Ahead of his two night run at Colston Hall later this week, we caught up with comedian, journalist, novelist and activist Rob Newman about his latest show ‘New Theory of Everything’, Top Cat and Anthropophobia.
Hi Rob. In your own words, give us a short biog on yourself.
Born in London, but brought up in a small Hertfordshire village of Codicote. Because my Saturday job was working as a farmhand for the farmer who cut the field for the Knebworth pop festivals (the next village along ) I got in backstage to see everyone from Led Zepellin to the Rolling Stones. None of these bands interested me in the slightest but I was fascinated by the audience.
From about 1987 I started doing open spots in rooms above pubs on the London comedy circuit. I started out as an impressionist. My ’80s set-list included (see me blush) Top Cat, Basil Brush, Rick Astley, Dirty Den and Tony Benn.
Tell us about the new show.
The show is called Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution, the theory being that cooperation drives evolution more than competition.
This is your first show in 7 years. Why the wait? What’s been keeping you busy since we last time we saw you onstage?
Researching and writing The Trade Secret from 2006 to 2013. I had a couple of operations on my back, then spent a year learning how to walk again by way of calliper and walking stick. Happy to say, I need neither now. Then I became someone’s dad. Then I spent nine months researching, writing and workshop-ing this new stand up show, a process which has involved lots of work in progress gigs and lots of rehearsal.
What drew you to the subject matter of the show?
It being my belief that the job of the comedian is to cheer people up it therefore follows that I try to dispel the gloom caused by the narrow, pessimistic idea that genes are us, or that we are born selfish. The Neo Darwinists have reintroduced the demoralising idea of Original Sin, and by doing so, have given people what I call ‘Anthropophobia’ – a fear of our own humanity, a depressing sense that deep down we are rotten. So I want to tear a few holes in this gloomy canvas. The show tells the story of a 150 year struggle to save Darwin and Wallace’s original theory from being hijacked by ideologues.
You mention a series of notable figures from history throughout the show. Describe some of them to us?
Yes, I reckon a pretty good indication of a show is to itemise the things or people mentioned. So in the new show, who gets mentioned…? Let me see.
Australopithecus Lucy ( she’s a Mesolithic ‘early human’), Charles Darwin, of course, but also that other Chuck D: Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, Laurel & Hardy, Richard Dawkins’ postman, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Betty Rubble and Wilma Flintstone, Russian anarchist and natural scientist Prince Peter Kropotkin and Charlie Chaplin. Apart from people there’s lots of animals from red harvester ants to flatworm nematodes to empathetic chimps and matriarchal baboons and Antarctic penguins, vampire bats, rats and the amoebae Dictyostelium Discoideum.
Describe your top 3 dinner party guests past and present, and why?
Everyone always cancels at the last minute and so I never give dinner parties anymore. But if I had a choice of who to be stood up by, it would include:
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who saved the world. I’m actually trying to write him into the show at present – may have to resort to my ‘Talking FDR Doll’ (Ebay $87).
Joseph Grimaldi the music hall comedian – he seems to have been a force of nature. I can’t imagine that anyone ever could have been funnier than Chaplin, Laurel or Hardy, but he must have been very funny indeed. And I would dearly love to know HOW funny, i.e. to have seen what he did that made him such a portent that made Dickens, for example, think he had seen one of the wonders of the world when he saw Grimaldi.
Mary Wollstonecraft – early feminist who saw through the sexism of the French Revolution while in Paris and stuck in the middle of it. Oh, and she is Frankenstein’s gran, since her daughter was Mary Shelley.
Traditionally your shows are quite political, how have your views changed since your last show Apocalypso Now/A History of Oil?
The new show is more focused on science. I’m finding it tremendous fun to talk about the new science of epigenetics, as well as breakthrough discoveries in brain imaging such as mirror neurons, for example. I love exploring the extraordinary behaviour of red harvester ants, flatworm nematodes, Antarctic penguins, vampire bats, rats and – star of the show – the amoebae Dictyostelium Discoideum, known as Dicty Disco for short!
How has comedy changed since you first started out?
When I started out there were lots of weird and wonderful cabaret acts doing silly, inspired, original and inventive 20 minute sets. Lately a new crop of , if you like, ‘indy comics’ has blossomed. I like their turn towards soulful comedy, their storytelling bent and their quest for meaning. There are also a lot more excellent and very funny female comics now than ever before.
Tell us about your new book The Trade Secret.
Based on a true story about the first Elizabethans to stumble upon coffee and oil, it is set in Persia, Venice and England in the years 1599 – 1606. I’ve never worked so hard on anything ever in my whole life.
What’s next after the tour?
The TV producer who made History of Oil is keen to do the same with this show. I hope it comes off. History of Oil was a worldwide hit, the only thing I ever did that was truly global. The nearest I came to it with anything else was with my last novel The Fountain At The Centre of The World. It was way more successful in the United States than here, but History of Oil has been screened all over the world. So it would be great to film New Theory of Evolution for broadcast. Hey, maybe we’ll film the live TV recording in your town. Yes, I like it. Everything fits!