am overwhelmed by the limitless slurry of my ignorance’
PUBLISHED: 11:42 01 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:48 01 February 2018
Comedian, author and activist Rob Newman talks about the dangers of bro-science, cowardly stoics and why he and David Baddiel are friends again ahead of show at Colchester Arts Centre.
Rob Newman shot to fame as part of hit BBC comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience in the early 1990s and went on to form a successful double act with one of his co-stars on the show and fellow Cambridge alumni, David Baddiel. They were the first comedy act to command stadium audiences for their live shows, selling out Wembley Arena. After the duo split acrimoniously, Rob all but disappeared from the public eye, but he has been edging back in with four critically-acclaimed novels as well as live shows and radio and TV work run through with a clear social conscience and anti-establishment views. Last year his Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution won the award for Best Scripted Comedy with a Live Audience at the BBC Audio Drama Awards and his latest book, Neuropolis – A Brain Science Survival Guide, spawned a Radio 4 comedy series. The 53-year-old’s new live show, Total Eclipse of Descartes, comes to the Colchester Arts Centre on February 21. For tickets, visit here or call 01206 500900. The hilarious, thought-provoking show not only disses Descartes and his ‘I think, therefore I am’ mind-body separatism but also brings in Pythagoras, Pavlov’s Dogs, Paul McCartney, rock band Primal Scream and PG Wodehouse. Ahead of the show, Rob talks macho scientists, cowardly stoics and why he and David Baddiel are friends again.
With the Neuropolis book and radio show, you seemed to be railing against the hermetic world of scientists who have little connection or empathy to human behaviour. Do you have a similar issue with philosophers?
“Neuropolis takes aim not at scientists but at the interpretation of science by people who confuse science with macho, sadistic melodrama. I think science communicators have betrayed a generation by replacing science with melodrama.
“Part of what the radio show was trying to do was to uncover the science from the rubble of bro-science that had been tipped on top of it. I have a great love of philosophy and philosophers. But there are some philosophers who I believe have done us a lot of damage, and whose influence continues to cause us loads of trouble even if we never read a word. People like Sartre and Descartes for example.
“That’s one reason why the show is called Total Eclipse of Descartes. But the show also celebrates the work of philosophers. I look at Judith Jarvis Thompson’s ingenious Fat Man On A Bridge thought experiment for example, or Wittgenstein’s brilliant line about how ‘If a lion could speak you couldn’t understand it.’”
I read a 2007 interview you did in which you bemoan that you “are so dim and stupid”. Is it important to set yourself an intellectual challenge with your projects and is it also important to make your audience think as much as laugh?
“I am overwhelmed by the limitless slurry of my ignorance and like to throw a few pebbles in the mud now and then, even though they soon sink from view. But I love research and I love finding nuggets that I then put in the show, such as discovering that Pythagoras murdered a man called Hipparchos for leaking the secret of pi, and also finding out the incredible true story of Sir Cyril Burt ( which I can’t say more about before the gig for fear of spoilers.)”
What are your leisure activities? Do you still skateboard and play the ukule (at different times)?
“Haven’t skated for years. Still play uke and piano very badly. I play hockey with my daughter and today me and my two year old got very muddy and he climbed into a hollow tree.”
What do you think of the adoption of the philosophy of stoicism by many as a modern day life-hack? Is it something you abide by?
“The Stoics, it seems to me, were cowards. They argue that the best way of never feeling sorrow or anguish is never to love or care too much. This seems to me to be anticipating fate in a cowardly way. It’s a bit like in the playground game of ‘Slaps’ when you start flinching and snatching your hand away while your opponent’s hands are still pressed palm to palm. The Stoics are like that.
“When they teach their followers never to have a family, never to fall in love, never be attached to anything too much, they are pulling their hands away at the merest jerk of their opponent, which only means Fate gets a free slap. Plus, since human nature is to care deeply about others then Stoicism is not even a serious philosophy. It might work for lizards but not for warm-blooded mammals, it seems to me.”
I read a recent interview with David Baddiel in which he says you two have settled your differences and are friends again. He suggested it began when you put out a Twitter request for tickets to his recent solo show. What prompted the thawing and can you recall what prompted the falling out in the first place?
“On the few times our paths have crossed in the last few years it has been nice to see him. I enjoyed his show and he tweeted about how he enjoyed Total Eclipse of Descartes, too.”