Rob Newman takes his new comedy show Total Eclipse of Descartes to CQAF
Robert Newman returns to Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival this year with the philosophically inclined Total Eclipse of Descartes. David Roy spoke to the London-based comedian about the new show and why it's always nice to be asked back to Belfast – eventually
ROBERT Newman has been a repeat performer at Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival over the past 19 years: however, the north London-based comedian, author and noted Ukulele enthusiast admits that he's still never quite sure if festival organiser Sean Kelly is actually going to book him.
"I seem to come once every two years, almost like a migratory species – a wader or something," notes Newman (53), who returns to The Black Box on May 8 with Total Eclipse of Descartes.
"But I always have to hint to Sean to invite me back. Someone will ask me on social media 'are you coming to Belfast?' and I always have to reply, 'well... if I'm invited back to the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, I'd love to'.
"Then I'll get an email from Sean about a week later. So I always have to trail my coat a bit. I don't *really* mind, because I love coming – but I do keep hoping that one day he'll ask me of his own free will."
Last time Newman was here – sure enough, back in 2016 – he was railing against dodgy neuroscience with The Brain Show, which fed into last year's book and accompanying radio series, Neuropolis.
This time, Total Eclipse of Descartes finds the one-time Mary Whitehouse Experience pin-up gamely attempting to 'piece together a philosophy for our troubled times by sifting through 3,000 years of thought: from Pythagoras to Artificial Intelligence by way of Pavlov's dogs, Jane Goodall's chimpanzees and Frankie Howerd's trousers'.
Long-time fans will know what to expect from Newman by now. The pointedly intellectual thrust of his current show is very much in keeping with his previous comedic trawls through world history and the history of thought and/or science, including the Darwin-and-Dawkins-debunking Robert Newman's New Theory of Evolution (2013), Apocalypso Now AKA Robert Newman's History of Oil (2005) and 2003's From Caliban to The Taliban (500 years of Humanitarian Intervention).
"I think with the last show, the Evolution show and this one, it's really been the philosophy of science that I've been interested in," explains the father-of-one, who does much of the heavy reading required for his particular strain of comedy in the couple of hours between 5am and his pre-teen daughter getting up for the day.
"There's this very damaging idea that if a philosophy is pessimistic it is somehow more true than an optimistic one. And there's all sorts of secret philosophical stowaways in the things that we say, in our education system and in lots of things that are presented to us as being purely technical or technological.
"We're just supposed to bow down and accept all this stuff – so it's always fun not to."
Indeed, if you've ever been troubled by the concepts behind classic philosophical thought experiments involving trees falling in woods or an 'infinite number' of typewriter-equipped monkeys, Total Eclipse of Descartes is the show for you.
"If it's a forest, I think the tree *would* always be heard by all the ants and bugs and beetles that live there," argues Newman.
"Some thought experiments do depend on a certain level of artificiality, but that describes an idea that couldn't happen on this planet. It's ecologically impossible.
"Also, monkeys don't type. In fact, they don't type on quite a profound level. If you give a monkey a typewriter, she will be bored after about four seconds.
"If you try to make her type for a minute, she'll become depressed – and if by some wizardry you force her to do it for an hour, she'll become catatonic and lose her mind."
He continues: "Artificial intelligence is presented as being so '21st century' and entirely free of ideological baggage – yet it seems to be tied entirely to 17th century Christian philosophy: this quaint belief that was shared by Descartes and others that the brain is separate from the body.
"The last 25 years of biology have shown us how our body's endocrinal hormones are actually involved in so much of what our brain does."
Confused? Don't worry, so is Newman – and he went to Cambridge.
"One of the bits in the show I most enjoy is just confessing that I really don't understand Sartre or the existentialists," the comedian reveals.
"Although I did have a mini-epiphany upon discovering a minor biographical detail: Jean-Paul Sartre lived with his mum for 40 years.
"This nugget opened previously opaque passages of his writing to my understanding: I think it explains a lot of the rugged, slightly macho stuff he says like 'people are only frightened if they choose to be frightened'.
"Perhaps the last thing he used to say to his mum every night was 'turn out the bedroom light, Maman, I choose to live without fear'. Or maybe when he would say 'You make your bed and lie in it', she would reply, 'Non, *I* make your bed.'"
Newman is currently putting together an expanded version of the Total Eclipse show for broadcast on Radio 4, having recently completed a run of English and Scottish dates to great acclaim.
"People are liking it," he says of the audience reaction. "A lot of them were saying 'More jokes than usual'. But then I'm thinking, 'Hold on, there were plenty of jokes in the last one – how badly did you suffer?'"
:: Robert Newman's Total Eclipse of Descartes, Tuesday May 8, The Black Box, Belfast (sold out).
THREE TO SEE AT CQAF 2018
Ben Folds and a Piano, Friday May 11, CQAF Marquee, 8pm
The former Ben Folds Five leader enjoyed huge success in the US with his last album So There (2015), which combined a set of pop songs performed with New York classical chamber ensemble yMusic and Folds' 21-minute Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.
However, the show Folds is bringing to Belfast is more of a 'back-to-basics' move, which finds him belting out songs on his trusty Joanna.
Bridget Christie – What Now?, Wednesday May 9, CQAF Marquee, 8pm
Bridget Christie returns to CQAF with her new stand-up show in which she attempts to navigate a post-Trump, pre-Brexit world poised on the brink of nuclear apocalypse and/or environmental catastrophe.
Join the Edinburgh Fringe favourite for a night of hope and despair.
:: SOUND & VISION
The Go-Betweens – Right Here, Saturday May 12, The Green Room, The Black Box, 3pm
Kriv Stenders' documentary tells the story of beloved Aussie indie favourites The Go-Betweens, from the Brisbane band's inception and early local success in the late 70s, their time as perpetually self-sabotaging 'next big things' brought to an end by a messy break-up in 1989 and the belated reunion (of sorts) which was cut short by co-founder Grant McLennan's untimely death in 2006.