Brian Donaldson talks to comic Simon Evans.
The exact nature of Genius has always been elusive. But according to comedian Simon Evans, it seems that the bar has been lowered somewhat of late.
“Everyone and everything from a modestly talented centre forward to a bluetooth-enabled juice extractor gets called ‘genius’ these days,” he complains. “I remember when proper geniuses walked among us. I remember when mad geniuses with hair sprouting out of their head at weird angles and mad glinting eyes boggling at you from under eyebrows like feral hedgehogs used to present children’s TV, let alone the adult stuff. Nowadays, they all have perfect hairstyles and neat painted on eyebrows and considerably less mental TNT.”
Well aware that this sort of thing has been the Cry of the Middle Aged Man for generations, Evans points to hard evidence of a collapse in standards. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he starts with the intellectual heft of our rulers.
“Which is to say, piss-poor. Are they a sign of the dangers of egalitarian society? The great wet blanket of democracy? The suspicions we now have about anyone who shows signs of being a bit too smart for their own good? I am afraid they are.
“The show is about many things. Not least my own failing mental capacity to cope with the modern world, to distinguish between the bleeps of the dishwasher and the tumble dryer or to feel confident in my three-stage text message assessment of my recent experience at the local GP. But I’m more worried about the bigger picture.”
“I mean, Theresa May seems like a decent sort of woman – as you might say of someone running the jam stall at the WI market. But to look at her academic achievements – she has a 2:2 in Geography. Be honest, you’d be disappointed if your Geography teacher had a 2.2 in Geography… And Jeremy Corbyn, who I originally took to be a suicide note in human form but is now gearing up to take over at No.10 – two E’s at A level then failed to complete his degree course at North London Polytechnic. These are momentous times and I just don’t think we’re getting the brightest and the best.”
So, where does he think all the clever people are winding up?
“My suspicion is that they’re all going to what is now called STEM – not gardening, I’m not saying Alan Titchmarsh for PM, but Science, Technology and engineering and Maths. That seems to be the thing now. I’m hoping my children will learn to code. My wife still insists on them having oboe lessons and doing modern dance. I’m just saying ‘Forget it, there will be robots playing oboe soon. Learn to code the oboe robots’.”
What has certainly been enjoyable over the past couple of decades is witnessing the rise of Simon Evans as one of the most reliable and thought-provoking stand-up talents in the country. Critical acclaim and audience admiration have never been too hard for him to find through live shows such as Fringe Magnet, Leashed and In The Money, while radio listeners have been treated to several series of Simon Evans Goes To Market, his comedy lectures on economic matters. And those clever TV people have got him on the box through shows such as Mock The Week, Live At The Apollo and Dara Ó Briain: School Of Hard Sums.
And yet despite all this exposure, Simon still harbours reservations about his own abilities.
“The fact is, while the show is a howl of despair at the decay and collapse of western civilisation, it’s also a recognition of my failure to live up to my own intellectual ambitions, and that moment when you suddenly realise your chances of a Nobel Prize are slipping over the horizon. And yet rather than simply adapt to my naturally waning capacity for learning I’ve entered a strange mania phase where I’m buying more books than I will ever be able to read.
“I’ve obviously developed a sub-conscious belief that I can simply absorb books by osmosis. I’m determined to be able to wield this information, which started partly with writing this show, Genius. I thought, if I’m going to talk about genius, then I need to demonstrate that I’ve mastered a few things myself, and it’s become this worrying addiction now. I’m surrounded by piles of books: there’s stuff about everything from arcane theories about human intelligence – all incorporated into the show obviously – to books about the Byzantine Empire and German idealism and the nine brains of the octopus and so on.
“It started as a research but it’s fast becoming a fire hazard. And it’s kind of a nonsense that people will be impressed by this. Certainly my wife remains dubious.”
That image of sophistication is merely ramped up with his slow sipping of Scotch on stage.
“It’s nice to have a drink when you’re performing live. To talk for an hour and a half on stage without one is just a lecture. It’s more affable and amiable to do a performance with a drink. But you do have to measure it and whisky is quite easy to just neck. The ideal drink to have on stage is sherry, because it has that little bit of sugar to keep the energy levels up, but I might have it in a whisky bottle and glass so that it looks a bit more manly. My father used to order a schooner of sherry on the rare occasions when he went to pubs and I always worried that was a bit emasculating.”
As Simon prepares to put the finishing touches to his show ahead of another big national tour, he wonders whether genius is in any way quantifiable.
“Some people dispute that it should be a term at all. Intelligence is a highly controversial subject. There are furious culture wars going on between evolutionary psychologists – who see it as biological – and sociologists who believe intelligence as a social construct. Are there differences between men and women? Does your IQ measure anything other than your ability to do well in that test?
“These are red hot issues. There was a story about a memo being sent out at Cambridge University that the term ‘Genius’ should be avoided in maths lectures because it was intimidating! This seems to me absurdly patronising but it may be that we emphasise individual achievement when collaboration is really the thing. That’s what my fourteen uncredited writers would have you believe anyway.”
So, from all this reading you’ve been doing, is there a quote that perhaps sums up genius in a nutshell?
“There’s one from the 19th Century German Pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer I rather like: ‘Talent is hitting a target that no one else can hit, whereas genius is hitting a target nobody else can see’.”
Arthur Schopenhauer: What a legend.