David Baddiel has just begun a run at the Playhouse Theatre on London's Embankment with his show My Family: Not The Sitcom, a storytelling stand-up show dedicated to his parents, which this year was nominated for a prestigious theatrical Olivier Award. We caught up with the 'Three Lions' man to talk comedy, the Fringe, and his relationship with former comedy partner Rob Newman.
Your show My Family: Not The Sitcom was nominated for a ‘family and entertainment’ Olivier Award this year – how do you classify the show?
David Baddiel: “It’s just a stand-up show but it seems to have been considered a theatre show. A lot of people have said to me: ‘I’ve seen your play’ and I’m left thinking: ‘Why do they think it’s a play? Is it just because it’s in a theatre and not in a comedy club?’ I suppose also because it tells one story: mine is a story of my parents, but even so, lots of stand-ups now do shows on single themes and all the rest of it.
How do you feel about your Olivier nomination?
“I’m very pleased to be nominated. To some extent the crowbarring of it into the ‘entertainment and family’ category highlights the fact that they don’t have a stand-up category. And they should. It’s ridiculous, for example, that Dawn French’s show hasn’t been nominated for anything like that. It’s called 1 Million Minutes, and it’s a great show. It’s not 100% different from mine – it takes a very different attitude to her parents but it’s also really funny.
“The Comedy Awards, which don’t even exist anymore, never really did much about live comedy. There are the Chortle Awards, which I was nominated for, but also didn’t win – but the Chortle Awards aren’t a very prestigious award. It’s part and parcel of the strange position comedy holds in our culture. Comedy is incredibly important – economically it’s a form of live theatre, which actually does incredibly well – but it still doesn’t really receive the same kind of cultural plaudits as theatre. That’s because comedy has always had this problem in a way, in that it doesn’t take itself seriously. And in a way the ‘seriousness’ with which this show is invested is a reason why this show has been garlanded by critics.”
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How do you think comedy has changed since you came up in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
“Well, I probably don’t go to enough comedy clubs to completely make that judgement… but what I get a sense of is something that is good and bad. Comedy now is more of a straightforward career path for people who might want to do that – it especially seems to be young men – like the not-so-handsome one in a boyband, with a slight boyband haircut and a t-shirt, in their ‘20s. They’ll be doing stand-up now, the sort of young man who probably would have been in a band when I was first starting. That is a shift where if you want to be a bit rock’n’roll in that way, then you don’t just have to do music. I see that as good – but it’s also not so good, because there’s a slight homogeneity of those people. There seems to be a lot of them that are quite similar and interchangeable…
“I happen to be a big fan of Michael McIntyre, who’s not exactly like the people I’m talking about. He gets a lot of stick but he’s a brilliant observational comic. If he had an American accent we’d think he was Seinfeld. It’s a very interesting thing about Jerry Seinfeld – if you look at his material, it’s really good observational generic material, about well-to-do, middle-class stuff. It talks about laundry and whatnot. He was the first person I heard who talked about what happened to socks in the laundry. That’s totally a Michael McIntyre-style routine, because we’re obsessed with class here, Michael gets classified as sort of ‘bland’ or whatever. But he’s not, he’s doing stuff about that and he does it really well.
“The other thing that is really different since I appeared is that lots of people do arena gigs now. That is a big money-spinner and remains a big money-spinner. It’s because any other show in an arena, especially a rock show, is expensive, whereas putting on a comedy show is not. Especially if it’s just a bloke or a woman with a microphone. But I think however good the comedian, comedy works better in a room of about 1,200 people – and I say this as someone who did the first ever arena gig in Britain. Comedy is a bit about speaking to people on an individual basis, and that works on the TV, and it works in a room of about 1,200 people. I personally think that once you get to 12,000 you’re not quite doing that anymore.
You mentioned homogeneity – do you think more boring people are doing comedy than before?
“No – boring is unfair. I just think it’s a more accessible, more mainstream choice. I didn’t really know many people who were in comedy in the late ’80s, which is really when I started, from 1986 onwards in clubs, who really thought: “Oh well, I could be this, this and this – but I’ll try being a stand-up comedian.” Now, people are thinking they can see more of a career path – there’s panel shows that you can do, and the internet. Russell Kane was actually talking to me about how he just goes into his shed and does a 10-minute rant about something, puts it on YouTube and he’s now getting paid by YouTube to do that, because it gets lots of hits, and it sells tickets. That resource was not available then, but again it multiplies the amount of people who can see comedy as a way of doing stuff.”
What do you think of Edinburgh Fringe’s place now in making or breaking comedy careers – how has it changed, and was it important to you when you started out?
“It was important to me a lot when I was first starting – not so much when I was in Newman and Baddiel. But I was doing it a lot in the ‘80s, and it felt important.
“And when I came back to doing stand-up – because I stopped doing it for quite a long time – I did a show in 2013, Fame: Not The Musical in Edinburgh for a month. That was really great and it’s probably the best way to get back into doing stand-up, because it means you get to do it every day. You’re with a whole bunch of other comedians and it feels like the right space to get back into stand-up.
“I think the only thing I can see as a problem now, to talk about the absolute fucking nitty gritty of it, is that before you’re any type of name it’s now harder to make money. So when I was doing The Comedy Store for example, I was doing alright. I was getting £300 a weekend or whatever for doing that. Whereas now if you’re just starting, you won’t get to play The Comedy Store very quickly – that takes a long time to get there, as there’s so many comedians. And I think people have to pay to get a spot in lots of places. And even then, if you perform for free, especially at the Fringe, people will go around at the end putting money into a bucket. I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing but I think that makes it harder for people.”
Do you have another one of your ‘Not The…’ titles in you, do you think?
“That’s a very good question. I don’t know what it’ll be. I’ve become more interested in politics than I have in the past…
“When I started doing comedy, when me and Rob and to Reeves and Mortimer were regularly on the NME cover in the ’90s. The reason we came through is sort of because we were not very political. Lots of comedy in the ‘80s had absolutely been branded as political because of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle. They were seen as typifying what comedy’s about – alternative comedy. And then, because we wanted to distinguish ourselves a bit from most people, we spoke more about pop music, football and just put personal stuff into it. It wasn’t exactly right-wing but it certainly was a lot less ‘miner-strike’ political than their stuff.
“I don’t think my shows have ever been typically political and this show is not at all; it’s very much about personal stuff. But on Twitter I’ve noticed that I’m a lot more political, because you want to react to something a lot more quickly. And also because politics has gone mental. That’s probably one of the reasons I didn’t want to talk about it, because when it was John Major it was so bloody boring. But now it’s just a livewire volcano of mentalness. And as a result I have the notion sometimes that I might do a political show. But with ‘Not The…’, the only thing I could call it is Politics: Not The Ricky Gervais Show.
You were on the cover of NME a few times in the ‘90s. What do you remember about that period?
“Yeah, I was on the cover with Rob Newman and once with Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds, and Teddy Sheringham in 1996. So I think I’ve probably been on it more than any other comedian…
“I remember the whole rock’n’roll thing. We went on tour followed by Andrew Collins and Stewart Maconie, who were then at NME. And I hadn’t really seen big pieces in NME about comedians and touring before, and that was great, as I had grown up by having my cultural parameters somewhat defined by NME. I can still remember when the Sex Pistols were on the front cover – that felt like year 0. It felt like a real proper cultural revolution.
“In terms of the actual rock’n’rollness of Newman and Baddiel, I think it existed in two ways. We were talking about The Charlatans and The Cure and we were talking about young people’s culture in our comedy. And it was our culture, because we were only in our twenties. And also, at our gigs it felt to us more like the atmosphere of what you’d get at a pop or rock gig than you would get in a theatre – which is what I think most comedy clubs still felt like.”
Do you feel a lot of nostalgia for those days?
“Yeah, I do and I don’t to tell you the truth. It was brilliant – it was really brilliant – being on stage. I’ve done the cabaret circuit before and it was great just to go out and see rooms that were packed with people just to see you. The joy that went with that, and the positivity of it. Opposed to doing, like, midnight at The Comedy Store, which could be a very traumatic experience.
“Some of the comedy was fantastic. Sometimes it was very young and the comedy wasn’t particularly refined or whatever, and we were never afraid of being schoolboyish – especially me – and knobby in what we do.
“What became difficult in the end was my relationship with Rob, and that bit is the unhappy bit about it. My relationship with Rob completely went toxic, especially during our second tour, and that was a pity because he was brilliant. Our comic relationship was very good but I was being made unhappy by what happened. But I certainly felt we couldn’t carry on like this because it was making me depressed. We’d become the Sam and Dave of comedy and if you know Sam and Dave, the soul stars, they apparently used to go to a stage when they were playing together via a partition, so that they didn’t meet each other on their way to the stage. It was getting a bit like that – and that was no good.”
Has it really never recovered?
“Not really, no. I mean I see him and bump into him but no we’re not mates.
Do you think it’d help if he came to see My Family: Not The Sitcom?
Last time I saw him I said come to the show and he said he might sneak in, so I don’t know what that means. I would give him a free ticket.
David Baddiel’s My Family: Not The Sitcom runs until Saturday June 3 at The Playhouse Theatre in London.