Newman and Baddiel. What a joke]: Girls scream, students queue, tills ring. But who's really laughing at this pair of comedians, and do they care anyway?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHO ARE the most successful comedians in Britain this Christmas? Whose current video will be popped into more stockings than those of Harry Enfield, Rowan Atkinson and Bernard Manning combined? Who sold out more shows at the 3,500-seat Hammersmith Odeon on their recent British tour than Bob Dylan managed the last time he was in Britain? And who were described by a well- known comedy figure as 'a right pair of arrogant little smart alecs?'

The answer to all four questions is David Baddiel and Robert Newman, though the final remark is inaccurate: neither of them could be called 'little'.

'A lot of people don't like us because they think we're arrogant,' explained Baddiel, who has an inch-long silver microphone dangling from his left ear. 'And there's no denying we are.'

'I'm not telling you how much we made in the last year,' said Newman, who, if he has as much money as he has hair, must be very wealthy indeed. 'Partly because I don't really know the exact figures, that's our manager's territory. Anyway I give it all away to the starving and suffering children. But it's, yeah, I suppose, yeah, it's like, well . . . tons.'

One half of the team that wrote and performed the BBC 2 show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Baddiel and Newman met at Cambridge and spent several years on the London comedy club circuit.

At 28, they may not yet be big names on Friday night television chat shows, but across the country on their recent tour they were greeted with the kind of hysteria normally associated with pop concerts. Girls screamed when they came on stage, students queuing up to buy tour T-shirts repeated their sketches Python-parrot fashion. Tills rang constantly. Their marketing drive has been cunning and ferocious, more rock'n'roll than comedy.

Baddiel and Newman are not a conventional straight man/funny man double act. Their show consists of long individual routines and then short sketches featuring their comic characters, such as Ray, the man afflicted with a sarcastic tone of voice.

On stage and off, Baddiel is busy, quick-witted, barbed. His comedy territory is day-time telly, the lavatory, masturbation and panty-liners. Newman is more laconic and neurotic; if he makes jokes at all they are about being chucked. Both extemporise wildly, neither could remotely be described as politically correct.

But they have both tapped into a sort of oral tradition of youthful humour, turning playground vocabulary remembered from their school days into national comic catch-phrases. One was 'chinny whack-on', an expression of disbelief which, they discovered, was current in the playgrounds of both the London comprehensive Newman attended and Baddiel's Hertfordshire direct-grant school.

'A lot of what is important about our success is the ability to remain puerile,' reckoned Baddiel. 'People who say it's just schoolboyish have no sense of humour. Holding on to your childishness is what great comedy's about.'

The pair's most successful creation is History Today, one of their jointly written sketches, a mock television show in which two professors try to discuss a learned subject and end up trading schoolboy insults: 'See that Thora Hird, that's you that is. You're a girl.' After only three appearances on television, the catch-phrase is everywhere. On football terraces this Saturday, fans will be shouting at opposition forwards: 'See that pile of dog poo, that's you, that is.'

It is not just the gags that they have retained from their school days. Baddiel uses the real names of his teachers and school chums.

'I got a very big complaint about that once,' he remembered. 'We did a sketch on the telly show about the school spanner, you know, the guy who was such a plonker he deserved to be bullied. Rob changed the name of his, but I couldn't. You see his name was part of the reason why he was a spanner.

'Anyway, I got a letter from his sister saying she was absolutely disgusted to hear his name used like that, thank goodness he was out of the country, what would his employer have thought, etc. What you don't realise, she added, was that when he was at school he was having a lot of problems at home: his mother was dying. Well, the funny thing was we all knew his mother was dying, but the cruelty of schoolkids was such that we didn't care.'

Baddiel has lost little of his cruel edge. He used to do a gag about his fan mail - of which he receives sackloads - much of it from 14-year-old girls saying they want to wrap him in their duvets and feed him jelly babies.

'So I claimed that I wrote back saying: 'Forget the jelly babies, what about some anal intercourse?' It took quite a lot of nerve to say it, and half the audience really roared. But a lot of them looked really upset. After a while I realised I was kind of trampling over half my audience's dreams and stopped doing it.'

It is perhaps this element of their work that has led to much criticism of the pair: juvenility itself is a universal source of humour - and there is no better juvenile humour than History Today. Juvenile cruelty, however, puts people off. It is hard to find anyone over 30 who, if they are aware of them, admits to liking Baddiel and Newman.

'I'm pretty sure it can't be true that nobody over 30 likes us,' said Newman. 'You don't fill the Birmingham Symphony Hall just with teenage girls. There's not enough baby-sitting money to go around for that.'

Baddiel and Newman refuse to be interviewed together. 'We found we argued a lot in interviews,' said Baddiel. 'So we agreed to do them separately. We have to spend the minimum amount of time together possible to keep our relationship going.'

Both make a a point of not listening to each other's part of the show. 'I turn the monitor down when I'm in the dressing room and he's on stage,' said Baddiel. 'I couldn't bear it if he got more laughs than me.'

Talking to them is a bit like the venerable television show Mr And Mrs, in which a married couple were separated, asked the same questions and then, if they gave the same answers, won a prize. Baddiel and Newman rarely give the same answers, but one thing they do agree on: they have plenty of critics.

Baddiel reckons he has been attacked more often than any other comedian of his prominence. This was in part due to Stab in the Dark, a late-night Channel 4 show in which he dropped his more approachable comic style for an intellectualising posture in which he lectured, with few laughs, on current affairs. At the end of the series, the crew clubbed together and bought the producer a T-shirt bearing the disclaimer: 'I didn't work on Stab in the Dark.'

'There were things that were absolutely crap about it,' admits Baddiel. 'I still think there were things I did that were really challenging. And Channel 4 is desperate for another series, but I took such a battering over it, I'm not sure I can do one just yet.'

Newman and Baddiel are particularly shunned by the comedy establishment. There was no sign of them at the British Comedy Awards last weekend (though they won readers' polls in publications as diverse as Radio Times and Vox magazine), and Baddiel was about the only recent former vice-president of the Cambridge Footlights not to be invited to appear in Kenneth Branagh's Peter's Friends.

'It really irritates me,' said Newman. 'We meet these people who are much more famous than us in hotel lobbies and ask them where they're playing, and it's at places for 200, while we're playing to 3,500. There's no market for these people.

'I went to see Sandra Bernhard, typical media darling. I started hallucinating I was so bored. But we don't mind, we're the people's act. Long may they all pat each other on the back and receive their meagre royalty cheques for not very substantial video sales.'

Baddiel is not so certain. 'It is much better to be loved by 20 per cent of the population and hated by 80 per cent, than be quite liked by everyone,' he said. 'But then again, one of the reasons you become a comedian is to be loved. It would be rather nice to be loved by everyone.'

(Photograph omitted)

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