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Rob Newman's comedy of ideas

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In a world gone mad can philosophy help? Comedian Rob Newman *thinks* he has the answer. He spoke with Alex Spencer about his new show Total Eclipse of Descartes and the dangers of macho pop science.

Rob Newman (6772088)
Rob Newman (6772088)

Comedian Rob Newman wants his audience to know that just because his show is based on 3,000 years of philosophical ideas, there will still be plenty of laughs.

“A friend of mine said there more jokes in this than is usual for you,” he says.

“I feel like I have found where I want to be. I want to do more comedy about philosophy because I think it is a rich seam and I’ve had such a lot of fun with this show - people have really responded to it.”

The Total Eclipse of Descartes show comes hard on the heels of his BBC Radio 4 series of the same name. In it, Rob attempts to piece together a philosophy for our troubled times by sifting through three thousand years of thought: from Pythagoras to Artificial Intelligence, by way of Pavlov’s dogs, Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees and Frankie Howerd's trousers.

But he has some serious ideas to discuss, including how much of modern theoretical science takes a very pessimistic view of humans and that they are rooted in old religious beliefs.

“Either they are telling you that you are permanently deluded and live in a world of illusion or that life on earth is dog eat dog and that we are selfish individualists,” he says.

Rob has beef with popular science writers Richard Dawkins and TV physicist Brian Cox and fingers them as spreaders of ‘unhelpful’ ideas.

“I think self-styled science communicators have embraced some of the most damaging religious doctrines and called them science,” says Rob.

“So Richard Dawkins’ idea that you are born evil is not from science but from the religious doctrine of original sin. It is the idea that we are naturally born bad but through enough devotion you could overcome your bad nature and become a good person.”

He also says artificial intelligence predictions that we could upload our minds to a computer are just “the old church fathers’ aesthetic wish of escaping this sinful horrible body and transcending yourself”.

And he adds: “There’s a lot of dehumanising thoughts in the world, so I have tried to make this a humanising show and say actually we are not too bad.”

Rob also worries about TV scientist Brian Cox promoting theories of multiple worlds.

“I think it is damaging to say this world doesn’t exist or all is possible in infinite worlds because you think bother saving it then,” argues Rob.

“If you think all is possible then if we trash this planet we can just go to another one. Well, we won’t. It’s not true.

“ You look around and we are living through the sixth mass extinction. I’m asking what are the enabling ideologies that allowed that to happen?”

As an environmental campaigner and novelist, Rob has focused on ways people can be kinder towards each other and the planet. So does he hope people will come away from the show with food for thought?

“I hope they will have had a laugh,” he says. “A really unhelpful idea is to be deep is to be gloomy. I’m very much of the opinion that Kool and the Gang are better than Joy Division. That might be what I have inscribed upon my tombstone and that's what I want people to take away from the show.

“And I feel that Isaiah Berlin would concur with that idea - that Summer Madness is better than Love Will Tear us Apart.”

Rob and his former comedy partner David Baddiel shot to fame in 90’s TV show The Mary Whitehouse Experience and they became the first comedy act to sell-out Wembley Arena with Newman and Baddiel in Pieces.

More than 20 years after their acrimonious split, they were been publicly reunited at the Harper Collins publishing company’s summer party. But there is no sign of the double act getting back together for another Wembley gig.

“Once I was in a hotel and there was the quiz show Only Connect on the TV,” says Rob.

“There was a question about double acts and the names of their partners. The answer was they are all famous for being in double acts called frank. There was Denis Norden and Frank Muir and then David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. So in most people’s minds, that is the double act. It is Baddiel and Skinner. So that’s a comfort to me.”

Rob Newman’s stand up show is at Cambridge Junction on Thursday, March 7 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £15.50 from junction.co.uk or 01223 511 511.

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