Interview: David Baddiel on his new Fringe show

The sneery, stubbly guy who made comedy the new rock’n’roll isn’t the real David Baddiel – who will bare all to the mic

David Baddiel (left) and Frank Skinner. Picture: PA
David Baddiel (left) and Frank Skinner. Picture: PA
David Baddiel (left) and Frank Skinner. Picture: PA

‘One reason I stopped,” says David Baddiel of the caesura in his stand-up career, “was that I couldn’t cope with the fact that there was another version of me out there that wasn’t me.”

He is wont to quote from Erica Jong: “Fame means millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are” (somehow choosing Jong over Daniel Radcliffe who has said: “That’s what fame does to you – you acquire another self”). And it takes less than 15 minutes’ tea drinking and spirited discussion of hearing the music in a line of comedy writing, of the lack of respect for comedy across all media, and of the pros and cons of ripping metaphorical Elastoplast off even the hairiest of allegorical legs, to confirm that the slightly smug, sneery, stubbly bloke off the telly is indeed not the real Baddiel.

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Except for the stubble. And that bothered him enough to make him move away from big stages and small screens and try to lose his irritating doppelganger. Also he had children, and didn’t want to be “in Loughborough and Sheffield when they were growing up”, and he had developed a desire to write “other things” (mainly, at that point, a film).

“Most people who know me well say I am almost autistically myself,” he continues. “I like to never change. I am a terrible actor – I can’t even do any accents. I am a very limited performer because I can only do one thing – be me.”

“Me” started his comedy career in school – idolising Derek and Clive and adoring the Pythons – where he took the yearly, appallingly dull 6S Revue and turned it into an excoriating attack on certain much-loathed teachers. “It stormed it. Absolutely stormed it. And I thought ‘this is brilliant’. I was cool, for the first time ever, in school.” That year the 6S Revue ended forever, and the comedy career of Baddiel began. He had, he says, no idea of how to be a stand-up. But he knew what the Pythons had done.

“They went to Cambridge… and I was clever… so I could do that.” He did. And one double first and a few years in the Footlights later… “I came out in 1986 – at the absolute height of Ben Elton and that lot. You’d phone up the Comedy Store – which I did as soon as I came out – and they’d say ‘have you done any gigs before?’ and very proudly I would say ‘I was vice-president of the Cambridge Footlights’ and they’d put the phone down.”

Baddiel spent five years on the comedy/cabaret circuit, being his own kind of non-political comic (“I just talked about stuff that was relevant to me – like football and pornography”), writing (latterly with Rob Newman) and doing “bits and bobs of radio” before The Mary Whitehouse Experience started. It made the move from radio to television fairly quickly and it was then that everything suddenly changed.

“I didn’t realise the difference until me and Rob had a gig at a place called The Venue. A 900-seater. And I thought, ‘we’re never going to sell out’ and when we got there the queue was round the block and I thought ‘oh, I see… we’re on the telly’.” And he loved it. It meant a lot more money. It meant he had women interested in him. Although, “I hardly ever took advantage of that and I regret it deeply now,” he says. I feel a revelation approaching. “You are a nice boy,” I say, in accusatory tones. He was with one girlfriend from the age of 16 to 27. When fame and an adoration of available women hit, he simply failed to turn into a womanising wastrel.

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“After five or six one-night stands I’d just start going out with someone. That is what I was used to.” He shrugs. “I am a nice boy,” he confesses. “And that is the last thing you want to be if you want to shag a lot of women.” He sips his tea and says: “Billy Connolly once said to me – it was probably a private moment, but f*** it – that the first time when he was with Pamela and he did a gig and there was an opportunity to sleep with someone and he couldn’t, it was quite a shock to him because he thought ‘That’s my treat, that’s what I do’. And if you can’t do that, it is a very good reason not to do stand-up.”

Although psychologically ill-equipped to capitalise on his newfound fame sexually, there were other, unexpected benefits. Baddiel is the only comic I have ever heard honestly address the artistic advantages of being “off the telly”.

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He had, he says, come up through some rough gigs. His first performance at the Comedy Store was at 3am. “It was like performing to dead people.” The club circuit – and maybe especially the Store itself – was a fairly unforgiving place. “You had to know where your laughs were,” says Baddiel, “and you had to beat them out. And I got good at that. But I didn’t really do anything experimental because I was too frightened. Then when people came to see me I was able to think, ‘Ah, they’ll let me off. If I do something and it doesn’t quite work I can actually get away with it because I’m him off the telly.’ They won’t let you away with ten shit jokes, but they’ll let you away with five and so you can start experimenting a bit.”

The biggest experiment from those days, I suggest sharply, changed the Dr Jekyll of stand up into the Mr Hyde that was “the new rock’n’roll”. I charge him that the quasi-institutionally commercial state of comedy today, with its herds of boy-band performers whose hair is frequently more interesting than their sets, is umbilically linked to that night in 1993 when Baddiel and Newman played Wembley. He refutes the accusation, suggesting that economic and sociological factors have more to do with the new rock’n’roll having become the new Corporate Banking. “We were pretty maverick compared to some of these guys now,” he says. “It was nuts. Crazy. I was falling apart, Rob was off his head.” And we are back to discussing the way fame can distort a life – the meat of much of his current show. Of the road through the 1980s to Wembley, Baddiel has fond memories “in an old lag sort of a way”. He was playing Rob Newman’s Ali Club when a bloke rocked up and asked to do five minutes. “Never done a gig before, didn’t have a booking. His first gag was ‘my dad served in Vietnam – he was a waiter’. Eddie Izzard,” says Baddiel. “I am glad to have been on bills with people like Ian Saville, Steve Murray and Kevin McAleer – performers who were really eccentric and unusual – and I think it is true to say that they don’t exist much any more.”

Why, I wonder, gazing round the immaculate meeting room deep in the bowels of the Avalon Empire HQ, would anyone want to become one of today’s Stepford Comics?

“Personally, I think it is a bit c***y to go on about how terrible comedy is now,” says Baddiel. He is enjoying being back. Preview gigs have gone well and he feels that what he is doing now and how he is doing it is different enough from what he did before to make the return worthwhile. Having said this, he does harbour a yearning to revisit Baddiel And Skinner Unplanned – “because a) no work – most importantly – no writing; b) it’s a laugh c) when it was working (which was not always) it was like a particular alchemy of being funny with your mate, with an audience and it is totally in the moment.”

Despite the fact that an hour on the subject of fame might not seem like something that will speak directly to the hearts of hoi polloi everywhere, he feels that being “almost autistically me” allows him a more objective, “everyman” view of the world of fame and its effects. So if you want to know how it might feel were Andrew Lloyd Webber to mistake you for Ben Elton, go and see his show.

• David Baddiel: Fame: Not The Musical, Assembly George Square, Wednesday until 11 August