Interview: Robert Newman brings his Theory of Evolution to 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
The writer and comedian on why taking down Richard Dawkins is just funny
This article is from 2014.
Mr Serious might be back in town, but Rob Newman is happy to indulge his sillier side. He tells Brian Donaldson why taking down Richard Dawkins is just funny
Rob Newman has a theory. Contrary to popular scientific scripture, it’s not the fittest who will survive this harsh thing we call life, it’s the misfits. This is the idea that powers his formal-forenamed touring show, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution, which he is now trimming down for an hour-long set at the Fringe. But like all good comedians who are into this science stuff, Newman is continually questioning his own standpoints.
‘In some bits of life you’re a misfit and in other bits you do fit, we’re all a mixture of those things,’ he says when asked if he considers himself one of life’s misfits. ‘I was really thinking that in nature, the least adapted in the history of evolution have an advantage because once the habitat changes radically, they can survive. But I’m suspicious of this whole romantic idea of the misfit, that James Dean thing: “just get your cowboy boots off the coffee table and be nice”. And anyway, that whole misfit-as-bad-boy thing was already properly parodied by Wham!.’
Given the ferocity with which he leads his staged assault on him, perhaps Newman considers god-delusion banner man Richard Dawkins to be one of those bad boys. In his show, Newman fantasises about a rather mean-spirited Dawkins being extremely curt with his postie before the pair of them have a wrestle on the doorstep.
‘My argument is that what he is saying has nothing to do with the origin of species and lots to do with original sin,’ insists Newman. ‘His idea is quite a virulent attack on Darwinism and it has no basis in the science. It’s not just me saying that, it was Stephen Jay Gould, and philosophers at Harvard and in Britain saying that. Dawkins holds this ideological position and, in some ways, quite a religious position about this idea that there’s a split between your body: this dirty unclean biological self and your soul. Darwin was supposed to have abolished that idea.’
If all this sounds like it might be a little too heavy on your brain, don’t worry. While Newman certainly wears intelligence on his sleeve, he’s both winningly self-deprecating about his ‘turgid, overly theoretical stuff’ and far from immune to the vagaries of silliness. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously while picking up a ukulele. And then there are the impressions.
In the 90s, Newman was pleasing fans with Antoine de Caunes and Ben Elton take-offs; now he’s perfectly mimicking the likes of Ronnie Corbett and Alec Guinness. ‘I was doing what I thought was a very good Gary Oldman version of George Smiley but people thought it was Professor FJ Lewis from History Today, so I just turned it into Alec Guinness.’
Given that Newman once strode out alongside David Baddiel into a sold-out capacity Wembley Arena in front of 12,000 screaming admirers, it’s always worth asking him about venue spaces. For the month of August, he’ll be taking up residence in a 150-seater Mongolian yurt on St Andrew Square.
‘Tents are notoriously hard,’ he admits. ‘I remember when Eric Bogosian had a tent adjacent to Malcolm Hardee who kept complaining that Eric was making too much noise. So a naked Malcolm drove a tractor into the tent while Eric was in the middle of his set.’ The classic case of a naked jape.
Robert Newman’s Theory of Evolution, Stand in the Square, St Andrew Square, 0131 558 7272, 1–25 Aug (not 4, 11, 18), 8.30pm, £12 (£10).