An Interview with John Robins

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It’s been a life changing 12 months for John Robins. Or, as he jokingly puts it: “My life fell apart and I won an award for talking about it.”

Indeed, it’s been an eventful year for Robins both professionally and personally. In August, the comedian and broadcaster followed in the footsteps of Steve Coogan and Lee Evans to win the most prestigious prize in live comedy – the Edinburgh Comedy Award – for his candid solo show, ‘The Darkness of Robins’. And what sparked the critically acclaimed, soul-bearing hour of stand-up? The recent breakdown of Robins’s relationship.

The 35-year-old comic first appeared on the comedy scene in 2005. Since then he’s taken seven show shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and become a regular on TV, popping up on shows like Mock the Week, Russell Howard’s Good News and Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled.

But it’s the Bristol-born stand-up’s hugely popular Radio X show, which he hosts every Saturday with fellow comic and longtime pal Elis James, that’s helped earn him a large, loyal following. The show’s podcast has been downloaded over 13 million times and spawned catchphrases like ‘Keep it Session’ (drinking beer under 4.5%), ‘Are you on email?’ and ‘PCDs’ (podcast devotees: i.e. fans of show).

The radio show has helped shaped Robins as a comedian, too, he says. Without it, ‘The Darkness of Robins’ might have never come to light. So, ahead of his extensive UK tour – which has now been extended due to unprecedented demand – I spoke to the comedian and broadcaster about his mighty busy year.

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‘The Darkness of Robins’ developed from a distressing time in your life. How did the show come to light?
All my stand-up shows have come from moments of crisis, confusion or exasperation. When the relationship I was in ended it wasn’t like I immediately got out my pen and paper, but it was obviously going to feature. The radio show that I do with Elis has really helped me find my true comedic voice, one that’s quite self-flagellatory and at ease exploring my own failures.

How has the radio show helped define that voice?
Presenting it with such a close friend means it’s impossible to hide behind any sort of persona. Elis and I have been talking on the phone every week for 12 years, and I think that’s what people like about the show; they feel part of the genuine relationship.

The radio show is coming up to its 200th episode. Do you enjoy the show as much as when it started three years ago?
Absolutely. We often have panics, like, “What if we run out of things to say!?” But you never run out of things to say to your friends. What I find really heartening is we continue to get new listeners. We get emails from people who have just started listening to the podcast and want to take issue with us about stuff we said three years ago!

You talk about your personal life on the radio and in your stand-up, but you’re at your most open and exposed in ‘The Darkness of Robins’. Were you nervous about the reaction to the show?
No, because I knew when I wrote it that it wasn’t going to be about my relationship, it was going to be about my reaction to the relationship. It’s not a bitter break-up show; it’s a no holds barred self-examination. It’s a guy who hates himself but can’t stop laughing at that.

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“Panic attack”

Some reviews mentioned that it was unusual to see a man open up so emotionally on stage. Did that cross your mind?
It’s not something that was in my head. But I think it’s important that men feel they can lay themselves bare emotionally. If you say to someone, “this is a show about mental health,” I think they tend to clam up and go, “But that’s not me.” Whereas if you say, “I went to Ikea and had a panic attack because I couldn’t decide what chest of drawers to get,” they go, “I know exactly what you’re talking about, I had a similar situation with a cheese grater.”

The show went on to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award. Was the award in your mind before nominations were announced?
I thought about it, but I didn’t agonise about it like in previous years. This wasn’t a show I was writing for any sort of career reason, it was just me being me.

Did you feel it was a step up from your previous shows?
I don’t know. I feel that every year, with every new show, you shed off a layer of clothing that’s in between you and the audience. Then this year I thought: “Right, OK, I’m now completely naked. I have nothing left to remove.”

How did you feel when your name was announced?
It felt very strange, I have to say. It does feel like I dreamt it.

“Childlike excitement”

Have you come to terms with it now?
I’m not sure really, but then I think maybe it’s also better if you don’t come to terms with it. I think if I felt like I in any way deserved it that would probably make me unbearable.

The show is now on tour. Do you enjoy being on the road?
I enjoy my own company. I like hotels – I still have quite a childlike excitement when I enter a hotel room. And I like drinking alone in pubs. If I didn’t like those things, touring would be unbearable.

The tour’s been extended. Is that a nice feeling, knowing there’s such a demand to see you?
Yes, it is. I just hope every single person enjoys it. It’s incredibly flattering and humbling that people will come and see just you.

The tour takes you through to April, you’ve got the radio show every week – what else is in the pipeline for Robins?
I’m currently writing a sitcom script. Nothing’s been confirmed yet, but it would be something with me and Elis in it, which would be pretty cool.

Has winning the award opened many doors that were previously shut?
I don’t know that it opens doors that were shut, but it certainly oils the hinges of an already semi-open door. And then you put your foot in it, batter it down, and make yourself at home.

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images: Rachel King


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