It’s like the rattle on a rattlesnake. If people have to tell you, “I’ve got a great sense of humour”, then they don’t. Ditto, “I’m firm but fair” really translates as, “I have unswervable confidence in my own opinions and inflict them on other people with no regard and in what seems to them as a completely arbitrary manner”. Robin Ince refers to 9 Lessons and 8 Carols for Godless People as his “folly”. It is always a bit worrying when people start off with an explanation that is intended to forestall and preclude any criticism of the quality of an event. Any such concerns were amply justified by the uneven quality of the acts.
Robin Ince was a good MC but it seemed as if his guest-list included everyone who had made the effort to turn up for an Open Mic Night – which must have attracted the friends of second-cousins of grand-parents’ next-door neighbours.
For a group of artists who had supposedly determined to treat us as a science-savvy, sophisticated audience, there were numerous factual errors in the sets and the usual amount of hilarious swearing and knob gags. The biggest disappointment was that alternative comedy has existed for 30 years or so yet has made remarkably little progress. (Seriously, there are people who still think that jokes about periods and tampons will have audiences rolling in the aisles, clutching their sides, choking out, “Stop, stop. You’re killing me”? Ditto, no, Mark Thomas. Making jokes about oral sex to his 8 year-old son doesn’t make your father the “rudest man in Britain”, it makes him sound like a father who had a very poor sense of age-appropriate boundaries.)
The little that I’d seen of Phil Jupitus, I’d liked. However, my opinion of him accompanied my heartsink after he shuffled on stage in an overcoat, flat cap and muffler and read us a couple of lists. Hearing Schott’s Miscellany would have been rather more entertaining. If any of the performers had been that strapped for material, they might have consulted previous Christmas issues of BMJ for seasonal myths or science.
I’ve always considered Ricky Gervais to be over-rated but suspended judgment on the assumption that he must be better when live – well, no, he wasn’t. Surprisingly, it was possible for my opinion of him to tank. And even the presence of his own claque of admirers who attempted to give him a standing ovation, just for walking on stage, was insufficient to change my mind. But then, that’s me – strangly humourless when the humour involves jokes about raping women with Alzheimer’s Disease or some father-son bonding over the wisdom of raping women who had previously been raped because neither would have any credibility in the legal system. Mix that in with his ribtickler about a little girl being accosted by someone more sinister than a flasher in a park, and being encouraged by her dad to make up a story about an assault and you pretty much had something to meet the needs of everyone in the family. (NB, Po-Mo doesn’t always work and Gervais is no adept at faux political incorrectness.)
Jack of Kent and Crispian Jago have mentioned some of the acts that I did enjoy (and we disagree about some of those but audience homogeneity isn’t desirable). I can only second that Tim Minchin was outstanding and well worth going to see on the basis of his performance of Storm. He takes the part of a dinner-party guest who cracks under the pressure of being engulfed in a tide of credulity by an over-opinionated, under-educated, tanned and tattooed young lovely, who rejoices in the belisha-warning-flashing name of Storm. He responds to the upwards-inflecting, cataracts of woo from his fellow guest who gushes the wonders of homeopathy and is awed by the fact that science can’t explain everything so reasons that even the implausible must be true if one is only willing to ‘keep an open mind’. You will get a flavour of it from: If you open your mind too much…. Storm is a classic that should be made available on DVD just so that you can pop it in and let it respond for you at the next available opportunity. Among many fine lines, Minchin’s most memorable delivery was when he was arguing that we don’t need the supernatural to have a sense of wonder: “Isn’t this enough, this beautiful, complex, unfathomable, natural world?”
Aside from Minchin, the scientists provided the best turns of the evening albeit Simon Singh’s affectation that we might have confused his Big Bang book with a sex manual of the same name that was released at the same time was less comedic than he might have hoped. Singh’s account of his interaction with Mike Batts and Katie Melua when he criticised some lyrics of theirs was enlivened when he played the scientifically-accurate version of 9 Million Bicycles that Melua had sportingly recorded for him.
Richard Dawkins read his essay on Gerin Oil and extracts from Unweaving the Rainbow: for my taste, the first was rather heavy-handed although the latter was successful. Gerin Oil was disturbed by Dawkin’s intervention to enquire whether we had cracked the anagram yet after he had already spelled it out for us (it seems unlikely that anyone who would have attended that sort of event wouldn’t already be familiar with the essay).
Ben Goldacre’s lesson on the classic counter-example of Matthias Rath and the actual harm that CAM can do, in response to the usual, “Oh, so’s there’s no evidence. But what harm can it do” was a classic angry rant. (For anyone who wants further study for social arguments, Skepdic briskly rebuts Where’s the harm? and Skeptico examines the argument: What’s The Harm?.) Chris Addison did well to pick up the mood after Goldacre’s set and was an excellent lead-in to Minchin.
Book-ending the event with Carl Sagan was a good decision.
Despite Robin Ince’s thematic guidance to his artists, there wasn’t enough science in the whole event nor enough seasonality. For people who are not sympathetic to the idea that there should be a communal celebration for godless people, there was little to disabuse them of the notion that secular people and scientists are nit-picking, foul-mouthed, joyless, child-loathing, smug, self-loving contrarians. Despite the Sagan, the audience did not have an uplifting take-away message. Maybe it would have felt presumptuous to suggest one but it did feel as if something important were missing.
On balance, the whole needed some ruthless pruning – it might have seemed that 3.5 hours for £20 would seem like extraordinary value, no matter how poor some of the acts, but it just meant that there were some horrendously long downtimes. Despite the fact that we had seen both Jupitus and Gervais, I deeply regretted the absence of Dara O’Briain – one of the few stand-up comedians who never disappoints when live.
It’s good that it happened and parts of it were very fine and I hope that it is the beginning of a high-quality tradition.
Update: 27 December, Tim Minchin’s Storm
Update: 29 Jan – Tim Minchin has gallantly bowed to piracy and uploaded his own version of Storm as performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December. The musical accompaniment is excellent.
We are leaving up the pirate version because the captions might be useful to some people. ETA: For those who need them, Podblack has the lyrics to Storm.