The big picture: Ruby Wax back on the road

Ruby Wax wants to help upgrade your brain. “We’ve evolved this far, but we don’t need more fingers and toes,” she tells me in the course of a conversation that mentions comedy, politics, neuroscience, God and a monk who hasn’t had sex in 25 years.

“But we’ve made this jungle and we need to learn how to live in it. That’s what I want to help you to do.”

The help is in the form of a book, ‘How to be Human’, and now a live show playing Dublin and Belfast in early May.

It’s a change of emphasis for the comedian a lot of us remember from the 1990s with her Ruby Wax Meets series on the BBC, where she interviewed and took the piss out of a guest list that included Madonna, The Spice Girls, Tom Hanks and Imelda Marcos.

She even managed to get herself kicked off Donald Trump’s private jet in the late 90s, for laughing when he said he wanted to become President. (Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he gave us plenty warning.) That 1990s Ruby Wax has since been upgraded if you like, and these days she is known for a series of books and live tours that mix comedy with her straight-talking campaign to destigmatize mental-health issues.

She has had her own well-documented struggle with depression, checking into the celebrity-friendly Priory Hospital in the early 1990s after the birth of her third child. She later performed her one-woman show on clinical depression for patients in the hospital and received her O.B.E. for services to mental health there in 2015.

Ruby Wax on the main stage at Pendulum Summit at the Convention Centre Dublin. Picture: Conor McCabe

In fairness, this isn’t a comedian jumping on a bandwagon, or merely mining her own life for material. Wax studied psychotherapy and gained a Master’s degree in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy from Oxford University.

She isn’t slow to stress the substantial academic work behind the content in her books and live shows, emphasising the credentials of her qualifications by pointing out that they don’t teach witchcraft at Oxford.

That doesn’t mean the material is dry. A TED talk she did in 2012, What’s So Funny About Mental Illness will have you hooked-in and giggling within the first five seconds. She talks about her mother, who had obsessive compulsive disorder, crawling around their house outside Chicago on all fours, with sponges in her hands and tied to her knees, asking “who brings foot prints into a building?”

She follows this up, with a smiley-faced description of how she had a breakdown at her daughter’s sports day, found herself in an institution and, as she put it, “found her tribe” among the other patients.

Still smiling, but not as much, she then asks the audience how come you get sympathy when any other organ in your body gets sick, but not the brain? That’s Ruby Wax the live performer, funny and engaging, but edgy with it.

You could say the same about her books. ‘Sane New World’ tackled self-critical thoughts, according to her website rubywax.net, showing how they contribute to anxiety and stress in your life and then helping you break the cycle to find calm.

Her next book, ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled’, promises to arm you with mindfulness techniques to manage all aspects of your life and avoid stress.

In her latest book, ‘How To Be Human’, Ruby teamed up with a Buddhist monk, to explain how our minds work, and a neuroscientist, to let us know what goes on in our brains. Together they examine what it means to be human in a series of chapters that cover Evolution, Thoughts, Emotions, Sex, Kids, the Future and Forgiveness.

Judging by reader reviews and comments on Amazon, these books are both helpful and wildly entertaining for a wide audience. The latest book is the basis for a live tour, with Ruby, the monk and the neuroscientist hitting the road. I ask her does she just kind of walk out and do it it like a PowerPoint presentation.

“No,” she says pretty sharply, as if that would be a daft idea, which it would.

“I’m into comedy, so it’s entertaining. The monk and the neuroscientist get to have their say at the end of each chapter. The monk will also give mindfulness exercises, that’s his day job. And then the audience can also ask questions at the end.”

A lot of Wax’s work and advice is about getting some control over your mind. I’m lazy and impatient so I ask her for a top tip.

“Say you have a thought you don’t like,” she replies, “imagine it’s like in a cartoon, and just prick it like a bubble.

It’s a bit like directing traffic with your thoughts – you think, that’s a good one, that’s a bad one. But there is no short cut, it’s like yoga – you have to practice it every day.

Otherwise it’s like watching a video of skiing and thinking you can ski. And even if that would work, you’d have to watch that video every day.” I ask her where does she stand on the mind over the brain, the monk over the neuroscientist. “The monk and the neuroscientist agree on most things, they get along fine.”

Ruby Wax isn’t the way I thought she’d be. I had a notion before we talked that I’d frame the Monk vs the Neuroscientist as some kind of WWF wrestling thing, with Ruby Wax as the referee, and herself and myself would riff away and have a bit of fun with this.

But it quickly became apparent that Ruby isn’t the type to have a laugh with some random Irish journalist on a Friday afternoon. I wouldn’t say she was rude or unhelpful; but I wouldn’t say she was having the time of her life either.

It touches on a Decca Aitkenhead interview with Wax in the Guardian in 2009, where Aitkenhead said that certain journalists found the comedian to be “cold, spiky and difficult”. I didn’t find her to be any of these things, but there is a combative edge to Ruby Wax you don’t get in other interviews.

I guess it’s this edge that sets her apart. I watch a video of Wax on YouTube, talking about mindfulness. In the first two minutes, she pokes fun at people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychopaths. (They’re funny jokes too.)

Even though she has lived with depression and championed its destigmatization, it takes a certain spikiness and self-confidence to make jokes in that area, given the feeding-frenzy mood on social media when it comes to taking down a celebrity.

And if the jokes open up a wider audience for her powerful message about mental health, then who cares if she comes across a bit abrupt during an interview at the tail end of a Friday afternoon.

Back to the Monk and the Neuroscientist, I ask Ruby where does God fit into her scheme of things. “I don’t know. Do you know?” she replies, which is a question a lot of us would struggle with these days.

Ruby is keen to ‘stick to her lane’ as they say, and tell people what she knows, rather than giving the answer to everything. When I ask her about changing the world, she replies, “I don’t understand politics at all. Fix yourself and then go save the world is what I am saying. Otherwise it is like introducing a hand-grenade into the situation.”

Back in the personal sphere, she tells me that a slice of ‘How To Be Human’ focuses on relationships. “I talk about why you choose who you choose in a relationships.” Does it get easier over time? “Of course it does because we’re willing to make compromises.”

What about the future? The press release for the live tour pitches it as follows - regardless of what technology can throw up, we’ll always have our minds, and if we can use them for compassion, instead of chasing what’s better like a hamster on a wheel, we’re on the yellow brick road to happiness. What does she see as the biggest issue in terms of technology?

“I’m addicted to social media, but at least I’m aware of it. And Artificial Intelligence is coming fast, we need to know how to deal with it.”

Ruby Wax might just be the person to tune your brain into the modern world.

How to be Human is at Cork Opera House, April 29. corkoperahouse.ie

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