Writer: Rob Newman
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Is it possible, asks Rob Newman in his new stand-up show, Total Eclipse of Descartes, for a better understanding of philosophy to help us work out the complicated and depressing world we live in today? What can Sartre or Descartes teach us about contemporary society? At least it’s a different take on stand-up than the usual from middle-class, middle-aged comedians on the theatre circuit, avoiding the usual topics of family and house prices in London that can so often be the staple of this breed, and injects a nice Radio 4 audience-friendly intellectual strand through the evening.
But don’t come to the show for a solid take on philosophy, or for behavioural science, which Newman also brings into the mix. From Pavlov’s dogs to the Shakespeare-typing monkeys, he draws on some of the most popular scientific and mind experiments and squeezes plenty of humour out of them, but, unlike the more studious exponents of comedy-science (Dara O’Briain and Robin Ince immediately spring to mind) plays fairly fast and loose with his subject matter.
Newman is particularly interested in the flaws exhibited throughout history in scientific and research papers, proving that fake news is nothing new and that people will do what they can to push home their theories. From the founding of grammar schools to DNA research, he unearths some dodgy dossiers from all areas of philosophy and science. The problem is, he’s keen to believe the research that backs up his own view of the world rather than finding the balance. In some cases this offers a nice insight into history – Darwin’s unconventionally caring approach to Victorian paternal parenting for example, as demonstrated in his book on child development – but can also leave a big hole in the theories he’s trying to get across.
Not that this isn’t an entertaining hour and a half of comedy. Newman is a likeable comedian, and there is some clever, funny material throughout – from the tales of trying to protect his seven-year-old daughter from the doom and gloom of the Today Programme to his rather brilliant moments of character comedy – Sartre as a Manc, Archimedes turned Chicago gangster, post-plastic surgery Paul McCartney – he demonstrates that he’s still a comedian that can deliver something outside the mainstream.
Total Eclipse of Descartes is a dense show, which jumps from subject to subject throughout. Newman seems more at home with some parts of the material than others but it’s a long tour and he’s only just embarked. He paces the stage a lot, not seeming as comfortable with all this as you might expect – but his delivery is very direct, meeting the eyes of the audience, speaking very directly to those in the stage level tier seats, and creating something of a personable, cosy atmosphere that you might not expect from the subject matter.
Reviewed on 4 March 2018