David Schneider: From Twitter to stand-up, and being counted

The Tories' demise interrupted his solo career, but now he is back on stage and leading the comedy front in the AV referendum Yes campaign. Matt Chorley meets David Schneider
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The Independent Online

Unemployment is soaring, the economy is stalling, the cuts are coming. But the return of a Conservative government is good news for one unlikely group. Lefty comics, who once again have something to rail against. Every cloud and all that.

David Schneider is among them. The rubber-faced comedian, writer, actor and director – best known for his roles in The Day Today, I'm Alan Partridge and Friday Night Armistice as well as the kids show Uncle Max – has gone back to his stand-up roots.

"When the Tories were in I did stand-up, so now they are back, I thought I should do it again. Although, it's not quite true to say lefty comics held back for Labour, I think they did for half of Labour's reign... and then, obviously with Iraq, it all went a bit wrong."

A prolific user of Twitter, his 140-character gags on breaking stories appear faster than the Sky News ticker. Recent hits include "Shocking! – Prince William confirms he's not going to wear a wedding ring. Or clothes." And: "Government try to trap marchers into bad headlines by littering route with 60 abandoned police vans, 850 fire extinguishers and a Camilla."

He will combine his two passions in a live stand-up show in Edinburgh this August, with special guests, audience interaction via the internet and the first half of each show streamed live online. "It's never been done before, probably for a reason."

Before that he has a bigger challenge. Making electoral reform funny – while being very serious about the need to ditch first-past-the-post in favour of the Alternative Vote.

He confesses, "I suppose I'm a lefty" but wears his political allegiance loosely. Despite always having voted Labour, he has dabbled with the idea of supporting smaller parties. "With AV, I could now have a hint of Green in my vote. It's very significant."

The prospect of a referendum on a system that ranks candidates by order of preference might not at first appear to offer a rich seam of comedy, but the spats between the two sides have already gone beyond satire. Not least when, last week, the Lib Dem minister Chris Huhne likened the Tory party chairman – his coalition partner – Baroness Warsi to Goebbels for claiming AV would favour the BNP.

Schneider is baffled as to the logic of the "No to AV" campaign. "Warsi on one day said AV is going to let in fascists. The next day the Daily Mail says it'll lead to bland coalitions. How can we have bland fascists? Can't they sort it out between them?"

As a result of these more bizarre claims he has gone from being "positive" to "passionate" about the need for change. "They say it's too complex, it's too complicated. Well, I think most people can count beyond one," he scoffs, with a hint of the indignation shown when, as Tony Hayers, he rejected Alan Partridge's desperate ideas for TV shows.

He is even more scathing about the No campaign's claim – disputed by AV supporters – that the referendum and new system would cost £250m. "It is really stretching the truth – but, even if it were true, are they saying it's not worth paying for more democracy, for a system that people can believe in more, to have MPs that people feel they own more?

"Are they going to do that in the Middle East and say: 'Listen, it's great, democracy, but it is a bit expensive. They've had 30 years without elections and that's cheap'? I'm not trivialising what's happening, but I am pointing out the absurdity of their argument."

After 30 years of landslide elections decided in a small cluster of seats, many felt their vote was wasted. "That was compounded by the MPs expenses thing. What we need and what AV offers is a sense of ownership of the democratic process, which many, especially younger, people feel totally alienated from. For 30 years people have been doing tactical voting, either to keep the Tories out or to get Blair out. AV will eliminate that."

Yesterday's official launch of the Yes campaign was declared a politician-free zone. One man who has been frozen in particular is the Deputy Prime Minister, who secured the referendum on AV in the first place. Schneider refers to it as the "Cleggephant in the room" of the Yes campaign.

"If we are talking AV, I would say let's not talk about individual political parties. Ooh, I sound like a politician now, don't I. What's happened to me?" He admits to being "excited in the 'I Agree With Nick' days" when the Lib Dem poll ratings soared in the wake of the first TV leader's debate.

He believes the Lib Dems had "no choice but to go into the coalition, but what they have done has been disastrous for themselves". But he has "mellowed" and insists the "jury is out" because "we don't know how extreme this Tory government could be if the Lib Dems weren't putting a brake on them. "We are in the midst of this great disillusionment with the Lib Dems but, in hindsight, in 10 or 15 years, we might realise that a hung parliament helped mitigate against the extremes."

Punters at recent gigs haven't made up their minds yet either. "I do a tiny bit of politics. I did one or two gags the other night and a guy came up and said 'I didn't like all the politics stuff'. In the old days, when the Tories were in power, you said what do you think of the government and it was clearly 'boo, hiss'. You ask that sort of mob question to an audience now and no one quite wants to shout out what they think. That's why it's quite hard to get AV going as well."

The line-up of comedians backing the Yes campaign is impressive. Alongside Schneider there's Eddie Izzard, John Cleese, Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry. But there is a downside to having all this comic talent on board.

"My issue is I sometimes think of a joke that would be great for the No2AV campaign." For now, at least, he's keeping them to himself. Securing an historic victory on 5 May is no laughing matter.

Curriculum vitae

1963 Born 22 May in London's East End. His grandfather was playwright Abish Meisels, who fled Austrian Nazis.

1981 Goes to Oxford University to study modern languages and does a PhD in Yiddish drama. Meets his partner of 20 years, who is also an actress. They have two teenage daughters.

1982 Begins performing a physical comedy act at university, and meets Armando Iannucci.

1991 Iannucci recruits him for Radio 4's news spoof On The Hour.

1994-95 Appears in five episodes of Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, in which he plays five roles including the fictional BBC commissioning editor Tony Hayers.

1996 Plays a train engineer in the spy film Mission: Impossible.

1997 Brings back the fictional Hayers in the short film Add-On Alan... with Alan Partridge.

2002 A brief appearance as "the scientist" in the horror flick 28 Days Later.

2004 Plays Joseph Goebbels in the comedy Churchill: The Hollywood Years.

2008 Broadcasts views on fame, including Prince William, Mark Ronson and Peaches Geldof, as part of BBC Three's "Most Annoying People 2008".

2009 Wins Radio 5 Live's "Best Tweeter" award.