David Baddiel on God, gags and being trolled – 'It hurts and then I think: material!' – The Guardian,

David Baddiel on God, gags and being trolled – 'It hurts and then I think: material!' – The Guardian,

Schrödinger’s cat can be both alive and dead – so surely David Baddiel can be both a comedian and a playwright? When, in 2014, he launched his first solo comedy venture in 15 years,Fame: Not the Musical, he reports: “I had a constant struggle. People were saying ‘I’m coming to yourplay‘, ‘I’ve heard great things about yourplay. ‘”Maybe it was because he’d chosen a theater venue (the Menier Chocolate Factory in London) to premiere the show, but“ I would constantly have to say , ‘It’s not a play – it’s a one-man show.’ ”Baddiel is a comedian, to his fingertips. “I found it threatening to my identity,” he says now.

He pauses, draws breath, and then: “But now Ihavewritten a play.” That’s why we’re back at the Menier, where God’s Dice is being prepped for its stage debut. The show is the 55 – year-old’s first proper play: it’snota one-man show, and he’s not performing in it. The droll fiftysomething role has been offered tofellow standup Alan Davies, of Jonathan Creek fame – now cast as a physics lecturer who co-authors a book with his Christian student, proving the Bible’s miracles to be scientifically possible. For a religious readership, it’s manna from heaven. Henry is hailed as the new messiah – to the chagrin of his Dawkins-alike celebrity atheist wife.

Baddiel is in the rehearsal room today, at the shoulder of director James Grieve, who is staging Henry’s book launch, at which wife and student come to ideological blows. Afterwards, I ask Baddiel if he enjoys hearing his words brought to life. “I find it difficult,” he says, “particularly with the comedy. Give a director a dramatic scene and they can direct it in 20 different ways that might all be equally valid. If you give them a reveal gag and they direct it wrongly, it’s like playing the wrong notes, and it won’t get a laugh. ”

Baddiel’s experience of writing for others was on the musical – thenthe movie– The Infidel, to whose director, Josh Appignanesi, he made himself “a fucking pain in the ass on set”, demanding retakes when his gags weren’t delivered just right. The thing is, Baddiel explains – and he has discussed this with his wife, and fellow comedy writer, Morwenna Banks – “it feels like you’re getting cancer, like some terrible tumor is growing inside of you, when you see your lines being done wrong. ”Pause. “I apologize to everyone who might be offended by that metaphor.”

So he’s on his best behavior in rehearsals for God’s Dice, straining to trust Grieve (who is “fucking brilliant”) and keep his mouth shut. Not easy, of course, when jokes are your currency – and when even the play’s more substantial material is personal. “I’ve been reading a lot about physics,” says Baddiel. “I think it’s to do with my dad” – who worked as a research chemist for Unilever and brought up his family “heavily under the influence of science”. Baddielpere,who now has dementia, formed 50% of the subject of My Family: Not the Sitcom, Baddiel’stender and flabbergasting 2016 showabout his parents and their eccentric relationships. Following on from Fame, it situated mid-career Baddiel in a creative purple patch, far removed from the laddish comedy for which, in the 90 s, he made his name.

“I think there’s been a return of the repressed, or something,” he says, because, “in my 50 s, I’ve become obsessed with physics. ”Deeply submerged in that obsession, he noticed something. “Essentially, quantum physics is a leap of faith. Its truths are not exactly unprovable but they’re certainly unseeable. You have tobelievein them. So there’s a parallel between believing in quantum physics and believing in God. ”

Baddiel began to wonder: what if a physicist experienced a crisis of the faith required to pursue his subject? Might one arrive at religious belief, not out of ignorance, but out of high intelligence? Behind that inquiry is Baddiel’s memories of his old mucker – and Fantasy Football League sidekick – Frank Skinner. “Before I met Frank,” he recalls, “I’d never met a very, very intelligent person whodeeply believed in God, and that was really challenging to me as an atheist. ”

The play’s other source wasa Brian Cox lecturethat Baddiel had attended, at which the physicist proposed the possibility of a diamond leaping by itself out of a velvet bag and reappearing elsewhere in the theater. Admittedly, says Baddiel, it was “a very unlikely possibility. But in a multi-world universe, it doesn’t matter how unlikely something is. If it’s possible, it must be happening somewhere. And that’s a miracle isn’t it – a diamond leaping suddenly out of a velvet bag? A scientifically possible miracle. ”

All of these revelations might challenge what Baddiel, who is culturally Jewish, describes as his “fundamental atheism”. It’s a point of pride with him, certainly, that God’s Dice is not an atheist play. “Believers have read it, scientists have read it” (includingthe physicist Jim Al-Khalili), and everyone credits its open-mindedness on the overlaps between faith and science. Baddiel himself remains a skeptic, albeit one who admits the play is borne of a spiritual crisis of sorts. “As I get older and nearer death, I really want to understand the world before I die. And I don’t believe in God, so maybe this – physics – is the way to understand it.

“But [theoretical physicist]Richard Feynmansaid, ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics. ‘And Idon’tunderstand it. Sometimes when I read these books, I feel like I understand it for a minute – and then, ‘Oh no, I don’t understand it again.’ Intellectually, it’s very frustrating. ”There is consolation, though, in fashioning that near -miss incomprehension into stories – which Baddiel now sees as his stock in trade. “I genuinely do not recognize borders between different kinds of storytelling,” says the novelist, screenwriter, and writer of hit children’s books. “If you’re good at storytelling, you should be able to apply the idea to whatever genre fits it best.”

As if to prove the point, he’s drafting a new standup show – or at least as close as he gets to standup, now that “theatrical one-man show” is more his bag. Trolls: Not the Dolls will tour in 2020, and addresses Baddiel’s self-confesseddependence onsocial media. (“I would say it’s got a bit out of hand for me…”) It was born of the moment when, faced with a “don’t feed the trolls” campaign by fellow celebs, he thought: “That’s not right for me . To me they’re hecklers. They’re people calling me a cunt, or telling me I’m shit. And as a comedian, you don’t ignore hecklers, you work with them. ”

As his 624, 000 Twitter followers will know,Baddiel devotes time to outsmarting his online tormentors. The new show will trace these relationships through his 10 years on the platform, and will ask: “Why is everybody so angry? What is anger doing for people? Why is everything so polarised? Social media involves peoplenotimagining how the other person feels while raging at them. So the battle is to restore empathy to this empathy-less world. ”But isn’t it painful to walk towards all of this hostility? “If someone slags me off on social media,” says Baddiel, “I definitely still feel a stab of hurt and vulnerability. And then I think: material! ”

Trolls will be, he says, his most political show, and one that stakes out the kinds of dark territory into which a prominent Jewish person online can easily be lured. Baddiel is also makinga BBC documentary about Holocaust denial– and conjuring with a second play, about #MeToo. He eye-rolls with trepidation at that possibility, mindful that not everyone wants to hear the well-off, middle-aged straight man’s take on gender politics. But he resists the suggestion that comedy is under threat from a new censoriousness.

“I’ve a problem with the polarisation of that conversation,” says the man whoseRadio 4 show Don’t Make Me Laugh was cancelledafter broadcasting a supposedly off-color remark about the Queen. “The idea that, ‘Oh, we’re over here with the free speech and offensiveness, and you’re over there with the woke comedy.’ I don’t think it should be seen like that.”

Baddiel chooses to stake out a space for independent thinking. “More and more, I don’t map any received political viewpoint on to what I say in my work. I’d rather ask myself, ‘What do I actually think about this thing?’ ”And he craves nuance. “Unpleasant and awful things sometimes need to be said in comedy – and how you get there is the art. Fewer people seem to be able to understand this, but someone can be a brilliant comedianandsay stuff that is unacceptable. Those things are entirely compatible. ”

It’s a quantum physics way of thinking from a comic committed to keeping contradictory possibilities alive. Comedy / theater, science / religion, brilliant / unacceptable – and emotional / meaningless. “Something about religion will always be immensely powerful, aesthetically and emotionally,” he says, while his new play comes to life in the room next door. “But I do believe that life is meaningless finally. It’s fucking brilliant. But then it’s gone and that’s it. ”

That’s not a cheerless conclusion. “I say, accept the meaninglessness – and enjoy yourself in whatever way you can.”

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