As comedian Stewart Lee explains on the DVD, 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People came about because comedian Robin Ince got picked on during a radio show for wanting to ban Christmas by Christian Stephen Green. Much later, Ince realized how he should have retorted on the show, but instead of moving on, he organized a secular variety show in order to prove that atheists, himself in particular, do not have a grudge against happiness, are not trying to ban Christmas, and instead are merely celebrating things like empirical evidence. This recording of the variety show talks more about how great science is and less how rubbish religion is, and when it does, it’s more an attack on the ugly fundamentalists. So why plan a secular event like this on Christmas? As Josie Long says on the DVD, Christmas traditions were co-opted from stuff that came before it, so the secular is now co-opting elements of the Christian traditions into their own. And 9 Lessons and Carols was indeed be a tradition. This review is for the first DVD, the show that went on in 2008, but it went strong for six years. It was originally planned to be one night, but in 2008, they had to add two additional nights because of popular demand.
The show begins and ends with an audio recording of Carl Sagan reciting Pale Blue Dot. When host Robin Ince introduces the show, he admits he’s worried because he normally does science jokes in front of a general audience who go, “What’s he talking about?” Now that he’s doing science jokes in front of scientists, he’s afraid they’ll still go, “What’s he talking about?” Ince comes from an arts background, but gears much of his standup toward science out of his curiosity and passion for it. In the backstage feature on the DVD, Ince says that the Bloomsbury Theatre, the venue, had never sold so many tickets to people called Professor.
The show is mostly made up of comedians, musicians, and scientists. Really, the scientists put on the best show. Physicist Simon Singh is wildly funny, going through great mathematical lengths to prove beyond a doubt that Teletubbies are evil and rewriting the lyrics of a pop song to make it scientifically accurate (and then playing the recording of the artist singing his lyrics). He also shares that Fricke’s favorite insult was “spherical bastard” because it meant the person was a bastard no matter which side of them you looked at.
What’s a secular show without Richard Dawkins reading a cheeky essay, comparing religion to bad drugs? But he also explains that if you look into the sky you can find several stars that are your “birth stars.”
Name any year in history and there will be a star up there whose light gives you a glimpse of something happening that very year. Whatever the year of your birth, somewhere up in the night sky you could find your birth star (or stars, for the number is proportional to the third power of your age). Its light enables you to look back and see a thermonuclear glow that heralds your birth….So, if you are 50 years old, you have a personal news sphere of 50 light years radius. Within that sphere it is in principle possible (obviously not in practice) for news of your existence to have permeated. Outside that sphere you might as well not exist–in an Einsteinian sense you do not exist. Older people have larger existence spheres than younger people, but nobody’s existence sphere extends to more than a tiny fraction of the universe.
There are a few stories that aren’t really science nor are they standup, but they are some of the most captivating moments in the show. Not Going Out writer Andrew Collins tells the tale of how The Poseidon Adventure film killed his faith through all its sneaky symbolism. Bad Science author Ben Goldacre gives a moving story about pseudoscience’s detrimental affect on people with AIDS, proving that bullshit isn’t harmless.
The thing I learned watching this show is that I really can’t stand musical comedians (with a few exceptions). I had to fast forward through them all because I couldn’t handle it–except Isy Suttie, whose musical comedy has always delighted me, and she does a duet with Gavin about a relationship where God got between them.
In retrospect, there are not a lot of just normal standup comics on the bill, and maybe that’s because a lot of them are edited out, as this is the taping of one of the three nights, and the other nights presumably had guests like Dara O Briain and Ricky Gervais. So, we’ve got Robin Ince doing his bits about Richard Feynman who played bongos and Tycho Brahe who had a golden nose, had an elk that fell down stairs, and kept a dwarf under the table. (Later Richard Dawkins admits he has a dog named Tycho.) I think it was this show that I realized how good Robin Ince’s impressions are because we get Sagan on recording (Ince likes to do the “apple pie” line from Sagan so he can make his strudel joke), Dawkins in person (Ince likes to tell the story of how Dawkins said on the radio of a homophobe “The great thing about an opinion like that is we can choose to totally ignore it.”), and Stewart Lee, whose slow delivery is the exact opposite of Robin’s mile-a-minute shouting.
Stewart Lee is doing his Stewart Lee thing, this time concentrating on the oddity that is pope-faced lolly-pops. In response to the Christians claiming that March of the Penguins is proof that nature is intrinsically good, Lee intends to make March of the Mallards to prove that it is evil, as some ducks breed via gang rape.
We also get Josie Long doing her drawn-out David Hulme anecdote that hinges on a punchline not safe for children’s ears. At this point she had just started studying maths again, and if you’ve listened to the recent season of The Infinite Monkey Cage, you’ll know that she’s just about finished up.
Richard Herring goes into great detail about how a better afterlife myth would be to have to justify every single second of your life to every baby the sperm you beat to the egg would have become individually. That would scare people into doing something more with their lives.
If we can get beyond the bizarre ukulele players, Broadway singers, and Beach Boys fan club, the one bit of beef I have with this DVD is the backstage interviews with the guests. They splice some of the better ones into the show, which is fine, but they don’t put their names or put them in an order where we would have seen them already, so it’s difficult to know what they’re talking about because we don’t know where they’re coming from. To make matters worse, they don’t label them during the 50-minute bonus feature sequence of interviews either, and some of the guests, like Dara O Briain, are not even on the show because they performed during other nights (or were cut from the DVD, not sure), so that’s really confusing. But it is, all in all, a minor gripe on what is largely an exciting and innovative project. I shall be reviewing more of them.
You can buy it on GoFasterStripe.com. It says it is region 0, so you should be able to play it on any DVD player, however, I couldn’t get it to play on the Blu-Ray player.
Jaime Pond is the editor of Anglonerd. She lives and works in NYC. Follow her on Twitter.
Originally posted Oct. 29, 2014