David Baddiel: ‘It was weird being depressed and having to go on TV’

On the comedian’s mind are anti-Semitism and how it is not really considered racism, his experience of fame as ‘a constant puncturing of the moment’, and doing stand-up again


‘Fame is a silly thing that makes your life absurd,” says David Baddiel, once a quarter of The Mary Whitehouse Experience , formerly half of Baddiel and Skinner and now 100 per cent of David Baddiel. Fame: Not the Musical , Baddiel’s first stand-up tour in 15 years, explores the everyday experience of being famous.

“The way fame is talked about in our culture is in two very grand ways,” he says. It’s either this glittering bauble that Simon Cowell says we all desperately covet or it’s an operatic narrative, the tragic and awful thing that Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse killed themselves over. My sense of fame is a third way – it’s being on a Ryanair flight and trying to save a priority seat I haven’t paid for for my children and being recognised by a bloke who proceeds to tell the whole flight. Or being in an Aldi car park being offered career advice. Or Andrew Lloyd Webber mistaking me for Ben Elton. ”

He tells a story about visiting Auschwitz and standing next to a stranger who, he assumed, was struck dumb with emotion. Then the man spoke. “He asked me when Fantasy Football was coming back.”

For David Baddiel, fame involves a “constant puncturing of the moment. At a deeper level, there’s this dislocation of identity that happens; literally, when people mistake me for Ben Elton.”

He quotes John Updike’s definition of fame as “the mask that eats the face. My mask, at its worst, is a cross between a shouty obnoxious lad and a racist stereotype of a smug arrogant Jew.”

He doesn’t seem obnoxious, shouty, smug or arrogant. He’s thoughtful. He takes time to think about his answers, and if he feels he’s getting boring, he ends his sentences with “blah, blah, blah”. At one point, he worries he’s getting “too complicated”, but adds: “I’m hoping that because you’re Irish, this stuff will get in. I always think of Ireland as a place for complex ideas and prose. I like Irishness. I like Irish culture and Irish literature. I’m halfway through this interview thinking that I’m essentially being interviewed by James Joyce and that’s why I can talk in this way.” (I’m okay with this comparison.)

In the 1990s, David Baddiel was one of the most famous comedians in Britain, as one half of the arena-playing comedy team Newman and Baddiel, and then as co-host of Fantasy Football with his then flatmate Frank Skinner. The latter programme turned him into an unwilling icon of lad culture. “Fame doesn’t allow for complexity, especially complexity of character,” he says. “We’re not designed to know hundreds of people – we’re designed to know four people in our village. So the only way we can know hundreds of people is by reducing them to a stamp of their identity.”

He felt caricatured from the start. “When I started at the Comedy Store in 1986, all stand-up comedy was political. Everyone was doing comedy about Thatcher and the miners, and I wanted to do something different, so I talked about football, about my own life, about porn, and that was taken as being political. When me and Rob Newman had our first ever magazine cover in a magazine called City Limits , it said ‘Here come the New Lads’.”

Minor things, he says, were imbued with unintended significance. “On the first day of Fantasy Football , I said I was thirsty and someone handed me a bottle of lager instead of water. Then every time we were written about they talked about us sitting on telly drinking lager as though it was a thought-out statement of laddism.”

Around this time, the press were very hard on him. “Anyone who says bad reviews don’t hurt is lying,” he says. And misrepresentation still rankles. “Alexei Sayle, who’s a friend of mine, was recently quoted slagging off comedy for not having followed his ‘class war’ roots, and, at one point, he says: ‘Oh yeah, and when Frank and David came along with their misogynistic material, that was a huge step backwards.’ I wrote to him and said, ‘please show me where me and Frank were misogynistic’ and he wrote back and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that’.”

Depression and a live show
In his late thirties he suffered from depression, but this was more to do with “normal stuff” – the death of friends, relationships breaking down – than fame. “But it was very weird feeling depressed and having to go on TV and make people laugh,” he says. “That was a weird disjunction. We were doing Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned live with no script. And that is an incredibly stressful thing to put yourself under when you’re not entirely happy about life. It’s damaging. And that is one reason I stopped doing it. I thought, ‘I’m causing myself psychic trauma here’.”

He retreated from the limelight. He had a lot of television offers in the wake of Unplanned , including a captaincy on Mock the Week – “but I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve been on telly every year since 1990. It’s 2006. I could do with taking some time off’.”

So he concentrated on writing. He wrote a comedy film, The Infidel , which focused on Jewish and Arabic identity, and the excellent The Secret Purpose (one of four novels he has written), based on the experience of his family as German refugees in the 1940s. “My mother was born in Nazi Germany and brought to London as a baby,” he says. “They lost everything. They were rich in Germany but had no money in Cambridge, where they ended up living in one room for years. My grandfather was interned on the Isle of Man with every other Jewish German refugee in Britain in the 1940s.”

He says that it’s strange being “one of four famous Jews in Britain. If you’re a Jew in the UK talking about Jewishness, it’s seen as very niche and it’s not absorbed into the national conversation in the way that it would be if you were a black or Asian comedian.”

In 2011 he and his brother made a film with the Kick Racism Out of Football organisation called The Y-Word about anti-Semitism in football, specifically the use of the nickname “Yids” for Spurs. “It was actually quite difficult to get Kick Racism Out of Football to agree to it, until I said, ‘You know that Chelsea fans use the word ‘yid’ and refer to Auschwitz, and they make noises that are supposed to [sound like] gas when playing Spurs?’ Anti-Semitism isn’t really thought of as racism. People genuinely don’t think of Jews as deserving of the same protections as other ethnic minorities.”

He recalls “a very famous friend” telling him that racism against Jews wasn’t as bad “because Jews are rich”.

Recently, after an appearance on Newsnight , he got into a Twitter row with David Icke, who believes that the world is run by secret lizards. “Somehow or other, everyone he identifies as a lizard happens to be Jewish,” observes Baddiel. Other comedians came to his defence “with jokes about me being a lizard”. He laughs. He likes Twitter. He likes how it “democratises celebrity”. He doesn’t think fame happens in quite the same way any more. “Things feel more fractured now,” he says. He thinks this is a good thing.

I tell him that all of his work over the years seems to be about identity, and that if people think it has changed, that is only because now it is clearly about complex identities. There’s a pause. “I am touched by the fact that’s what you think,” he says. “One of the things about being constantly unhappy about misrepresentation is, if someone says something about you that’s right it’s almost moving. The truth is always complex. Public culture has always tried to deny that. It has always tried to say: no, here are the good people and here are the bad people, and people like to hate and they like to love, so they never think, ‘actually, that person has probably got some good things and some bad things about them’.”

He says that he is, for the first time, happy with his public image. “That’s partly through sheer time, but also because I’m not as famous as I used to be. The more famous you are, the less the version of you that’s out there is true. I am ridiculously obsessed with authenticity. And that’s to some extent what the show is about – how does someone who is obsessed with authenticity, who is obsessed with being himself, remain himself with all these other versions of himself out there?”

There may soon be many versions of David Baddiel again. He’s working on a musical version of The Infidel , a Channel 4 sitcom, a BBC radio panel show, two movie scripts and a children’s book. “It’s all a bit mental. About three years ago, I started to get a huge sense of the dying of the light, of mortality creeping up on me, and I started thinking, ‘God I’ve got all these ideas and I might be dead tomorrow’.”

So he’s back out on the road. “People who come to the show often write and say. ‘I’ve got a whole new idea of who you are.’ I generally take that to be a positive,” he says. “Of course, they might mean, ‘I used to love you and now you’re s**t’.”

David Baddiel is at Vicar Street , Dublin, on Thursday

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