David Baddiel on Families and Therapy
Ahead of his UK tour, we chat with David Baddiel about his Olivier Award nominated show My Family: Not the Sitcom
We all know who David Baddiel is, so we won’t waste too many words introducing him. His writing credits go way back to satirical puppet-show Spitting Image, he and Frank Skinner wrote that Three Lions football song that still gets sung across the border, and with Rob Newman he sold out Wembley Arena way before any other stand-up could.
Since then, much has changed in the world of entertainment. Comedy fans are now used to taboo-busting on-stage, usually accompanied by a smirk and an ‘I’m-just-saying’ shrug. One taboo that isn't so easily challenged, however, is talking about our parents’ sex lives; our mothers’ sex lives in particular. Yet it is central to Baddiel’s new show, My Family: Not the Sitcom, with the details of a long-lasting affair his mother had with a golf memorabilia salesman, and how little effort she put into hiding it from her husband and three sons.
"What I think is unusual is not necessarily speaking ill of the dead," explains Baddiel, down the phone from London, "but speaking truthfully, and being happy to embrace the madness and the crazy stuff the dead did. But also what’s unusual is for someone to talk about their mum having sexual feelings."
When his mother died, it was natural for Baddiel to turn to comedy, and not therapy, to help him through it. "She died very suddenly, and I think that a way of processing that was to write a show which is 70% about her."
Baddiel is no stranger to therapy: throughout his long career, he has grappled with depression and intrusive thoughts, and undertook a decade of talk therapy in an attempt to start feeling normal. "Therapy is going into a room with someone and trying to make the random events of our lives into a story that makes sense to us. Really, the show is a series of stories about my childhood and my parents, and that must be therapeutic in some ways."
The rest of My Family is about his over-sexualised upbringing in the 1970s, and his father’s experience with dementia in later life. He explains that the show is also "a way of holding on to my dad."
To make sense of it, all of it, and to give an accurate representation of his parents in the telling, Baddiel’s focus is on not just the good parts of his parents’ life together, but all the weird parts too. The show is about them, their tumultuous lives, his own childhood, and about memory.
"It’s about how we remember people and how someone with no memory can still be the person they used to be. With my mum, it came out of going to her funeral and people telling me how wonderful my mother was, and me thinking 'well that means you didn’t really know her.' If that’s all you can say about someone who’s dead then you’re erasing them out of existence. The way to remember someone is to be very honest about them."
Next to speaking ill of the dead, speaking ill of the ill is another taboo that Baddiel comes up against. He has already explored the difficulties of his relationship with his father in Channel 4’s The Trouble with Dad (2017): Baddiel senior now has Pick’s disease, a form of dementia which commonly leads to behavioural changes. Far from showing a perfect father transformed by disease, Baddiel insists that Pick’s has just amplified certain parts of his dad's personality.
Given all of this, it could be easy for the show to shock too much, to be too cruel, or to be too offensive. It is testament to Baddiel’s skill as a writer and performer and his compassion as a son that this has not happened. Overwhelmingly, the show has garnered positive feedback: "People tell me afterwards about their family life – one person told me about going on holiday with his parents, and with this other guy who he thought was his uncle, but it turned out he was having a ménage-à-trois with his parents. He said 'I’ve never told anyone that before.' Clearly the show is liberating.
"Even though I’m talking about [my parents] doing mad stuff, people respond to them very well, because it’s true and it’s funny. That gets over any negativity that the show might be accused of."
Humour, we agree, is important to a comedy show, and especially important when it comes to anything morbid. "It’s not like this is never done – sometimes you go to a funeral and someone does a really funny speech. If you take the piss out of the person who’s died, you’re not necessarily doing it maliciously. You’re doing it partly to bring who they actually were back into focus.
"My older brother – both my brothers had very complicated feelings about the show when they first heard about it – when he finally saw it, he said that he loved it, because it felt like our mother was in the room. People come up to me afterwards and say 'I wish I knew your mum, she sounds amazing; your dad, what a legend.' It feels like a real representation of someone who’s gone, and not a mythical one."
Instead of seeing his parents as simply objects of pity, Baddiel presents them again and again as flawed, strange and frustrating – as human. One may be dead and the other losing his memory, but they are still his parents and have still had a huge effect on him as a person.
Part of the message of the show is how such a strange upbringing can then be overcome. Albeit after a decade of therapy, Baddiel is – nonetheless on stage telling his story to paying, laughing crowds all around the country. Aside from it being psychologically draining to go over the same strange childhood stories again and again, Baddiel says he is in a good place. "At some level, I’m at peace with how I was parented. In therapy I could never take my own damage, my own pain, that seriously, partly because it involves golf. I always ended up saying 'then she had an affair and turned her life over to golf memorabilia.' And then I’d think that was funny – I wasn’t able to channel that pain into any melodramatic, serious thing. I always saw it as comedy."
Comedians are expected to mine their own experience for material, which brings us up against yet another taboo: men talking about their feelings. Baddiel’s personal experience and advocacy for good mental health extends off-stage as well, with work for men’s mental health charity CALM. He was their official spokesperson until about two years ago ("They needed someone younger and hipper than me. Professor Green took over"), and he is still emotive about men being emotive.
"I’ve never believed the myth that men can’t express their emotions. Obviously, some men do find it difficult – some women find it difficult – but there’s no natural, legitimate reason why men can’t express emotion."
That said, he has previously referred to his father’s 'incessant maleness and unemotionalness.' This isn’t a trait that has passed along to Baddiel junior, however: "If anything, I need to be stopped from expressing my emotions all the time: the show is very much a man talking about his feelings. When people are shocked by the show, they’re shocked by the freedom with which I talk about this stuff. But I don’t have much esteem for shame. My mother didn’t, and I have inherited that."
David Baddiel: My Family: Not the Sitcom, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, 1 Feb; Citizen's Theatre (Glasgow Comedy Festival), 13 Mar; Rose Theatre, Edinburgh, 29 Jun; Dundee Rep Theatre, 30 Jun