Talking to David Baddiel About the Comedy in Dementia
Baddiel's father was recently diagnosed with Pick's disease, an aggressive form of dementia. We spoke to the writer and stand-up about using this – as well as his mother's affair and sudden death – as material for his new show.
We were driving home from Leigh-on-Sea one day when my nan observed the lilac sky. "Things have started getting strange around here," she said. This was the start of her mental rupture.
Each time I entered her home, I was greeted by something indicating her gradual senility. She built weird totems by gluing bouncy balls onto pepper pots. She drew on purple eyebrows and told me she aborted her first child with an eyebrow pencil. She hid all of her money in hat boxes. This, we soon found out, was because she had Pick's Disease.
Pick's Disease is one of the rarest – and most aggressive – forms of dementia. It effects a vital area of the brain: the frontal and temporal lobe. As a result, body functions such as intellect, memory and speech become impaired, and early signs include behavioural aberrations, repetitious speech and lapses in memory.
David Baddiel – stand-up comedian, novelist and screenwriter – is familiar with all of these signs because his dad was recently diagnosed with the disease. He's currently workshopping a new stand-up show about such "dark and complicated" subject matters as "sex and dementia and death". As well as his dad's troubles, it also covers the sudden death of his mum (a German Jew who escaped the heinous project of Nazi domination as a young child), her lengthy affair when he was growing up and, as a result of the neurodegenerative disease, his dad's impropriety at shivas ("He was there, an 80-year-old-man, asking to fuck all the women there").
I recently spoke to David about his family, dementia, death and comedy.
VICE: I'm interested in the mutation of tragedy into comedy. Is that process – turning light into dark – natural for a comedian?
David Baddiel: I was always very against the idea that for comedy to be "important" it has to be dark. It's very much a critic's way of thinking. Comedy is a difficult thing for a critic, as, unlike all other art-forms, it has an inbuilt success-o-meter: laughter. Therefore, there's no real need for critics. However, one [method of criticism has] been found, which is for them to talk about the underlying seriousness or otherwise of a comic's act.
The reason it's wrong is that Eric Morecambe is the greatest comedian who's ever lived, and not a single moment of the laughter he generated involved an underlying seriousness. [Being] dark is a way into making your comedy more critically appreciated. And besides, I think it's possible to inject seriousness into your comedy without being dark. In my last show, Fame: Not the Musical, there was no real darkness, but it had, I think, a serious import, about culture, empathy and celebrity. It's possible to do that without necessarily straying into the whole "pushing of the boundaries" thing.
Having said all that: my new show is dark. But not because I've changed my mind about any of the above. I only work with the ideas I have. I only want to talk about stuff that happens to me. Mum died suddenly and violently, and my dad has developed an aggressive form of dementia. This is the stuff that's happened to me recently, and it is my process to transform that into comedy. It is just: OK, this shadow has entered your life – talk about it.
In a recent Guardian interview, Limmy said that he can see humour in "rape jokes, paedophile jokes, all the darkest types of humour". He also provided a counter view: you shouldn't joke about these topics if they're affecting people who are "still raw" from these experiences. Dementia can be upsetting. Do you feel as if you have a social obligation not to joke about it if it hurts people?
I don't believe in these boundaries exactly. I think we get hung-up about subject matter, with this "can you joke about this or that". But I don't think it's the subject matter that counts: it's the joke. You can have a hateful, mean-spirited, upsetting joke about dementia, or you can have an uplifting, comforting one. Or, more importantly from my point of view, you can have one that gets to the truth of it and one that is a construction. You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. There is no single rape joke or cancer joke or AIDS joke, no more than there is a single slapstick sketch, or knock-knock joke.
Where I would agree with Limmy a bit is that, in my last show, I made the case for empathy. So I talked about how I used to do jokes about specific individuals, and then realised that I didn't really think of them as actual people out there who might be hurt by it. I just thought of them in my terms, as the target of the joke. I don't do that any more. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't do a joke about dementia because someone in the room has a dementia-ridden relative. Quite the opposite; I would hope comedy about that subject would make them feel less alone.
When we reflect on our relatives after they die, we know that their life was capped by the undignified existence of a dementia sufferer. Do you think that part of the reason we're uncomfortable with dementia is that it ruins the memory of them?
Maybe. You might be right – dementia can do that. When friends of my dad read that Guardian piece [where Baddiel talks about his father's dementia] they were upset, and one of them rang my brother to make the point that my father was "easily the cleverest of all of us". So he clearly felt that, my dad's mate, that highlighting his dementia subverted the memory of my dad as a witty, intellectual bloke, which he undoubtedly was – though a very sweary one. But I think we should be able to see one's whole life as a narrative, in which the end isn't necessarily the defining thing – why should it be?
In fact, one of the most interesting things about dementia is that people seem to dement in their own way. My dad's Pick's disease seems to me, at times, Colin Baddiel's disease. It seems to be a highly distilled version of the most extreme parts of my father. A Spitting Image puppet of who he was. Which is grotesque, yes, but it's not entirely Not Him. And by finding the comedy in that, you are honouring his story, because you are grasping the nettle of his entire truth, allowing this difficult and challenging end – rather than denying and/or suppressing it – to be part of his whole narrative.
So I guess what I'm saying is: life being capped by dementia doesn't mean life was defined by dementia. And being so frightened of the idea that dementia will define life that we don't talk about it, or find comedy in it, is just a fear of exactly what you say – that the memory will all go sour with it. But I think, hopefully, that memory is more holistic than that.
In that recent Guardian piece, Hannah Ellis-Petersen wrote that she was "sceptical about the comedic worth of dementia". I used to work in a care home and, for me, it's obvious why dementia can be funny – not in a cruel way, but in how we respond to it. For you, was this instantly apparent? Or did it take a while to "find the funny"?
Well, my father's dementia wasn't instant, and while it was appearing, it wasn't that funny, just kind of insidious. But since it's been full-blown – and because it's Pick's disease, which presents as a kind of Tourette's – yes: it was clearly funny to me from the word go. It's complicated with my dad, as he was always very sweary and rude. As I say in the show, when the neurologist told me the symptoms – lack of inhibition, aggression, rudeness, irritability, obscenity, sexual inappropriateness – I said: "Sorry, has he got a disease, or have you just met him?"
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I recently watched a programme called Dementiaville. When I worked at the care home, I was told it's best to be consistent with the resident's version of reality. In the programme they said this is a controversial method. What are your thoughts?
It's been difficult for me, as someone who is very committed to the truth – I'm OCD about truth; I never lie, not even in tiny ways – to accept this process with my father.
Having said that, I think the idea of making the universe fit with the dementia patient's view of reality is clearly a good idea, if it makes them happy, or content, or at least less anxious. I'm just not sure I'm the person to create that world for them.
People sometimes feel uneasy when artists use family members in their work without prior consent. This is especially pertinent when the family member is unable to give consent because they're no longer compos mentis. How would you respond to someone if they said you were being exploitative?
I think this is complex. And when that article came out, some of my dad's friends got upset. I think, basically, that I'm happy to let it stay complex. The alternative – which is to never speak about these things publicly at all – seems to be not good either. I also talk about my mum having an affair, which also upset various people. But here's the thing: both my mum's affair and my dad's dementia are very much part of my story, too. And I'm a storyteller.
On the subject of death – and an artist's response to it – do you feel that, due to the media being saturated with images of death, we're more desensitised to it?
I think until you're faced with a hard version of death, you don't know. And yes, we are desensitised. Not necessarily from violent films. What I felt when my mum died was that we were desensitised by an assumption that we would say goodbye to a loved one in a serene, white-curtained room with birds singing outside, whispering words of sad love. Since it wasn't like that at all – it was a horrible A&E nightmare – I started to wonder if even the deep cultural insistence that one should be present at a parent's demise was correct.
Buy tickets here to see Baddiel's work-in-progress performance of his new one-man show.