When I was a younger man, I was a big fan of The Mary Whitehouse Experience (on television; much to my chagrin, I never knew that comedy existed on the radio in my youth, so I never heard the radio version that ran before it in 1989–1990 and which has never been released commercially), a comedy revue starring and written by David Baddiel, Robert Newman, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis. I was at university at the time, and seeing four university-educated men of roughly the same age (all four went to Cambridge university and all but Newman were in Footlights; Punt and Dennis had met at Cambridge but were two years ahead of Newman and Baddiel, who started their partnership after university) doing jokes about things I could relate to was great and it was a touchstone in my comedy history (the phrases ‘That’s you, that is’ and ‘Milky milky’ still resonate).
I have seen Newman do live stand-up (his later, more socially conscious material) and watched Punt & Dennis do The Now Show live, but I had never seen Baddiel do live material before, due to the fact that he stopped doing stand-up after a horrible corporate gig he did in 2003 for bankers (something he references in this show). Therefore, I jumped at the chance to see him do new material in front of a relatively small audience in the intimate downstairs venue at the Soho Theatre. It is a work in progress, as he explained at the beginning, on the theme of fame and his relationship with it and how it feels to have been famous at one time (the phrase ‘Comedy is the new rock and roll’ was originally about Baddiel and Newman being the first comedy act to do the Wembley Arena; there was also the Euro ’96 song ‘Three Lions’, with Frank Skinner and Ian Brody from The Lightning Seeds) but to be less famous now.
He started out with anecdote that highlighted the drop in fame levels, the first being an incident of being recognised on Ryanair and another where someone recognised his face on the tube and then told their friend, ‘That’s him from Skinner and Garibaldi’. He went on talk about how he was a famous Jew in Britain (or ‘North Londoner’, one of the many euphemisms for Jew in the British press; he was once voted sixth sexiest Jew but felt disheartened when he discovered that the fifth was Alan Sugar) and how he had stopped doing stand-up after the corporate gig and done more writing (he has written several novels, he used to have a column in The Times, he wrote the screenplay for The Infidel), but he was still famous to a degree and the effect of it on him.
There were anecdotes that involved famous people (something he knew sounded bad but it was a result of being famous and so was part of his thesis on fame) that highlighted bizarre aspects of fame. He talked about meeting Peter Gabriel, of whom he is a big fan, but feeling bad about saying the wrong thing; another Gabriel-related anecdote was about when The Times wrote a diary piece accusing him of being loud and annoying at a Gabriel concert, which wasn’t true, so he tried to get them to retract it but they wouldn’t, saying they had witnesses and that they’d left the worst bits out, about how he’d told people to fuck off because he’d bought his ticket and could do what he wanted, even when security was called; they didn’t do it even when the person he went with (and who bought his ticket) wrote in to refute it – that person was Richard Curtis; in the end, he emailed Peter Gabriel to stay it wasn’t true, to which Gabriel replied that he knew it wasn’t him because Gabriel knew Baddiel was there on the Wednesday and the incident had happened on Thursday according to his roadie; the roadie then emailed to say that it had been Ian Brody (of ‘Three Lions’), who happens to look a bit like Baddiel, which was enough for The Times to print an apology (although not in a very sincere way).
Baddiel mentioned stories about not being recognised as himself – there was the time Ronan Keating thought he was Ben Elton and then looked angry when Baddiel told him he wasn’t Elton. This led into a story about Andrew Lloyd Webber, who according to urban legend had got the wrong person to write the book for his musical about football, confusing Baddiel (who was famous for loving football through the television show Fantasy Football League) for Ben Elton, and then meeting him in person and then getting into a bizarre situation with Webber’s third wife.
There were lots of stories with famous people in it, but it wasn’t just a collection of amusing celebrity anecdotes; Baddiel had a point to make about how fame is a mask that other people put on famous people that stays that way – people don’t change their minds about famous people once they’ve got the first image in place (my girlfriend has always seen Baddiel as a shouty lad type) and forget that they are real people behind them (as he illustrated with a story about seeing Henry Kelly in a pub after he had done a joke on television about him).
The show isn’t completely coherent, but then this is a work in progress. Baddiel has a good idea about examining fame and he still knows where the joke is in his stories, even when he is the butt of those jokes (as demonstrated by the video he showed of Stewart Lee’s song from Lee’s television show that used Baddiel as a punchline). However, the ‘essay’ on fame (his term) doesn’t have a clear beginning, middle and end for the central conceit; it’s still a collection of good bits around a subject, with additional aspects to do with his family (he talked about and showed pictures and video of his kids). With the effort he’s putting in to make this show cohesive, it will be something funny and with some depth.
The negative doesn’t detract from the fact that I had a really enjoyable time – the 60 minutes wasn’t enough, I laughed a lot and could have listened to his stories and jokes for much longer. The audience was friendly (literally – Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian film critic, was in the audience, who co-wrote and starred with Baddiel in Baddiel’s Syndrome, a sitcom on Sky 1 from 2001), apart from one person at the back who tried to add his own joke about a Twitterer who had been trolling Baddiel. The Twitter stuff was interesting, taking in the modern approach to fame as something that’s much closer to ‘ordinary’ people these days and the mistaken bonhomie that followers think they have with the famous people they follow. There were long-time fans of Baddiel in the audience – he mentioned his catchphrase of ‘That’s you, that is’ in order to tell a story about a groupie who wanted him to say it during sex, and the mention got a big cheer from the louder comedy nerds – and they all enjoyed the show as well. It will be interesting to see if this develops into a full show and how it changes from this early draft, and this was a very interesting glimpse behind the curtain of a comedy show in the making.