While everyone from your local barista to a modestly talented centre forward might be dubbed a ‘genius’ these days, stand-up Simon Evans is not sure that many people are truly deserving of such an accolade.
In the funny and erudite Hove-based comic’s new touring show (the not surprisingly titled Genius), he bemoans the fact that genuine geniuses are low on the ground.
'The show is about the notion of actual genius being hard to find anywhere, and about a collapse of any ambition for intelligent discourse or analysis in public life which is where it really matters.'
As a way of highlighting this decline and fall, Simon points to our key political leaders and wonders whether we have the crème de la crème in those prime positions. 'The general election was the first time people had an insight into just how inadequate Theresa May was for this huge task that had been set her. Not that it’s everything, but when you look at her academic achievements, she has a 2.2 in Geography – you’d be disappointed if you found out your Geography teacher had a 2.2! And Jeremy Corbyn, who now actually looks like a Prime Minister in waiting, failed to complete a degree course at North London Polytechnic. I don’t think we’re getting the best of the best, and I just don’t know what you do about that.'
So, where does he think all the clever people are winding up? 'My suspicion is that they’re all going to Silicon Valley. I’m training my children to 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".'
As a means of contrasting how times have changed, he points to an iconic publication which has swapped knowledge and depth for trivia and gloss. 'One of the centrepieces of the show is a comparison between the Guinness Book Of World Records when I was about 10 years old in the 1970s and my son’s copy now. His one is this smorgasbord of huge and garish full-colour photos of people like Neymar and the most tattooed man. Whereas in my day it was an extraordinarily dense compendium of facts about things like the most predominant mineral deposits on the surface of the planet. Maybe things have just got more enjoyable?'
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. 'So, while the show is about the ultimate 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. I’ve also entered a strange mania phase where I’ve developed what I initially thought was a cute tendency of buying more books than I would ever be able to read. I’m determined to absorb this information and be able to wield it, which started partly with writing this show Genius.
'I thought that 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 philanthropists and what they’re really up to, to books about Byzantine Europe and the eastern Roman Empire, and philosophy going all the way back. But it’s kind of a nonsense that people will be impressed by this.'
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 when he went to pubs and I felt that was a bit emasculating.'
Simon also wonders whether genius is in any way quantifiable.
'One of the things about genius is that 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 psychology and social construct departments. Are there differences between men and women? Does your IQ measure anything other than your ability to do well in that test? There was a story about a memo being sent out at Cambridge University that using the term genius was not recommended in lectures because it was intimidating to people.'
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 Schopenhauer that goes: "Talent is hitting a target that no one else can hit, whereas genius is hitting a target nobody else can see".'
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Sunday, April 8