David Baddiel: Jeremy Corbyn asked me to write for him - I had to say no

The comedian on joking about Jewishness, politics and his dad's dementia.

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In recent years the internet has given rise to a whole host of cultural phenomena: hot takes, avocado appreciation to the point of parody and a brand new layer to the politics of offence. David Baddiel, who describes his own first avocado experience as an “epiphany”, is pretty active on Twitter and no stranger to the social media platform’s social justice warriors. The comedian’s latest show, My Family: not the sitcom, centres around his late mother’s long-lasting affair with a fellow golf memorabilia collector and also features a supporting role from his father’s battle with Pick’s disease, a form of dementia.

Baddiel, though, has been told that dementia should be off limits for jokes, with a great many Twitter users shaming him for, in their eyes at least, marketing the condition. Is this a sign, then, that Britain has become too sensitive? Backstage at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre on the day after his birthday, Baddiel strokes a beard that is 53 shades of grey. He says wearily: “It wouldn’t just be Britain; cultural argument is no longer restricted to one place, because it happens online. Online defines this discussion about offence because that is where people are now and want to make their own sense of offence felt. And that’s where the policing of comedy, and I suppose any form of public discourse, goes on. I think outrage is a way of building identity, because outrage and anger are ways of turning up the volume on who you are. People want identity and that’s ultimately what Facebook, Twitter or whatever, is about. It’s a way of letting people raise their own little flag of self.”

But Baddiel isn’t saying that people need to be bulletproof; there’s still stuff that offends him. He adds: “I’m not suggesting that every time someone gets angry on social media then there isn’t a decent reason behind it. I think there are often good reasons to be offended but you have to try and break down the difference between justified anger – say Katie Hopkins using the phrase ‘final solution’ – and what isn’t, particularly when you’re getting angry about something and you yourself are so far removed from the subject matter.”

Media personality Hopkins, who was sacked by LBC last month, seems to be a magnet for controversy.  She was dismissed by the broadcaster after echoing an infamous Nazi euphemism for ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. Do you think she deserved the boot? “I’m not interested in whether she deserved to be sacked because that’s not my decision to make. My process is to just try and be funny and hopefully sometimes insightful. The thing that I hate on social media is a sanctimonious person. I do think, however, it’s an interesting bit of stupidity on her part to use that phrase. In my heart, I’d like to think that Katie Hopkins probably doesn’t want the industrial scale genocide of Muslims. However, I don’t think it would take too much of a Freudian slip to believe that phrase is buried on some level of her subconscious.”

While Baddiel might want to keep his comedy and his politics separate, it’s not always easy to do that when he continues to make jokes about politics – one gag about dementia hinged on Theresa May’s repeated use of the Conservative Party’s “strong and stable” slogan. And Baddiel, who calls himself a “Labour voter rather than a Labour supporter”, recently had to turn down an offer from Jeremy Corbyn to provide the party with some material. “It may interest you to know that I was contacted by Jeremy Corbyn on a direct message [on Twitter], asking me to write some stuff. He said that he’d noticed I’d been funny about the Tories. I had to ask if it was actually him at first: ‘Is this definitely you?’ Because it was very formal at the start with ‘Dear David’, you know. It turns out it really was him and he was asking if I would come out and play an active part in his campaign. Well, I said it was very nice of him to write, but I had to say no because my job is as a comedian and I would never support a political party like that, regardless of what I believe personally. My job is to be funny and that might involve me being funny at the expense of whoever’s stepped in shit that week. Which could well be him.”

Is context the natural caveat for offence? Does comedy exist within its own bubble? “Two at once there. Right, I think that everything exists within its own bubble. I think that within comedy we focus enormously on subject matter rather than how something is told. So when, for example, Ricky Gervais does a joke about a dead baby, interestingly the joke wasn’t repeated anywhere. And then we didn’t get to have a proper discussion about it. So you can’t say that a joke about a dead baby is off limits – that’s absolutely not the case. You can make a joke about absolutely anything. The important thing is what type of joke you’ve told. Consider dementia; you could do a horrible, mean joke about dementia, or you could a joke about dementia that makes people who have dementia not feel alone; or you can do a joke that satirises attitudes towards dementia. If you take any major subject which people think of as a trigger – rape, dementia, the holocaust, dead babies, whatever – the importance is not the subject but the telling. But what happens more and more these days is that people look at the headline and they aren’t interested in reading the rest of the article.” 

Baddiel’s Jewish background, despite now identifying as an atheist, is still important to him. “Well look at my Twitter bio – it just says ‘Jew’.” As well as instructing material, including some Yiddish etymology in My Family: not the sitcom, Baddiel has headed a campaign against anti-semitism on football terraces. Do Jewish jokes tend to run a risk or strike a chord? “I don’t have a line in the sand. You’ve got to think about context, the possibility of irony, delivery and who’s saying it. You would probably agree that me making a Jewish joke is different to Jim Davidson making a Jewish joke. But that’s not to say that people can’t make jokes about Jews. That’s nonsense, isn’t it?”     

The French stand-up Dieudonné M'bala M'bala has made Jewish people the target for much of his routine and his “quenelle” gesture is said to be an inverted Nazi salute. Do you think that should be allowed? “Like I said, I’m a comedian, I’m not really the one with any legislative power, but I wouldn’t disagree, if that’s what it is, then it’s in poor taste. It’s important, though, to understand the process that Dieudonné has taken to get to that way of thinking. He thinks that it’s his job to épater la bourgeoisie and make those who are in power feel uncomfortable. He thinks that the Jews are in power and that’s one of the reasons why the holocaust, in his mind, has been made out to be the worst thing in the history of humanity, even greater than perhaps slavery, which might have affected his ancestors. So there is a competition of victimhood and he thinks that the taboo around the holocaust can be seen as an oppression of him. If the quenelle is a way of disguising a Nazi salute then sure it’s bad, but the real problem with Dieudonné is that he isn’t funny. I’m sorry but I don’t think putting one hand over your other arm and pointing at the ground is a good gag.”

Piers Morgan suggested, during mental health awareness week no less, that many sufferers of depression simply needed to “man up”. If society or organisational bodies fail to act on inappropriate or offensive remarks because of some enduring ideal about free speech, don’t we run the risk of allowing more bad things and more bad ideas to take shape? “I do think it’s a stupid thing for Piers Morgan to say, but he’s a provocateur. He wants to ruffle feathers and he believes that one of the best things to do is to make liberals angry. I’ve talked about my own depression openly and for the past seven years I’ve been a patron of CALM, which is the campaign against living miserably. The way I deal with hecklers and the way I deal with trolls online are very similar. I rarely get angry, almost never. It’s best to be nice to them, not give them the outrage they feed off, but make them look stupid.” 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.