Two years ago, Richard Gadd was playing Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He still considers himself a better dramatic actor than a comedic one. However, his Edinburgh Fringe shows, the raw, visceral and crazed multimedia “psychosexual trauma narratives” of Cheese and Crack Whores and Breaking Gadd have been such cult hits that the 25-year-old from the “horribly” named Wormit in Fife accepts that “comedy’s taken over”.
When he appeared in BBC Scotland’s spoof cop show Scot Squad recently, Gadd’s preachy anti-capitalist protester was named Tybalt, a sly nod to his Shakespearean background “and the slight pretentiousness I have”. Yet while his semi-autobiographical shows are unquestionably tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, they don’t signify nothing.
Performed in a cramped, 30-seater Free Festival venue without a door, so that he had to make his own and bring it every night, 2013’s “ramshackle” but “rock ‘n’ roll” Cheese and Crack Whores was conceived in abject desperation. The self-flagellating hour, recounting his girlfriend leaving him, his manic efforts to win her back and his descent into violent, sexual depravity and mental breakdown, offered a distorted mirror on Gadd actually “going through a break-up that was killing me, having no money and my agent telling me I had to do Edinburgh when I didn’t want to. Truth is the best kind of art.”
Featuring a semi-supportive sidekick and filmed inserts with a supposed therapist, the show was a critical success, transferring to London’s Soho Theatre and winning Gadd a development deal to adapt it with Channel 4. However, his “neurotic” attention to detail, “obsessing over every word and semi-colon” in creating the television treatment, meant that when it came to the follow-up, Breaking Gadd, which he reprises at the Glasgow Comedy Festival, he had only “the most stressful six weeks of my life” in which to write it.
That’s no small claim either. Although more coherent and fictional than its predecessor – “I don’t have an inbred uncle and haven’t been pheasant shooting with my grandad” – he was still re-writing Breaking Gadd during the Fringe’s first week and twice visited hospital. With his sidekick, Peter Henderson, slapping him every night, his jaw started clicking and eventually locked. A doctor instructed him to cut the scene. “But I just got him to slap me on the other side of my face instead.”
More disturbingly, at one of the earliest shows in the run he developed 18 mouth ulcers after submitting to a dare from a stag-do.
“They were being obnoxious and I couldn’t cope” he explains. “I was miming with this piece of soap and they just started chanting: ‘Eat it! Eat it!’
“It burned acidic hot the second I put it in there, it was like my mouth was on fire. I had to stop to get a glass of water because my throat was closing and when I spat into a napkin, I realised my gums were bleeding. It was brutal.”
Still, there could have been an even more degrading spectacle. “I’d sensed that a lot of people dug Cheese and Crack Whores because I went into a dark psychological place, which a lot of people could relate to, and it was quite honest,” he says. “People seemed to appreciate me airing my dirty laundry. So I thought I’d go further.”
A scene in which he danced naked to music from Les Misérables was ultimately shelved in previews though because “the audience left shocked.”
“I realised there wasn’t enough justification in the plot for it to happen, that you should never go for shock if it’s going to undermine the artistic integrity. I thought people would go away saying ‘oh, that was an interesting show, I liked how he explored his childhood’. But they were more likely to remember a mediocre penis flopping up and down.”
Supporting Kevin Bridges recently, Gadd has a twice-a-day meditation regime to cope with performance anxiety. He’s seen therapists but chides himself as the “cliché of the tortured comedian type who doesn’t want to be doing it but can’t walk away.
“I don’t want to sit at a computer and spend the rest of my life writing. But the second I’ve got a free weekend, that’s what I do,” he says.
Currently writing the concluding part of his “Triangle of Happiness” trilogy, he’s feeling less pressured. “A lot of the time I think this is my last Edinburgh, I’ve got to find a better outlet for all this.” But “nothing in my life has helped me get through tough times like these shows”. He laughs and paraphrases fellow comic Matt Highton – “I had to do a show like this because frankly, therapy’s too expensive” – before citing Highton and Kim Noble as comics who’ve challenged the idea that mental health isn’t a fertile, accessible subject for humour.
“To be honest, I’m sick of people constantly saying I’m niche,” he says. “I’m Marmite because it’s quite out there and different. But I’m also increasingly surprised by the number of people who come up afterwards and tell me they were moved. I’ve had people crying.
“A lot of comedians suffer with inadequacy, upheaval, the black dog. And I’m certainly one of them. But it’s not just me … I try and shed light on some of the battles I’ve had, try to bring that to the stage. That’s not niche humour, that’s human.”
After taking up comedy as a “hobby” while studying English and theatre at Glasgow University, it was the enthusiasm of production company Brown Eyed Boy to work with him after he graduated from Oxford School of Drama that persuaded Gadd to pursue it. As they wait to hear if his Channel 4 show has been picked up, he’s made a series of online shorts for BBC Worldwide with Glasgow’s Comedy Unit.
Airing later this year, Raymond Monks is about a smart, working-class Scot at Oxford University, who lands in a posh crowd and “gets carried away with the Bullingdon Club nature of it all”. After his fancy dress outfit is misinterpreted and the footage ends up on the internet, Monks is expelled and finds himself teaching in a tough Glasgow college, where his online infamy follows him. It is, Gadd says, the “furthest thing” he’s done from his own life. “I was in Oxford a year and couldn’t tell you where the Bullingdon Club is.”
Meanwhile, he’s developing a comedy-horror for the BBC with Spooks producer Stephen Garrett. He still shrinks from calling himself a “comedian”, aspiring to a career like that of Northern Irish stand-up Michael Smiley, moving seamlessly between comedy and drama.
“You’ve got to have that belief, otherwise it’s never going to happen” he reflects. “The dream would be to have a sitcom on Channel 4 and do Hamlet with the RSC.”
• Richard Gadd: Breaking Gadd, Blackfriars Basement, Glasgow, 27 March
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