David Baddiel - ‘I’m very unreligious, but it doesn’t stop me being Jewish’

David Baddiel.

David Baddiel.

David Baddiel has been one of the major names in British comedy over the past near quarter of a century, even if, for most of that time he has been a writer rather than a stand-up, but his new show Fame, Not The Musical, is finally bring him face-to-face with audiences again.

Baddiel first came to prominence in the early 1990s as part of The Mary Whitehouse Experience, before enjoying a comedy partnership with Frank Skinner, and co-writing possibly the most famous football song of all time - ‘Three Lions’ - for Euro 96.

During that time Baddiel was also a successful stand-up, but towards the end of the decade he took a step back from this aspect of performance to concentrate on writing for various media. He has since published four novels; Time For Bed (1996 ), Whatever Love Means (2002 ), The Secret Purposes (2006 ), and The Death of Eli Gold (2011 ); scripted the film The Infidel (2010 ) starring Omid Djalili, made documentaries for TV, and has contributed articles to The Guardian. It seemed the Londoner’s stand-up days were over, then came an invitation to partake in a public discussion.

“I got asked to take part in a talk with other writers,” David tells me during our Wednesday morning interview. “I was asked to do it on ‘fame’ and to talk about the daily reality of being recognised on the bus or in a restaurant, or being mistaken for Ben Elton, and the stupid things that happen.

“We hear a lot about celebrity culture and the tragedy of Lady Di or Janis Joplin, but we never hear about the ‘somewhat well known bloke’ trying to live an ordinary life. I was looking at the idea of personality. There is a personality that you project out there, but how other people perceive it is different, and what they project back as being you is not you at all, and I’m interested in that.”

Despite the format and atmosphere of the event being “an intellectual one”, Baddiel found his talk “got lots and lots of laughs”. He admits: “I didn’t deliberately intend it to be funny. At the end I thought, ‘Maybe this is the way of getting back into stand-up’, and also doing a show based around one theme.”

This epiphany led to the creation of Baddiel’s new stand-up show - Fame, Not The Musical - his first in almost 15 years. “This isn’t ‘my big star story’,” he says of the show. “Celebrity is the stupidest, most ridiculous, thing. I’m just an ordinary person who has been on the telly and who happens to be more visible than other people over the last 25 years, and that’s what I explore in the show.”

Fame, Not The Musical has enjoyed critical acclaim and runs in Edinburgh, London, and Dublin, and is now coming to Galway as part of this month’s Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway. So how does it feel to be back doing stand-up?

“Part of me is going back to being nervous, really nervous, and asking ‘Can I do it anymore?’” Baddiel says. “The first shows were all over the place, but once that settled down I found I could still do it, and that it was a new way of doing stand-up. When I started, people didn’t do shows based around a theme. You would talk about something funny and then something else that was funny and just do that for an hour. Over the years that has changed, we’ve seen Mark Thomas do a show about how his father loved operas. People today want their comedy to be more about something.”

Baddiel has played Belfast numerous times over the years, but “not much in southern Ireland”, and so is looking forward to his upcoming Galway show. Although when promoting Fame, Not The Musical in Dublin, he had a somewhat hair raising experience.

“To plug the gig in Vicar Street I did the Saturday Night Show. It was terrible. It was the worst experience,” Baddiel laments. “The audience on the Saturday Night Show didn’t know who I was. So there I am, talking about fame, and nobody knows who I am! The jokes fell flat.

“Afterwards I got messages from Irish people apologising and saying ‘We’re sorry you had to be on that show. Please come back.’ I told the audience in Dublin about my experiences and said  the Saturday Night Show was awful. I got a round of applause.”

A Jewish atheist

Baddiel has described himself as “a Jewish atheist”. For those of us from Christian backgrounds it sounds completely contradictory, how can you be a member of a faith but not believe?

“Very easily,” Baddiel replies. “No Jew has any problem with that, but Richard Dawkins, who I know, can’t understand it at all. In my show, towards the end, a very Orthodox Rabbi comes on and sings this song, ‘I don’t believe in God...like most Jews’. For me, it’s not really about God, it’s about a way of being and an attitude to pessimism, music, anti-Semitism, a feeling of persecution, all that is part of who I am. If the Gestapo came back I would still be Jewish and for that I would be arrested and taken away. It doesn’t matter how atheist you are, people will still see you as a Jew, so it’s about culture and persecution. I may disbelieve in God but that doesn’t stop me from being Jewish.”

Although Baddiel’s primary sense of identity is as an Englishman and “a bloke from London”, being Jewish is nonetheless “pretty important”.

“I’m very unreligious, but my children are Jewish-Catholic-atheist,” he says. “We go to church on Christmas and Easter and celebrate Hanukkah, but my children know I don’t believe. My parents are still alive and we celebrate Jewish festivals with them.”

He also feels that being Jewish has played an important role in steering him towards comedy.

“One of the things about being Jewish is that you feel different from the majority culture,” he says. “You are part of it, but you are also a bit outside it, and I think that is why there are a lot of Jewish comedians, they are outsiders looking in, and I think you need that sense for comedy.”

It may also account for the fact that he is such a prolific writer.

“I have a lot of ideas and I have this slightly Jewish thing that when I have an idea I find I become anxious about not doing anything with it,” he says. “I write all the time and I write quite fast. The Daily Telegraph asked me to give the best locations where to write, and I said Stamford Bridge and the tube. I write at half-time and I write a lot on public transport.”

Football fan and writer

Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC, of which Baddiel is a passionate supporter. Mourinho’s team has made a strong start to the season, but can they take the title this year?

“I think so, but I don’t want to think that and jinx it!” Baddiel says. “We have Costa and Fabregas and there were a lot of good signings. Costa needs to be kept fit and Fabregas is an old warhorse at this stage. I wouldn’t predict a win, but we are playing very, very, well.”

Staying with football, in July, Germany reached its eight World Cup final and won its fourth World Cup title (also becoming the first European team to win in the Americas ), leading German fans to chant the memorable chorus from Baddiel’s ‘Three Lions’ song: “Football’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming...” How does he feel about this quintessentially English football/pop song being taken over by the ‘auld enemy’?

“I’m pleased about it, although it’s a little bit complicated as it’s an England song,” he says. “It was a reaction to when they won Euro 96 here. A lot of German fans started singing it and in a very German way they said ‘Ve’ve von the cup and now ve’ll take ze song.’ It didn’t occur to them it was about England. I’m glad it’s still sung. There’s not much call for it these days with England not doing very well and it probably won’t be sung only for the Germans, so I don’t went them to stop singing it.”

Among the works that may have been partially written at Stamford Bridge is Baddiel’s new children’s book, The Parent Agency, which is published today.

“The idea came from my son,” he says. “He asked me, when he was reading the Harry Potter books, ‘Why does Harry stay with the Dursleys? Why doesn’t he run away and find better parents?’ So the story is about a kid who is a bit unhappy with his parents. They’re not bad people, they’re just boring and no fun and strict, so he goes to The Parent Agency and enters into a world where he can chose the parents he wants.”

David Baddiel will perform Fame, Not The Musical in the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday October 23 at 7pm. For tickets see www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com

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