time I was starting in 2005 what's now known as "the open mic circuit" (horrible phrase) was emerging, and without the examples they set I would have become distracted by treading water for a long time doing gigs that eventually become counter productive. Another aspect was living in Bristol, there was a clear progression marked out by the four or five clubs in the area, from the open mic gig, to the club gigs, to the bigger theatres. If I'd started in London, without their guidance, I'd have got lost.


What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, or said, onstage?


Oh God! See answer to Q 4! I've done, and said things on stage I regret hugely. And whilst those instances were rare and a long time ago, sometimes they haunt me in the silence of the night. Mainly saying something mean to an audience member (three times) something mean to a comedian (two times) or being naked (one time)


I know of your passion for music, particularly Queen and Frank Zappa. Given the chance, would you swap stand up comedy for a career in rock ‘n’ roll?

That's really tough. Someone should write a book on this question!  If you were to ask "comedy or music", I think the answer is always "music". Music can grab you by the soul in seconds, with two or three words, or a chord change. I've honestly not seen that done in comedy, yet, in the same way. Also, I'm massively envious of a musicians ability to work and work in private, perfect something, record it, release it and say "that's me, that's what I do, at my very best, and it's there, unchanging for the rest of time". Comedy is the only art form where you have to practise and rehearse and draft in public. When Bob Dylan first improvised a few lyrics and chords for 'Like A Rolling Stone', no crowd shouted "you're shit" because he tripped over a word. The first, and last time anyone heard that song it was completely fucking perfect, and always will be. Comedians can never, ever get that. So in terms of the process I'd rather be a musician. That said, being a poor to mediocre guitarist, the closest I'll ever get to improvising and getting into a groove like Zappa did live, is when I'm making stuff up on stage, talking to the audience, and that is my very best feeling.


Do you ever drink alcohol before performing?


Rarely, with mixed results (see Q 2). I never drink before doing straight stand-up. Firstly it puts a barrier between me and booze for at least a percentage of the week. Secondly, because I think it's unfair for a performer to start relaxing before they've done their job, often to people who work very hard and spend good money to be entertained. I get up late, I work for a reletively small amount of time, I think I owe it to an audience to be professional for twenty minutes! Thirdly, for me it just blunts my sword performance-wise. That said, if I'm MCing a gig, and I feel comfortable, I might have a drink or two as the show goes on, but never before the end of the first section.
 

What’s your one pop culture secret? Something or someone you think is brilliant but unfairly underrated or unheralded? 


Good question! Film-wise I'd say 'American Movie', a documentary I saw about fifteen years ago about a guy trying to make a horror film. It's hilarious and utterly devoid of the kookiness which annoys me about similar documentaries that have been made since. Music-wise, no good music is unheralded in some realm. But Zappa is sorely under-discussed. Critics hated him because they like nothing more than to pigeon hole someone and tell you why they're cool or not. Zappa was A. too prolific and diverse and B. always ahead of them in his satire, so they kind of dismissed him. His output can be a bit daunting though! (Start with 'Hot Rats' then go crazy). Not enough people know Magnolia Electric Company for my liking (and the tragic brilliance of the late Jason Molina).


What’s the best stand up comedy performance you’ve ever seen?


In terms of opening my eyes to what was possible in comedy, Phil Kay at Late 'n' Live in Edinburgh 2005. In terms of how to use a stage and deliver a line, Ian Cognito at various gigs when I was starting out in the South West. In terms of making me think "fuck me I need to work harder" Tim Key's 'Masterslut'. Until you actually see a show everyone raves about I think most comics form a (generally negative) image of what it's like. It was like nothing I've seen before or since. I saw the last ever performance in London and I'm so glad I did. Then butt-loads of Daniel Kitson's shows (obvs). But, I'll be honest, the best gig I have ever seen a comic have, and I want this in writing, was Dougie Dunlop, at the Trowbridge Arc Theatre, 9th May, 2008. I have never seen an audience laugh that hard.


If you could only work in one medium (stage, radio or television), which one would you choose?

I always thought it would be on stage. But the reaction Elis and I get from the people who listen to our show and podcast has made me realise what a rare privilege broadcasting on radio is. It's so intimate. And the most intense relationships I've had with performers has always been audio-based (music, radio, podcasts), so I hope I can to continue on the radio for a long time. 


You have a time machine. You can go as far back or as far forward as you like. Where and when do you go?


Freshers week, St Anne's College, Oxford, 2001. And I'd take my friend Robin. 

What’s your favourite venue for performing comedy. And why?

I think it's related to the experiences you've had there, when you feel the way a truly great gig makes you feel, you never, ever forget that room. So, The Comedy Box in Bristol and The Sunday Special at Up The Creek in Greenwich. You just can't replicate the feeling of 250 people in a low-ceilinged club at a massive venue (says a man who has never been asked to)


Of your own career, of what are you most proud?

My podcast with Elis. 

Both Lloyd and John are performing at this year's festival. Lloyd's show Fun & Sustenance is on at The Stand, 20th March, 5.30pm and tickets are £8/£7. Get them HERE! 

John Robins 'Speakeasy' is also at The Stand, 22nd March, 7pm and tickets are £12/£10. Get them HERE!