Richard Gadd’s new show is his most raw and emotional yet, while Martha McBrier is moving audiences to tears with a story about young schizophrenics. As they share a stage at tonight’s Gala for Mental Health, the two comedians reflect on finding hilarity in some of life’s most difficult moments
As he politely apologises for being distracted, I picture him racing after the guard, rugby tackling him down the escalator and beating him to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat. Such is the visceral, visual legacy of Gadd’s multimedia tales of violent hard-living that it’s an image I struggle to suppress.
Despite the acclaim for his 2015 hour in particular, the bravura Waiting For Gaddot, in which he failed to show up until the very end, the self-confessed “control freak” has become unhappy with the partial version of himself he’s been sharing with audiences. “I felt like I was playing a character, Gadd, a one syllable sort of thing,” he reveals. “He was far away from me but I made the mistake of giving him my name.”
Unfortunately, this unease is part of a much deeper problem. His new show, Monkey See Monkey Do is every bit as extreme as the likes of Breaking Gadd and Cheese and Crack Whores. But in “a slightly different way” to their “smashmouth” style, which he defines as “hitting you in the face, destabilising you. Comedy should be fast-paced and keep you on the back foot,” he clarifies. “I don’t really get comedy that makes you sit and intellectualise, it should all be very emotional and raw.”
Monkey See, therefore, is “a slight breakaway” from “Gadd”. And it’s also his most personal show, opening up for the first time about the ever-present horror he’s been running from.
“I’ve hinted at a lot of my problems on stage, I think that’s obvious,” he says. “But I’ve always done it in a very heightened way which often obscured the actual meaning and truth a lot of the time … some of the very real themes I was exploring were almost too loud and in your face to ever be taken seriously.”
Self-producing and directing for the first time, the show upholds his impressive Fringe reputation for self-inflicted illness, injury and adversity, with the purchase of a number of ill-advised props and costumes, and their subsequent replacements, “a series of fiscal errors that have been quite catastrophic”, he smiles.
Without sharing spoilers about its revelatory content, the show’s title alludes to sport psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters’ Chimp Paradox model, which Gadd has boiled down to a study of his “monkey brain”, the idea that we’re basically all “apes trying to be human beings, therefore we think emotionally but have to remind ourselves to think rationally.
“I think I’m a more base, primal human being than most and therefore, I find some aspects of modern life difficult,” he confesses.
Prone to anxiety, insomnia and manic depression, which manifest as a relentless work ethic and paranoia about disappearing from view when he reaches 30, Gadd claims that his “social life is completely gone, relationships ruined. Because if I have a burst of creativity I’ll tend to stop what I’m doing, go home and sit at a computer”.
None of his struggles are eased by the adrenaline of delivering a physically demanding, much-anticipated Fringe show, with demand guaranteed to greatly exceed his 45-seater cinema venue, chosen for supportive intimacy rather than commercial return. He calmly suggests that “sometimes I genuinely feel that I’m absolutely going insane. Do you ever feel under pressure? Sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Disclosing the origin of his disturbance in the show, calling it “a big upheaval … life-debilitating”, he suggests that being creative nevertheless helps, that “there is catharsis in producing work, in producing comedy and art”. Determined to deliver “challenging” shows, acknowledging that comedy clubs “book me at their peril”, he’s sustained his daring live output alongside a burgeoning acting career. “I don’t have to constantly try and be subversive in everything I do,” he argues. “I think people would get sick of that. I’m definitely not trying to create controversy wherever I go. But there are expectations to meet.
“[Still] … I don’t just want to do what people expect. I want to stay relevant rather than developing a shtick and fading into the background. It only takes a year to become irrelevant.”
Decrying traits of the “Twitter generation”, where “any dissenting voices in the crowd are cast to the side and seen as outsiders”, he bemoans “the amount of times I’ve been referred to as an outsider, underground, cult or off-kilter”.
“Whereas I think depression, all of the things I’ve been talking about are relatively universal … My ideal is to be as mainstream as possible but just to carry edge and opinion.”
He struggles to engage with conventional stand-up, avoiding any shows that are merely extended versions of a comedian’s club circuit material.
“Because I like to be tested,” he states. “That’s probably why I’m getting called subversive. And those other comedians could be right and I’m wrong. But I think art is there for a reason, to shift how you see the world. Calling comedy art can be pretentious but I think it can be … there’s a quote from Banksy that I like: ‘art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.’”
After extensive therapy, Gadd is now sober, meditates and exercises, claiming he’s in the best physical shape of his life.
“I always thought I’d tell this story once I had an audience that was going to listen,” he adds. “But I didn’t feel like I could rush the healing process. I had to wait.
“There’s a few nerves and wondering ‘is this too soon?’ But it will hopefully be a good thing. I mean, if it goes badly that would be really hard. And funny. If I’ve been through all the stuff and laid it on the line, then it’s panned and audiences don’t come, that would be incredible!”
He glances around, smiling, as if at an empty venue. “This reminds me of my place!”
l Richard Gadd: Monkey See, Monkey Do, Banshee Labyrinth, until 28 August. Today 9:45pm. A Gala for Mental Health, Pleasance Dome, tonight, 11pm.