Stuck In A Lift
The stand-up and podcaster talks celebrity spotting on the M4, bad teenage poetry, and moving beyond hate
“I don’t really know any other way of doing it,” says John Robins, drawing on a vape, now readying himself for his first stand-up tour in years – his first sober; and his first pouring quite so many difficult emotions onto the stage at once.
“That’s always been the style of stand-up I do. It doesn’t feel exposing because I’m always trying to connect with people about their experiences, even if it’s through me talking about quite specific stuff.” That stuff being a difficult sobriety, years of self-reflection, rage and anxiety. As the warning on his own site puts it, “if you haven’t seen him before, strap the f*ck in”.
“I’d really like to come away from my shows thinking that the people who watched them felt a little bit less alone,” he says, mulling over each answer carefully. “What I really value in all comedy is authenticity. Whether that’s Tim Vine being really silly, or Bridget Christie talking about the menopause, or John Kearns putting in these sort of poetic non sequiturs. I just love that feeling of thinking I can only get this from these people. So I just want people to come away thinking, yeah, that was 100% John Robins.”
Building a set of very different fanbases during the pandemic by hosting podcasts on golf, self-help, pubs and Queen (“podcasting has been a godsend… The problem is, now that audiences have come back, I’ve got all these f*cking podcasts…”), Robins began working on his new show, Howl, in 2022.
Before he brings the show to the Fringe in August, and before Howl begins a four-month UK tour in September, we asked Robins the big questions.
Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
I think, just because it would be the only time I would ever reasonably be able to gain access to him, I’d go with Ronnie O’Sullivan. I’ve tried in most of my professional capacities to gain access to O’Sullivan, and it’s yet to happen. Whereas I think with most other famous people, I could at least come up with a sort of reasonable pitch as to why I was needing to speak to them.
What would you say to Ronnie if you were stuck with him?
Nothing. I’d just stare at him. I wouldn’t respond to anything he said. I would just sort of take him in, visually, eyeball to eyeball, face to face, for as long as it took for the emergency services to come. I wouldn’t have messed anything up by saying anything, so then I’d be able to go “yes, I was in the same room as Ronnie O’Sullivan”. And I got a good old look at the man.
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with?
Myself. Actually, no, because I am a good problem solver. I’m also very good in a crisis. What I’m not good at is everyday life. So I’d probably find being trapped in a lift less stressful than a trip to the supermarket. So actually, I would probably be the best person to be trapped in a lift.
So who would be the worst then?
I’ve sort of let go of any kind of resentment towards other human beings. But maybe whistling nose breathers. Also someone who makes a sort of weird clicking sound when they talk. Those sorts of things really bug me. And dogs. Dogs would not be allowed in the lift. That would be the worst.
What’s the weirdest interaction you’ve ever had with a famous person?
I once saw Status Quo in the M&S at Reading services, westbound. I think they must have been with their PA because she was holding a basket and they just kept running around and adding more sweets to the basket. Like when kids sneak stuff into their parent’s trolley. I also once stood behind Paul Weller at a Harry Ramsden’s at another service station.
I once saw Kiss at a service station after they played Download. Must be a good place to spot celebrities.
I guess it’s one of the only places that you can’t escape going to. There’s no first-class lane on the motorway. Unless you’ve got your own tour bus with a toilet.
What was the last gig you went to?
Well, apart from comedy gigs, the last time I somebody performing was Big Thief at The Apollo. It was absolutely fantastic. It was one of the five best gigs I’ve ever been to. The band were amazing and I loved every single second of it.
What’s on your rider?
These days, just a cold Diet Coke. With ice. In a pint glass.
What did it used to be?
Guinness. But, I mean, no one ever actually orders any of that weird stuff if you’re a stand-up because you still have to pay for it. If you ask for a bottle of water it’ll appear on the bill from the venue. So it’s not really a proper rider, it’s more like a shopping delivery.
What work of yours didn’t get the attention it deserved?
My early poetry. A lot of what I wrote between 1994 and 1998, between the ages of 12 and 16. Even though it was sent to a number of small press magazines, and the Ledbury Poetry Festival, it did not get any mainstream attention. It dealt with key universal themes too, like girls not fancying me and… actually that was the only theme. But it dealt with it from a number of new angles.
Have you ever thought of publishing them now?
Oh yeah, I think about that a lot. In the context of an anxiety dream. I think about publishing those poems, or of them being leaked.
What did 12-year-old you imagine you’d be doing now?
I think I genuinely thought I would be a poet. I honestly did. That was what I wanted to be for a long time. The flaw in the plan was that I was absolutely dogsh*t at poetry.
What did you imagine life as a poet would look like?
Well, first and foremost, it was a life in which poetry was a viable career, financially. I think I imagined a lot of velvet jackets. Knocking around smoking roll-ups. Straight cigarettes. Pipes. Cigars. Lots of tomes, first editions, that kind of thing. An awful lot of very, very well-informed and well-argued articles in the broadsheet press. Opinion pieces. That kind of thing.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I never really had any bad jobs. I used to work nights in a packing warehouse at Portbury Docks, near Bristol, and they used to roll me up in bubble wrap and punch me. But I didn’t think it was that bad.
It doesn’t sound great.
There was a temping job I had when I started doing stand-up which was entering all the names and addresses of The Sunday Times Rich List into an Excel spreadsheet. It wasn’t only incredibly time consuming, it was also pretty demotivating when you’re only getting paid £7.50 an hour. It was like, ‘right, who’s next? Someone worth £21 billion…’ That was not how I imagined my life to turn out. But the people in the office were nice.
If you had to have a theme song playing every time you walked in a room, what would it be?
Probably ‘One Vision’ by Queen. Or… sometimes the song that plays in my head when I walk into a pub is ‘The Fallen’ by Franz Ferdinand [mimes the opening]. Something like that. Something with a big rock opening, to make an entrance.
Who do you often get told you look like?
Quite often the comedian Stuart Goldsmith and I get mistaken for each other. Oh and Prince Charming and Mr. Universe.
What do you hate that everyone else loves?
I don’t really hate anything. I can’t live in hate anymore. It’s no use to me – and I don’t mean that in a weird way. There’s loads of stuff I’m ambivalent about, and stuff I just sort of ignore. But nothing really rattles me anymore, which is quite useful. We’re only really frustrated by the things that we allow ourselves to be. I don’t spend a great deal of time on social media, apart from following my friends on Instagram, and I watch so little TV that I’m never really aware of what people are talking about. And when I do watch it, I think yeah, it’s alright. It’s fine. Everything’s fine. I don’t know… I mean, what are the crazes at the moment? What’s everyone into?
This week it’s probably Barbie and Oppenheimer. And Taylor Swift, of course.
That’s fine. I haven’t seen those films. I have no opinion on any of that really.
Which film have you rewatched the most times?
Silence Of The Lambs. I could recite the script of Silence Of The Lambs. It’s a perfect film. My sister was allowed to go and see it at the cinema when it came out. And I was very, very jealous. She was only 16 and it was an 18, so I think I kept threatening to call the police. I think I watched it relatively early on and I was a bit upset that it wasn’t as gory as I thought it was going to be. But then I watched it again and I realised how lean the script was. But similarly, I do like quite workmanlike films, like Gran Torino. Rushmore is my favourite film of all time. I’ve seen those three films probably 50 times between them. And then we always used to go back to my friend Sam’s house after the pub and either watch Independence Day, Seven or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so I’ve probably fallen asleep to those films dozens and dozens of times.
Do you have any superstitions?
Before going on stage? Warm up my voice and say my prayers?! You’ve got to warm your voice up, especially when you vape as much as I do, Christ.
But I don’t believe in other stuff, like ghosts. I think fate is something you create yourself. I do believe in trying to find some kind of purpose to the things that happen to you, that would otherwise maybe make you just want to fall to bits. I get Cranio-Sacral therapy sometimes. I get acupuncture, which I found very helpful. I meditate. So I do definitely try and tune in to different planes. Physically, mentally and spiritually, throughout the day.