David Baddiel interview: stand-up, comedy, parents, mental health

As David Baddiel brings My Family: Not The Sitcom back to London, he spares us some time for a chat about inappropriate parenting...

David Baddiel is bringing his acclaimed show, My Family: Not The Sitcom back for a final run at the Vaudeville Theatre in London from the end of this month. The show, that runs from 28th March – 3rd June, sees Baddiel talking frankly about his mother and father, in a way that even the press blurb describes as a “massively disrespectful celebration”.

We chatted to him about the show, and about his recent documentary, The Trouble With Dad. Oh, and we snuck some Statham in there too…

Before we get into the depths of things, can you set the scene. What is your show that you’re bringing back to the London stage?

Yes. I’m doing a show called My Family: Not The Sitcom, and it’s called that because I did a show before that called Fame: Not The Musical. I feel that the two shows operate… well, there’s a third one I’m going to do at some point too!

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Basically, I evolved this way of doing stand-up comedy. I hadn’t done it for years. It’s very autobiographical, very personal. It involves using stills and films, and it’s long form storytelling.

When I finished the Fame show, which was about my life in British showbiz, I thought what else do I have a fund of stories about, that I could weave into something like that? The obvious thing is my parents, because they’re eccentric and unusual, and the way they brought us up was eccentric and unusual. But not in a bohemian way. I think a lot of people now would see it as quite a damaging way. But the show takes that on board in a celebratory way. Really what it is, is a celebration of having very fucked up parents, because they’ve made me the man I am.

If I was to say one thing that it’s about, it’s about memory really. My mum died in 2014, and the show is more about my mum than my dad.

I was at her funeral, and all these people, who didn’t know her, were telling me how wonderful she was. I talk about this in the show. That led me to feel kind of angry in a way, that this is what happens when you die, that people only say you’re wonderful. It’s an erasure of self and identity. I thought I could hold on to the memory of my mother, which is kind of grieving is about. You try and hold on to the person as they were. I can do that better by being very specific about who my mother was, which involves talking about the fact that she had a long term affair with golfing memorabilia salesman.

It’s also about my dad and his dementia, and sort of about that as it plays into this story and into their relationship and into their marriage. The show does talk about dementia, but that’s not the primary subject of the show. The primary subject of the show is memory, but how you remember people. My manifesto is remember them warts and all, wash your dirty linen in public. It’s a way of celebrating the truth as to how your family were.

I happened across a Daily Mail review of the show…

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It’s the only bad review I think it’s got. Even that was three stars!

I’ve never seen the Daily Mail sit on the fence before.

He didn’t really sit on the fence if you read it! He doesn’t like it. But it got three stars, I think because if you’re in the room for the show, it goes incredibly well. I’ve never had a bad night.

It’s a good thing, obviously to get a bad review from Quentin Letts, who is really a terrible c*nt in every respect. I would in a way prefer to get a one star review off him. If you’re going to get a bad review in the Mail, I’d rather they didn’t sit on the fence!

Anything you say can be taken as offensive. And so I ask what happens if I talk about stuff that’s so personal to me, that the person who should be offended is me? In a way I’m challenging the audience. I’m saying if I am not offended by this, then who are you to tell me that it’s offensive? But Quentin Letts thought he was!

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Because of where you’ve gone in the show, is it almost a sense of relief and release in some members of the audience. That they’re then opening up about things they wouldn’t open up about?

That’s what it does. The show has had a weird, but really good, impact. I didn’t expect this to happen. I come to this stuff wanting to talk about things that are important to me. My mum dying, my dad has dementia, these are big chapters in my life. I thought I’m going to talk about that.

But then it had this effect, that both of those things, family sexual secrets and dementia, were two things in people’s lives – particularly people over 40 I guess – where they felt they can laugh at these things and don’t have to repress and feel ashamed that things are in their family history. The floodgates open, on Twitter and after the show. People come up to me and tell me things like it is group therapy. That’s nice. It’s amazing.

I guess it proves something about the British, that I think still remains true. That the British don’t normally talk about stuff unless they are given permission to do so. The show, and comedy, seems to give people permission to do it.

What I say in the show is you can laugh about any of this stuff. As long as it’s done with love, you can laugh about it. Once you laugh about it, it releases some of the terror.

Do you think terror is the word too?

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Yeah. I think people are often frightened of talking about stuff that’s very personal to them.

People write to me, saying that want to come and see the show, but their mum only died last year. I had a lot of issues with her, it might dredge a lot of stuff up, I’m not sure if I can take it. I always write back and say it’s up to you, but I think you’ll be alright. It’s mainly comedy, it’s a comedy show. Even though it does have an emotional impact, nobody has come away feeling broken or upset!

Two things. What is the emotional impact on you, doing the show? Secondly, the venue where you’ve been doing most of the shows are quite intimate, where you can see the faces of your audience. How many of their faces can you see, and what reactions are you getting?

I do a Q&A and turn the lights on. It normally lasts around ten minutes at the end, an encore. Extraordinary stuff happens in that. Both with people telling me about themselves, and also about my life.

A bloke stood up towards the end of the last run, and he read out a letter that he had written when he was a teenager, and it turned out he lodged with my grandparents. He read out a letter about my mum saying her prayers when she was eight. It was incredible for lots of reasons, partly because he refers to the name she was given by the Nazis.

My mum was prescribed a name by the Nazis, her Jewish newborn name. I never called her that name, but he called her that name in his letter. It was extraordinary.

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In terms of the impact on me, I find it good generally. I was in therapy for a long time, and the fact that I was means that I find talking about stuff like this very helpful. Making it into comedy makes it feel better. Certainly financially better! It’s more productive for me too than talking to someone in a room about it.

The other thing is, and I suppose this is when I’ll stop doing the show, that it’s very important to me to feel moved. It’s not really a theatrical performance, it is stand up. I don’t learn it word for word. It’s a series of stories that I tell every night and then do some jokes around it. Part of the reason why I don’t learn it is that I want to feel it as I say it. There’s a point near the end of the show where I sometimes feel very sad, and sometimes have cried. I don’t always cry or anything like that, but I always feel it. And if I stop feeling it, I think I should stop doing the show. Because then it’s not authentic anymore.

I saw you live in the early 1990s in Birmingham. It was a huge crowd, and one that was tricky to interact with I’d imagine.

This one’s very different.

That’s what I wanted to ask about. I’m guessing this one, albeit to smaller crowds, is the more satisfying?

Yes. Artistically, no question about it. I think what I did then suited who I was then. I was trying to do something – both me and Rob [Newman] were – that was breaking away from what alternative comedy had been in the 1980s. Which was dour, very political, very puritan. We were trying to do stuff that was more about our experience, so it was more poppy and more about being young in the 90s. And also not as politically correct.

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I think all that stuff was good, but what it wasn’t, for me at least… the jokes would have a style, but no narrative was going on there really. When I came back I thought, right. I don’t just want to do patter. I’m actually not going to put in anything that’s irrelevant to what I want to talk about overall.

When I did the Fame show, everything about it was about being slightly more visible than other people as a result of being on telly. The humiliation that often involves. This show, everything is about my family. Even the bit about my cat is about family life. For me, artistically that is more satisfying. But it also leads to a more emotionally satisfying place.

How would you feel if your children did this show about you?

I get that question quite a lot in the Q&A. I always say I’d be totally fine with it. I would. I would want my children at my funeral to take the piss in a way that made the audience laugh, but also was true to who I actually was. I am a big stickler for truth. I want my children to be like that. We are all flawed people, and not perfect.

I think my kids will find it quite hard to do a show like this because I am a new parent. I am someone who worries about how they’re parenting. My parents didn’t even have the word parenting. They carried on doing their mad 1970s shit! They weren’t terrible parents, they just didn’t stop their lives for us. Whereas me and most of my generation, we have. Not completely, but we continually monitor how we are and what we do, to make sure we’re not damaging our children in any way. I think that leads to them being more sane human beings. But they might not be damaged enough to do shows like mine, which may not be a bad thing!

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We run a feature on our site called Geeks Vs Loneliness, where we try and talk about sometimes stigmatized issues. We’ve done one or two bits with CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) that I know you’ve done work with too…

CALM I think has a relationship to this show. Most of my shows, but this one more. It’s that I have always been of the opinion that the idea men can’t express their emotions is an untrue thing. It happens. Some people don’t. But men are able to express their emotions. Certainly, in CALM, I met lots of people who had to find a way to express their emotions, else they’d kill themselves. We live in a time where it’s become more and more important for men to be able to express their emotions.

My question to you, then: you have an extraordinary writing talent, and comedy as an outlet. But what would you say to people who don’t have that, who haven’t found their outlet, and are internalising problems?

I’d say what CALM said when I was patron. And that’s that being silent isn’t being strong. There’s a strong myth that remains with men that silence is a way of being strong and dealing with difficulty. It’s always better to talk about things.

I am lucky. I have a basic ability to do that, and I have a platform where I can make it into an artform, which gives me an impetus to do it beyond just dealing with my own shit. Stand-up is a good thing from that point of view. Seeing people do stand-up where they are obviously propelled to some extent by their own demons but able to make something of it, comedy makes it unlawful. I think that is helpful.

Your Channel 4 documentary, The Trouble With Dad, I thought was really extraordinary. There’s a little sequence in it where we see you watching Twitter responses come in. And we get a taste of your reaction to how people are reacting to you.

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I wonder whether you’ve had quite this relationship with your audience before? On your Twitter feed the other week, for instance, there were pictures of children dressing up as characters from your books, which must be quite something. Likewise, the work you put out in your documentary is getting such personal and emotive responses.

Yeah. I like that. What I do get on Twitter, a lot of the time, is a lot of love for what I’m doing. And also, people being witty, and adding to what I’m doing. What you just said about kids, dressing up. One kid had made his own costume of a character from The Person Controller, and that is someone taking something that you’ve done and running with it, doing something else with it. Social media does give you that. Whatever the problems with it, if you do something people like, and then you see it reflected back, it’s very gratifying.

A basic, trivial question, this. But are you happy?

Yeah, I am. I went through a period of being depressed in my 30s, clinically. But apart from that, which came and went – and it’s why I went into therapy – I’m not particularly an unhappy person. I’m quite an upbeat person. I’m probably happier now.

Without wishing to sound pretentious, my basic standard of happiness is to do with being who I am. I feel uncomfortable if I’m not my self in any situation. It’s why I’m a very particular type of performer. I can’t really do characters. I don’t do voices. I think now, partly with this work, and who I am in my life, I am closer to who I should be.

If you go on stage, or on TV, then there is an impetus that comes about to be a persona. A completely different character. But when you’re someone like me, you don’t want to have a persona. I want to be exactly who I am on stage. Even though there is a construction, because I’ve written and created this show, I’m trying to get to a place where who you see on stage is who I am.

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There’s also the assumption isn’t there that you’re metaphorically bulletproof if you’re on the telly, or on the stage?

Yeah. I don’t know why there is that assumption. I saw something on Twitter the other day. Lily Allen left Twitter after being attacked over her attitude to refugees. Then people got really horrible, because they were having a go at her about having a miscarriage. Incredibly horrible. Someone talking about that to another celebrity, saying ‘well she’s got to expect stuff like that, it comes with the territory’.

I always think: what are you talking about? At what point in Lily Allen’s decision to be a singer did it come with the territory that she should accept being slagged off to the point where people would be horrible about her having a miscarriage? There’s no track that leads to that conclusion. Yet people say she’s got to accept it because she put her head about the parapet. Yet that’s not true. She’s a person, just one who happens to be very good at writing songs and singing.

Final question. I pre-warned your publicist this question was coming.

Is this about Jason Statham?

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Yeah. We end a lot of our interviews asking what people’s favourite Statham films are.

There is one! I never seen one, but there’s one that’s called something more interesting than most of them. I can’t remember! The… something?

The Transporter?

That one!

Go for that. Fine choice. David Baddiel, thank you very much.

Tickets for My Family: Not The Sitcom can be booked here.

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David Baddiel’s website is here.

Correction: changed BBC documentary to Channel 4 documentary.