It is 1986. David Baddiel, a 22-year-old Jewish student from Dollis Hill, is about to perform a stand-up routine that will earn him his first review in a national newspaper. It could be the making of him. “He tells two Jewish jokes and with the minimum of gesture indicates the difficulties of combining masturbation with bondage fantasies,” the review later reads. Despite the suffocating seriousness of Eighties comedy, Baddiel just wants to talk about himself.
That could have been it. Baddiel, by his own admission, is a limited performer. He can’t do accents. His characters are barely believable. “I don’t want to turn this into a therapy session,” he said, sinking back into a chair in his new office in Kentish Town, where I met him last month, “but there are considerably better comedians than me. What I do have is a good tuning fork.”
Baddiel, the pioneer of the New Lads that went stratospheric during the 1990s, has made one of the most complete transformations of any celebrity from that time. From the lad of Fantasy Football League and explicitly confessional male comedy, Baddiel has reinvented himself as a warrior against anti-Semitism and commentator on identity. Dismissed by some as a lager-soaked anti-intellectual symbol of Cool Britannia, Baddiel is positioning himself as a public intellectual for modern Britain. He was recently named a visiting professor at Oxford.
“Nobody has had the celebrity journey that I have,” he mused. Baddiel, who took from Thatcher-era countercultural comedy clubs an insistence on being solidly authentic, has a malleable knack of producing what the public wants. He has changed in step with a revolution in expectations that has turned the relationship between Britain and its entertainers upside down.
What is recognised and rewarded, and thus who becomes famous and who melts into the entertainment ether, generally reflects what people want. When Baddiel and Rob Newman became the first comedians to sell out Wembley Arena in 1993, Britain was getting rich, embracing a populist cultural philistinism, and trying to escape the seriousness of the Eighties.
Baddiel had tried his hand at the political comedy that was in vogue in the 1980s, but it didn’t stick. “It was just not authentic for me to talk about politics in that way,” he recalled. “In the early 1990s there was a moment where you could find a way of being honest about what it was to be male, to be a man, and to be funny about it.”
Baddiel embodied the new moment. The Premier League was born, replica shirts were everywhere, and English football was rising from the ashes; Baddiel and Skinner became the colloquial voices that discussed the game in a way that wasn’t Match of the Day. “Three Lions”, the anthem written for the European Football Championship in 1996, was a success not just because it was catchy, but because it reflected the angst and vulnerability of being a football fan. “There is something in me that makes me confident,” he says, “that if I feel something then other people must be feeling it too.”
He had already begun to jump ship by the time that the New Lads “eventually became degraded”. He wanted to write a literary novel, became busy with fatherhood, and began to do documentaries. The New Lads had lost their novelty, become commercialised and had become “the thing people were doing because it was what everyone else was”.
It now seems natural that it was through football that the first inklings of Baddiel’s transformation into an identity warrior began to emerge. In 2002 Baddiel fired the first shot in an on-and-off campaign to drive the “Y-word”, used both by and against Tottenham fans, out of football. He had never felt comfortable with it. “But I didn’t have the intellectual context to understand why I didn’t like it.”
“Identity politics – it wouldn’t have been called that back then – but I had a sense that it seemed to be becoming more on people’s radars and that there were certain types of offence and ways of speaking about minorities,” he remembered, “and that people were more intense about it than they had been.” If there was a bridge between lad and literary Baddiel, then this might have been it. “I didn’t see where it was going at the time. I didn’t know by the time that I was doing the Y-word that I was prepared to talk about something which I don’t think anyone else was talking about: anti-Semitism in Britain. This is way before Jeremy Corbyn.”
By 2015, when Corbyn and anti-Semitism in parts of the progressive left burst into the open as a matter for debate and dissection, Baddiel took up the mantle of a modern Mordechai. He was not only one of Britain’s few famous Jews but had been thinking about the relationship between Jews and Britain for over a decade. He wrote a literary novel based on his family history – that he is still clearly bitter did not receive more formal recognition – and documentaries on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and started a full campaign on the Y-word. Baddiel was appointed “the voice for Britain’s Jews”.
He rejects the moniker. “I don’t actually think I am saying that I am being a champion for my community,” he told me. “Yes, there are not many Jews, but I am f***ing good at it. I am very articulate, I am funny, and I am also insightful and take complex ideas and explain them.” In many ways, however, this doesn’t matter. Britain had changed. It was no longer the anti-intellectual, anti-ideological, apathetic place that had made Baddiel famous. You can no longer be a celebrity and discuss politics or society at large without being appointed a champion for something.
Britain feels poorer and angrier than it has for decades. What types of celebrities are rewarded is naturally dependent on the public mood – and a depressed Britain is rewarding those that can connect with it on a more thoughtful level than the energetic but mentally unambitious fame of the Nineties and Noughties. Instead of Gazza, Liam Gallagher and the Spice Girls, Britain wants Marcus Rashford, Lewis Capaldi and Joe Lycett. These types of stars have become, or been appointed, champions and moral beacons for a Britain trying to make sense of inequality, hypocrisy and depression.
This is why Baddiel didn’t simply vanish once he started doing other things than talking about football or recounting his love for porn. For an increasingly polarised country, a recognisable face who could talk with verve about identity and anti-Semitism was welcome. “I exist within British culture in a way that means that being an intellectual is not a thing that I can be, but I am that,” he complained. “I do not write to perpetuate this idea of me as an intellectual, but rather I write about the things that I feel intellectually and emotionally engaged with.”
In France and Italy, where there are similarly only a few public figures that are both instantly recognisable and universally known as Jewish, they have tended to be philosophers and public intellectuals. “It is really difficult to be a public intellectual in Britain,” Baddiel responded when asked why it was only now that he had begun to position himself in a similar way. “Even self-defining yourself as an intellectual just gets derision. I don’t know that I would have wanted to do that when I was younger. Without doubt I am sort of doing it now.”
Baddiel’s experience as a quick-witted comic has made him an especially British thinker. “I think that what I am trying to explain will be more digestible and more likely to land if I accompany it with more jokes, rather than dryness.” Part of the brilliance of Jews Don’t Count, the book he wrote in 2021, is its snappy title that distils the wider idea into an easily understandable slogan that can be used by others as a discursive shortcut when talking about anti-Semitism. This approach can also cause problems, such as when critics have challenged some of Baddiel’s ideas that have been honed for clarity, rather than depth.
He tried an example: what does Joe Rogan get wrong when he says that comparing Jews and money with Italians and pizza is stating the obvious? Italians have never been exterminated for liking pepperoni. “It is not a very good joke,” he admits, but you can’t help but smile and nod when the punchline comes.
Baddiel smiled very little when he was coaxed into speaking seriously. It feels as if the old self-consciousness about wanting to be a thinker has been dropped. When you go through interviews with Baddiel over three decades, a tic emerges that is often pawned off by interviews as a charming bit of relatability. Baddiel will tease an interesting idea about something before seemingly thinking better of it and trailing off with a “and blah, blah, blah”. That diffidence has disappeared. “I am not frightened by the fact that I am a comedian and the ‘Three Lions’ guy.”
With few exceptions, celebrity is by its nature transient. Yet Baddiel has managed to keep popping at various points by showing interest in something that speaks to people. He has started to turn down offers to appear or write about anti-Semitism. His thoughts are already moving to other things. “I don’t want to keep doing this,” he sighed. “You can see I am wearying. Don’t you find it wearisome, as a Jew?”
Baddiel might well have begun to come full circle. “I will complexify who I am,” Baddiel says. “We contain multitudes, and I am trying to be true to who I am.” He is considering writing a book called The Male Gaze. “I am not ashamed to like football. I am not ashamed to like pop music. I am not ashamed to be a heterosexual male.”
[See also: Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism was grotesque]