From Douglas Adams to Oliver Sacks, the standup comedian reveals some of the writers that have helped him try to work out what makes us tick
Most of my standup shows, whether about the behaviour of the bonobo ape or my addiction to celebrity narrowboat TV shows, are really me trying to work out what it is to be human and trying to see how wrong I am getting it.
In middle age, Ive been trying to evaluate the knowledge accumulated from shouting at strangers for money over the last three decades. Where does anxiety come from? What is the key to creativity? How can we deal with grief? How do we overcome impostor syndrome? Ive interviewed other comedians and artists, such as Lenny Henry, Alan Moore, Jo Brand, Tim Minchin and Ricky Gervais. Ive been through an MRI scanner to see what my brain does when Im being funny. And Ive spoken with psychiatrists, psychologists and neuroscientists to find out what they believe makes us tick.
The result is Im a Joke and So Are You, a book that sets out to understand the human condition through the lens of comedy. Comedians professionally examine humanitys quirks on stage every night. But what was it that made me want to stand up and shout at strangers for money? Was it upbringing or childhood trauma, or is it just the way my brain is wired?
What still delights me about comedy is that during all the prattling and pratting about, some people in the audience may realise that they are not as unusual as they thought they were. Comedy gives you licence to talk about what is often socially taboo, whether thats social anxiety or suicide. After a show in Nottingham, a man approached me and angrily said: Ive always presumed I am rather weird, but having sat and watched you with your audience tonight, Ive realised were all bloody weird, so it turns out I am normal after all.
If shouting in public isnt your thing, however, books can also offer illuminating insights into the human condition. These are 10 of my favourites:
1. What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman
The title story in this collection of reminiscences is a love story. Nobel prize-winning physicist Feynman tells of how he fell in love with his first wife, Arline. He explains how she taught him a lesson or two as he dealt with her premature death from tuberculosis while he worked on the atomic bomb. In this story alone, Feynman perfectly demonstrates his belief that, even when talking about love and tragedy, science doesnt subtract, it only adds.
2. Bee Season by Myla Goldberg
The story of our need for pattern and shape in the world, told through the increasingly intense atmosphere around a spelling bee competition and Jewish mystical texts. Will the yearning for ultimate meaning and its failure to arrive always destroy us? A book of thrilling spelling endeavour.
3. Between the Monster and the Saint by Richard Holloway
Holloway is probably my favourite former bishop. Since retiring from the church, he has written powerfully and poignantly on the human condition. In this book, he draws on an eclectic set of writings across history, science, poetry, and philosophy to explore just how difficult it is to be human. Ultimately, it is honesty and an analysis of his own failings that put into sharp relief the problem of being an instinctual animal with frontal lobes that sit in judgment.
4. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Bechdels comic-book memoir of growing up in a funeral home where her undertaker/English teacher father tries to maintain his secret and control his family life via emotional distance is a magnificent use of the discursive nature of comics. Can we ever be happy if we try to be what we are not?
5. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
A good pull of the rug from under our presumptions that we are the pinnacle of evolution. Vonnegut saw the worst excesses of humanity during the bombing of Dresden, but then spent the rest of his life writing with a mixture of exasperation and hope about the foibles of humanity.
6. The Calvin and Hobbes series by Bill Watterson
Six-year-old Calvin and his toy tiger Hobbes are named for a 16th-century theologian and a 17th-century philosopher, and these comic strips explore the different ways we relate to the universe with real profundity. Calvins endless exuberance and battles with the adult world and its monotonous thinking are a utterly delightful. They make me want to climb into a cardboard box and transmogrify.
7. Mans Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Our potential to destroy in obedience to dogma and our ability to dehumanise others is grotesque, as this courageous book shows. A Viennese psychologist before the second world war, Frankl was professionally equipped to examine how he and others in Auschwitz coped, or could not, with the extremity they faced. I reread this account of what it took to psychologically survive on a yearly basis.