I am sitting with David Baddiel in a tea room, not far from the Hampstead home where he lives with fellow comedy writer Morwenna Banks and their two children, talking about fame, the territory of his new stand-up show. Baddiel’s first proper stand-up gig for 16 years is a meditation on the absurdities thrown up by celebrity. If the Twitter feed is any guide, it is very funny and unexpectedly moving.
And although it contains stories involving quite a lot of famous people, it is not really a cosy chat about his showbiz anecdotes, he tells me. It’s more personal than that. “It’s about what happens to your sense of self when there is another idea of you out there that is controlled by the culture.”
This is not the first time I have met Baddiel. The previous occasion was before he became a novelist and screenwriter, though after he was A-list famous as the first comedian to fill rock stadia with Rob Newman and then, with Frank Skinner, the co-host of a wildly successful TV show about football.
“Have we?” he asks a little guardedly. I tell him it was at the New End, the Hampstead theatre that, as Baddiel points out, is now a shul. “I don’t know how I feel about that,” he muses. “I’m pro both things. Although I’m probably more pro-theatre than I am shul since I never go to shul.” The point is, I remember him because he is famous, and, of course, he does not remember me because I am not.
“That is one of the things fame does,” he says. “It’s something I could definitely talk about in the show. Although it’s already fairly stuffed with experiences of fame. But it’s something that happens a lot. You meet someone and then however many months or years later, they remember you and begin a conversation with ‘You won’t remember me’ with an edge of resentment and anger. And then you kind of think ‘I have to lie’, which leads to loads of trouble. I have a problem with lying. I just can’t do it.”
That candid quality is the thing that has always interested me about Baddiel. The urge to not lie is part of it. But to be so public about embarrassing obsessions such as pornography and, well, being Jewish, always struck me as very brave. He was, I tell him, the first famous Jew of my generation to make Jewishness part of his public persona. “And the last,” he replies. “The fact is there are loads of Jews in British comedy — Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Alexei Sayle, Simon Amstell, Ben Elton. But of all those people, the only one who has done anything to publicly identify himself as Jewish is me.” Even his Twitter handle has the word Jew attached to it.
“Grandma’s House is quite Jewish I suppose,” he concedes. “But the thing about Simon Amstell is that he’s gay. And the way he, Matt and Stephen are about their sexuality trumps ethnicity in the identity stakes. It’s cooler to be gay than it is to be Jewish.”
Whereas many — possibly most — Jews in Britain are conditioned to stay under the radar as far as their Jewishness is concerned, here is a British comedian who makes his Jewishness part of his public identity. Take the new show. It is stuffed with Jewish references.
“There’s more than I’ve done before about Jewishness,” he says. “I do a whole bit about the quandary of being Jewish, British and famous. I also do a long section on how antisemitism works in this country; the replacement of the word ‘Jew’ with the phrase ‘north London’ , which has happened to me a number of times, and about how if you’re black or Asian and a comic or a pop star, when you talk about your culture you are very much seen as expressing a type of Britishness. If you are a Jew talking about Jewishness it’s assumed you’re just talking to Jews and no one else is interested.”
So when did he decide being so openly Jewish would be an advantage rather than a disadvantage? The answer is, he didn’t. “[In] my whole career and life I have never made a decision what to talk about. I talk about the stuff that is in my head and hope for the best. The first of two monologues I did at Cambridge Footlights was about being Jewish [the other was on masturbation]. And being Jewish was such an integral part of my identity.
“My mother is a Holocaust refugee born in Nazi Germany and has a swastika on her passport. I went to an Orthodox primary school, Haberdashers, Habonim — my entire upbringing, despite being atheist, was very Jewish.” As “the kind of person who talks about what’s pressing in his head, I had no choice but to talk about Jewishness”.
Clearly, it’s a subject that will remain central to Baddiel’s public persona. With Erran Baron Cohen (brother of Sacha) he’s in the process of creating a musical version of his film The Infidel, about a Muslim who discovers he is a Jew. If all goes to plan the show will open at Stratford East next spring. And even the shtick about the absurdities of fame is often framed by the Jewishness of the performer. Take his visit to Auschwitz.
“I was at Auschwitz on a Holocaust Educational Trust trip and I was standing at the site of the gas chambers when a guy about my age comes over and stands by me. We are just quiet for a while and I think he is going to say something of great value or insight, perhaps a huge truth about the human condition. And he says: ‘When’s Fantasy Football coming back?’”
So it seems that while being famous is full of absurdity, being famously Jewish results in a whole new level of ridiculousness. Not that any of the fame appears to have gone to his head. Despite the celebrity, Baddiel is exactly the blokey but brainy chap (he got a double first at Cambridge) as seen on TV and heard on radio. And he is polite too. “Good to meet you,” he says as he leaves the tea room.
“Again,” I remind him.
David Baddiel will be performing Fame: Not the Musical at the Edinburgh Festival, George Square Theatre, from August 1-11 — www.famenotthemusical.com