Emotional honesty has long been John Robins’ stock-in-trade, but the Netflix special, The Darkness of Robins, a recording of a show about the end of a relationship, which won him the joint Edinburgh comedy award in 2017, takes self-exposure to a new level. It seems to answer a challenge: if emotional honesty is central to one’s practice as a comedian, then what might it mean to have the courage of one’s convictions and take that honesty all the way? Beta male anxiety is pretty standard comic material, but Robins’ candour in the show is quite startling, given that such public revelations are, as Brian Logan noted in his review, ‘taboo,’ ‘particularly for a man’.
The ingenuity with which Robins secures one long stretch of earnest emotion is especially notable: a series of deeply intimate insights about the relationship framed as a building-society advert. It’s a beautifully crafted conceit which effects an incongruity between the intensity of Robins’ account and dry banking-industry speak. The tension of his description is thus released and through the engineering of the contrast, the distress is made to bear comic fruit. Throughout it all, partly because of his control of the material, we never ‘fear for his emotional safety’ (Logan), and because he is safe, we are too. Robins’ persona is a key part of that control and helps mediate the sense of risk: it’s subtle, but alongside the frustration with his own inadequacies, there’s also a quality of acceptance. I’ve discussed elsewhere how Seth Rogen’s vulnerability is armoured by an acceptance of his own neuroses and Robins’ persona is characterised by a similar quality. The touches of pedantry (a fussy precision about dates, a preoccupation with lists) are one aspect of this and embed a stolidity that helps tempers any anguish. The pedantry is clearly self-mocking, but it still signals a kind of complacency, and one which effectively counteracts the heat of the unforgiving self-criticism; that punishing super-ego voice which is both dramatized and mocked by the semi-shout in which it is delivered. The note of complacency is also sounded by a repeated action – a patting of his stomach – the equivalent to the jingling of keys in a pocket, such an archetypal gesture of unconscious masculine self-satisfaction.
Indeed, a certain blokeishness is a big part of Robins’ appeal and an important way of alleviating the risk of his emotional honesty. While his performance of masculinity is obviously ironic – ‘had a couple of dalliances, mate – not made of stone – except where it counts, right guys’; his embrace of many masculine norms is also a significant aspect of his brand. Alongside the pedantry, which reads as a stereotypically male trait, and his very evident heterosexuality (often characterised by slightly perplexed enquiries into the differences between men and women); the theme of male friendship in his material is marked, with time spent in a pub with his best friend one of the few reliable joys in life. Friendship is also clearly crucial to his highly successful partnership with fellow comedian Elis James, which encompasses both podcasts (and a recent live streamed event) and a regular Radio 5 slot, a station which has something of a reputation for being male-centric. The easy warmth of their bantering dialogue is very engaging and creates a safe space for both men’s honesty, which in turn allows for a safe space for the audience. One particular feature of their Radio 5 programme, ‘The Shame Well’, asks the audience to submit shameful incidents which are then read out and discussed, and through humour, any discomfort is defused. In using his platform to encourage others to share embarrassing or humiliating experiences, Robin’s commitment to personal emotional honesty thus opens up into a larger form of public service.
Robins has been explicit about the emotional utility of this kind of sharing, particularly as a way of countering shame: in an interview, he argues that ‘shame is a damaging emotion, and there’s something quite cathartic about seeing someone own stories that they might otherwise have kept to themselves’ (Williams) and his audience seems to have responded to his efforts with genuine gratitude. Through his craft, Robins has created a space in which vulnerability can be openly acknowledged, an achievement all the more impressive given the enduring cultural prohibitions against men expressing emotion.
Logan, Brian, ‘John Robins review – painfully funny account of a break up’, Guardian, 15 Aug 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/aug/15/john-robins-review-edinburgh-festival-sara-pascoe
Williams, Ben, ‘Comedian John Robins on shame, his new stand-up show and his love of Freddie Mercury’, Sunday Post, 11 Oct 2019