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Mikey salutes history’s forgotten knuckleheads

Mikey Robins… “I have found writing… Maybe that’s why I have mellowed. I have found my thing.”

In his first review for “CityNews” COLIN STEELE journeys through a new book about stupidity by comedian Mikey Robins.

MIKEY Robins is one of Australia’s best known comedians and broadcasters, following his years hosting Triple J’s “National Breakfast Show” and TV’s “Good News Week”.

Colin Steele.

In recent years, in addition to his media and comedy appearances, he has published three books exploring the idiosyncrasies of humanity.

His first book, “Seven Deadly Sins and One Very Naughty Fruit”, publicised as “an irreverent romp through the history of food”, was followed by ”Reprehensible: Polite Histories of Bad Behaviour”, a guide to “some of the most shameful behaviour indulged in by humanity’s most celebrated figures”. 

Now comes his third book, “Idiots, Follies and Misadventures”, an eclectic 370 pages of the “great stuff-ups in history”, in which Mikey reveals that human stupidity has been our constant companion.

Mikey’s books combine his comedic roots with his love of history. Mikey calls himself “a history nerd”. At high school, he topped his year in history before gaining an arts degree at Newcastle University. He currently co-hosts a successful podcast series, “Heroes and Howlers”, with his friend, Oxford history graduate Paul Wilson.

Mikey reflects: “The overriding narrative of our species would be thousands of years of achievements… Yet there are times I’m sure we’ve all looked at our fellow humans and pondered, sure, harnessing fire was an earth-shaking achievement, but how did we ever make it out of the cave without spearing each other in the damn foot?”

The phrase “history is written by the victors” was popularised by Winston Churchill. However, Mikey bemoans the fact that history is rarely written about the stupid. He argues history books often omit tales of human fallibility, “we overlook the dubious and ridiculous contributions made by history’s tawdry parade of knuckleheads”.

Mikey doesn’t quantify stupidity. Instead, he cites Italian-born economist Carlo M Cipolla, whose 1976 article “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” offered defining laws of observable stupidity, which Mikey strongly affirms are still relevant some 50 years later. 

His take on history is that “while the technology and the costumes have changed, the human impulses are the same”. He wrote his book during the covid lockdown, a time when “we had people who ended up in hospital because they took fish-tank bleach to ward off the virus… Right now, the net is responsible for the surge of a lot of stupid conspiracy theories”.

Mikey’s historical examples of stupidity include pastoralist Thomas Austin who in 1859 released European “sports rabbits” on his Victorian rural property and we all know the consequences of that action. 

In the chapter, “Pull my Finger’, he recounts how German romantic composer Robert Schumann’s use of a homemade finger-stretching device, allegedly ruined his ability to play a piano. 

His chapter “Please Rewind, no seriously can we please rewind” documents how in September 2000 the directors of the huge American Blockbuster video chain turned down the approaches of a young company called Netflix. Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2010 with nearly $1 billion of debt.

King O’Malley told the Australian Parliament in October 1903 that “the history of the world shows that cold climates have produced the greatest geniuses”, which he used in his push for Canberra as the national capital. Mikey criticises “a really European and imperialistic way of looking at the world”.

Mikey is someone who has struggled to control his weight since childhood: “I have to confess that I have occasionally grasped at weight-loss straws that I knew in my heart of hearts were nothing more than well-marketed folly”. He says turning 60 felt like winning a bet.

In the chapter, “Rub a Dub Dumb”, he reflects that even at his most desperate he would not have fallen for something as “fundamentally inane” as a soap that “promised to wash away fat and years of age… And reduce any part of the body desired without affecting other parts”. Yet this was a claim made by a company that traded in Britain in the early 1920s under the name La-Mer Laboratories. 

Mikey says he has now “reached a very lucky phase in his life… It’s that rare thing, in the third act, I have found writing… Maybe that’s why I have mellowed. I have found my thing.” 

He hopes his new book with its “rather ridiculous cautionary tales” will “hopefully amuse and add some perspective to our current rash of stupidity”. 

Mikey Robins will be in conversation with Alex Sloan on “Idiots, Follies and Misadventures” at The Street Theatre, 6pm-7pm, July 19. Book at thestreet.org.au

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