Rob Newman is one of the most creatively daring and intellectually engaged comedians working today. After enjoying huge success in the early nineties, on radio and TV, with The Mary Whitehouse Experience, he played historic stadium gigs as one half of Newman & Baddiel. Since then, Rob has developed a dual career as a novelist and stand-up, with a sharp satirical wit that dissects a range of issues from the environment to globalization. Phil Morris caught up with him as his tour The New Theory of Evolution reached the Sherman Theatre Cymru.
Phil Morris: Your new stand-up show The New Theory of Evolution explores a range of topics – from female buffalo voting on which way to go to altruistic vampire bats – all in support of your contention that cooperation drives evolution more than competition. How did you arrive at this theory?
Rob Newman: Well, the theory isn’t exactly new. There is this Victorian natural philosopher who wrote: ‘those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and produce the most offspring… and that would be natural selection.’ Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, 1871.
Richard Dawkins has been an exponent of the theory of the so-called selfish gene, which has been adopted (or misunderstood) by many as a justification for the market-based ‘survival of the fittest’ social Darwinism that brought us the financial meltdown of 2008. Do you reject this view of evolutionary theory?
First of all, I don’t think Dawkins is a social Darwinist. When Dawkins says: ‘We are born selfish…’ this is a view which derives not from Darwin but from the founding myth of the Protestant Reformation. It’s a philosophy called Original Sin, popularized by Martin Luther. By contrast, Charles Darwin’s great philosophical contribution was to end the mind-body split: we are born with what he calls ‘social instincts’, these social instincts are an evolved trait and inalienable. It’s as far from the Lutheran/Dawkinite view of original Sin as it is possible to be.
Do you have the science to back you up?
The nearly forty years since the publication of Selfish Gene in the UK and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology in the US have not been kind to genetic determinism, and to the idea that DNA is destiny. From Barbara McClintock’s jumping genes to Michael Mooney’s epigenetic rats, from the discovery of reverse transcription proteins to molecular biologists queuing up to tell Dawkins that molecules don’t have psychologies, let alone work in isolation. It is strange that his peak popularity coincides with the peer-review nadir of everything he held dear.
We all know the cliché that eleven years of anti-Thatcher comedy did nothing to end, never mind reverse, her policies – what do you consider the efficacy of political satire?
I think the most popular British political satirist nowadays – Jeremy Clarkson – has been very effective in promoting a pro-big-business, anti-green, anti-immigrant, free-market propaganda and he has been greatly assisted by that free market start up company the BBC.
Can an idealist be funny? Isn’t it easier for a cynic to get a laugh?
Well Chaplin (an idealist) is funnier than anyone else.
Do you get a different kind of laugh now for your political comedy than you used to get in the early nineties? Do you experience the same kind of elation after one of your current shows as you did back in the days of The Mary Whitehouse Experience?
The buzz is the buzz. It’s always the same, just like the joy of dancing.
In terms of your audiences, are you aware that you are speaking to a, for want of a better word, constituency? Is there a danger that the very people who love your shows (and novels) are those who share your outlook? Does that matter to you?
I think that canard can hardly be true when one is critiquing, say, Dawkins, an icon for many people. (It’s a bit like criticizing Blair in 1996, which I did. It was a lonely position then.) Also, as soon as you suggest actual alternatives a vast chasm opens among the audience. How many of you will all agree with various propositions of mine in the show e.g. Land nationalization, abolition of corporations? How many of the 700 comments on my recent Guardian piece (saying that there is no population explosion) were in agreement with me? I would guess about a handful.
It might be said that as your comic vision has become increasingly ambitious and expansive, your audiences have become more of a niche crowd – though one that is devoted to you – as your work lacks mass appeal. Would you attribute this to a lack of interest within the mainstream media for the radical and challenging positions you have taken on issues including the environment and globalisation?
What the front-of-house people at venues on this tour have been telling me is that this show gets the most diverse audience they get for anyone at all. I don’t know why that should be, but I welcome it.
What is your writing method for devising a comedy show?
I pace up and down in my flat talking to myself.
Who of your comic contemporaries do you admire, in terms of their originality and their having something interesting to say?
Daniel Kitson, Bridget Christie.
What is easier – or least difficult – to write, a new novel or a new stand-up show?
The Trade Secret took six years to write. The new stand-up show took about a year.
Your previous novel The Fountain at the Centre of the World was about the end of capitalism, whereas your latest novel The Trade Secret is about the historical roots of capitalism. Why did you feel compelled to explore early capitalism?
The Trade Secret is primarily about the emotional relationship between the main characters Nat Bramble and Darius Nouredini, and how they get out of a difficult situation. The setting is at the beginning of capitalism, and of internationalism.
Do you have a friend in Cardiff on whose sofa you can sleep after your shows?
I used to but now they are in Eglws Fach.
Rob Newman’s tour The New Theory of Evolution continues:
5th October Grand Theatre, Swansea
8th October Theatre Royal, Wakefield
9th October Memorial Hall, Sheffield
10th October Gala Theatre Studio, Durham
17th &18th October The Cube, Bristol
19th October MAC, Birmingham
23rd October Laughterhouse, Liverpool
16th & 17th November Lowry Studio, Salford
29th November Playhouse, Norwich
30th November Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead
12th December Greenham Common Arts, Newbury