There was a bit right at the end of David Baddiel’s already richly-acclaimed show, My Family: Not The Sitcom, where he seemed to choke up just a little. It’s hardly surprising, given that he’s treated the audience to around a 90 minute glimpse by this stage into some of his family’s deepest secrets, with touches of how they affected him personally. In that moment, though, there’s a real sense of a man who could be telling these stories for the first time, such is the depth of his emotional connection.
Standing in front of a set made up of family photos, it’s hardly surprising, either. The show – a mix of storytelling, video clips and screenshots – is Baddiel’s response to the death of his mother primarily, but also the illness of his father. As he explains, compellingly, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, he didn’t want the nuances, the quirks, the faults of her life to be whitewashed away. That he also found himself disagreeing with the wellwishers who insisted his mother was some kind of perfect person, and felt it wasn’t a fair representation of her life.
And then he explains why.
It’d be remiss to spoil the many stories of the show here, but it would be pretty on the money to say that the truth can often be more shocking than any manufactured joke. And a lot funnier. Baddiel sets the parameters for what he wants to talk about in place early, with some material exploring his Twitter account and its varying popularity, but then he also, cleverly, gives us permission to laugh at what he’s about to discuss.
And this is his thinking behind the show: laughter is a medicine. Laughter is something that opens up subjects deemed taboo. Laughter allows us as much to chuckle at a bad gag as it does something wholly inappropriate and shocking. Baddiel has comfortably proven this by the end of My Family: Not The Sitcom.
The foundations of what Baddiel talks about are his mother’s affair, and (very, very) specific details of it, and his father’s Pick’s disease (the subject of a recent, excellent, Channel 4 documentary that Baddiel made). The weighting is more towards his mother than father, and Baddiel delivers tales of them in a natural, engaging and welcoming way.
Baddiel is fairly open about the fact that what he’s talking about in his show is not going to be comfortable for everyone, and he takes down no shortage of invisible boundaries across the course of the evening. He does leave one or two in tact, however. Ending the evening with a Q&A session with the audience, he does explain that the stories about his own family are ones he feels are fair to tell, but when it comes to the specifics of the man his mum had an affair with, he feels that’s more off-limits. I respected that a lot. As much as he gives the impression that he’s been open about everything, he’s not throwing people under the proverbial bus here. There’s no cruelty. If anything, a very strange flavour of compassion, even when at times it doesn’t feel particularly deserved.
Mind you, the show was nearly yanked from under Baddiel’s feet at the end when, as part of the aforementioned Q&A, a man suffering with dementia came out with a killer line that generated a huge, warm laugh from the crowd.
But then I think that’s the ultimately testament to what David Baddiel has done here. He’s used his position, his talent and his show to help make it acceptable to laugh, no matter how difficult things are. It’s not just the material, either, it’s how he presents it. The ease with which he tells the stories, and his stage presence, is of real credit. Warmth radiates, from both him to the audience and the audience back at him, as he ambles around the stage with a mug of something, holding the crowd rapt.
A confession. I last saw David Baddiel live, when he and Rob Newman were touring their History Today show back in Birmingham at the start of the 90s. The gig, a collection of sketches, monologues and observations, never fully clicked for me. I can’t remember much of it, save for being the nerd in a crowd of people there to see the rock star comedians of their era.
But that gig did help me get into seeing a lot more stand up comedy, and My Family: Not The Sitcom is one of the best shows I’ve seen. Baddiel himself is seemingly a lot more at ease, and more natural a performer. The show that he’s put together made me laugh heavily. And then he moved me to bits at the end, in a way I’ve not seen comedy shows do before. Not only is what Baddiel is doing in bringing down taboos importance, he’s managed to do so using an exceptional piece of comedy work. I dearly hope he tours the show when he completes his London run, because this is something that deserves a very, very big audience.
My Family: Not The Sitcom is at the Playhouse Theatre in London until June 3rd.