A couple of years ago, Twitcher Supreme Bill Oddie – no stranger to poor mental health himself – raised the hacklesof Ruby Wax by claiming that some celebrities were using depressive illnesses as a cynical career move. Far from sitting around whining about her dalliance with the disorder, however, Wax has rationalised it, put it back in its cage, and is on the road promoting her Sane New World show, which she’s taking to this year’s Latitude Festival. Paul Couch caught up with her.
Whether it’s because we’re used to her on-screen incarnations as the brash American, Shelley DuPont, in 80s sitcom Girls on Top or as a fast-talking stand-up, Ruby Wax in 2015 is an altogether more timorous beastie.
Though she hasn’t done television for a long time, the old Ruby is clearly still there; however, the voice is more seasoned and tends to waver nervously, almost as though you’ve cornered her in a dark alley on a chill night and she has nowhere to run but into her well-polishedshtik.She’s all business today, though, and insists that we cut through the pleasantries and get on with the interview.
The 62-year-old is heading up to Suffolk in July to bring her show Sane New World to Latitude Festival. She’s a seasoned stand-up and a veteran of the festival circuit, but a marquee in a (most likely) muddy field in East Anglia?
“I don’t think it’s the most ideal scenario,” she concedes. “First of all, can they hear me? I’m used to being in theatres. I’m not really a stand-up – I don’t stand with a mic, it’s a theatre piece.” She’s laughing but there’s a sense of pragmatism – “Whether people can concentrate, it’s up to them. If they can hear it, they’ll like it.” They probably will, I agreed but, as Wax says, this isn’t stand-up per-se – it’s a serious subject – neuroscience, yet – delivered in a humorous way. “To me the most interesting thing on earth is to understand your mind. I’m trying to do what Bill Bryson does – you take something really fascinating and then you spin it into comedy. To me, that’s a win-win.”
One of the threads of her Sane New World show examines how we ‘sabotage our own sanity’. Wax is eager to explain what she means by that. It’s her pet subject and she’s an evangelist about it.
“The stuff that’s knocking us out isn’t smallpox or the Plague; what’s really knocking us out now is how we think. We’re [humanity] not really under threat, so a lot of it is imagined? We’re no good, we’re too fat, we’re not doing enough because the next guy is – it’s the way we think. Our little brains just aren’t capable of all the hyper-stimulation. Now we put this global information out there, so I’m not complaining about it, but it’s going to come with a certain amount of agitation. Let that continue – we’re not going to shut it down – but we have to learn to cool our brains down.”
To the untrained ear, that sounds like something of an airy-fairy notion but Wax is quick to quash that. “It’s a neurological thing to do and once we’ve learned to do that, it’s easier to live longer.”
The ‘mindfulness’ discipline in which the former Berkeley psychology major got her Master’s degree from Oxford in 2013 advocatesa practice of reflection over reaction and, in it’s most basic form, might be seen as the standard cross-legged meditation that has been popularised since the 1960s. Audiences at Sane New World neednot start limbering up just yet, however; Wax won’t be expecting any kind of active physical participation – she’s much more stealthy than that. “This isn’t going to be a lecture on mindfulness,” she confirms. “They won’t even know they’re doing it and I don’t even mention mindfulness untilthe last bit. What you’re getting is a tour of your brain and a report on where we are now.”
Sane New World started life as a best-selling book in 2013 and Wax is currently writing a follow-up, Wake The F ** K Up – A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, which is due to be published in January 2016. With an international tour to deal with, writing it hasn’t been an easy process. “Oh my God, it’s so hard! You’ve got to take science and make it funny.”
Ruby’s recently returned from a short trip to Australia, where she spoke at a conference in Sydney, Happiness and Its Causes. While there, she met the Godfather of Mindfulness, the Dalai Lama, and she’s clearly a fan. “He’s the real thing and he can focus! I think it’s remarkable that, with all the bodyguards and all the paparazzi, this guy retains astillness, and that’s a miracle in itself.”
The Sane New World tour has already visited Australia earlier this year and it begs the question whether the traditionally ‘hard as nails’ Aussies (and sundry other cultures) are as susceptible to the poor mental health and brain-frying information overload as the rest of us. Before the question is even finished, Wax is on it like a mountain lion. “I’m not taking my show to the Middle East – that’s real stress – but everybody in the West has this imagined stress because we all have this same equipment, quite literally. Not only are our brains the same but we’ve built the same ‘machinery’. Of course it’s going to have the same effect – we’re not all that different.”
In an interview in 2009, Wax distanced herself somewhat from her comedic past, stating that being a comedian is a young person’s game. These days she much prefers to be known as an activist and practitioner who zealouslypromotes healthy minds. But what about comedians like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, who worked to 81- and 95-years old respectively? Hardly ‘young persons’ were they?
“If you’re doing snappy, panel show shit, then you’ve got to be young. They [Rivers and Diller] were really stuck with young people’s comedy because these were the first of the female comedians. They could only do self-mocking, about their husbands, and nobody could do it better than them. I’m just not that interested in it. To have to do young people’s jokes when you’re 85 isn’t my idea of a good time.” Well that’s me told…
Since moving to the UK in the 1970s, Wax has been an actress, a stand-up, a chat-show host, an author, an activist for good mental health. Can there really be anything left for her to tackle? Unsurprisingly, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. And this is no small ambition. “I want to open a walk-in centre for people who aren’t just burnt out but mentally ill, like Alcoholics Anonymous. I also want to write this book because I want to do a real practical guide on how to do mindfulness, and make people laugh. That’s about it.”
“Regrets, I’ve had a few,” sang Frank Sinatra, but Ruby Wax has only one that she’ll admit to. “I wish I did this earlier, but it didn’t exist. Neuroscience hasn’t been around that long. My regret is that this wasn’t around when I was a student.”
Ruby Wax is performing Sane New World at the Theatre Tent at Latitude Festival.