#RoleModelReading: An interview with Richard Gadd

When comedian Richard Gadd brought his latest show, Monkey See Monkey Do, to the Melbourne Comedy Festival earlier this year, it met with unusual reviews. It was brilliant, they all agreed, but some weren’t convinced it was comedy.

A reviewer for The Age felt the show’s choice of topics (depression, masculinity, recovery) and its format (Richard spends a lot of time on a treadmill, simulating the run from his internal monologue, among other things) alienates the viewer. Another at The Music basically said it’s not what they signed up for—which, I dunno, I’ve been watching comedians a long time and that seems like it might be taken as a compliment.

Of course, these reviewers’ responses are in a distinct minority. The show’s won some of the best awards a newcomer comic can hope to win. But something about the fact that these reviews, which seem to cringe in the face of Richard’s disclosure-style comedy, were published in Australia gave me pause. They sidestep the silences that Richard’s show is puncturing, ones that are especially loud silences in Australia—which in the arts, of all places, you would hope would get a meaty going-over. And that, basically, is why we wanted to talk to Richard Gadd on Homer.

Richard is a very regular-seeming white guy—which is to say, in a crowd of twenty-something white guys, he doesn’t stand out. Which positions his experiences—as he knows—as something with immediate proximity to the everyday lives of everyone who looks like him. Look, his work says, I’m a witty, football-loving lad who had a decent education and a loving family, and I’ve got shit that needs dealing with.

Regular-seeming white guys are not accustomed to, least of all comfortable with, someone implying that our lives could be subject to traumatic experiences, that we might become depressed, feel helpless, be in need of help. And that’s what Richard does, just by the very look of him, dealing as he does with his own past experiences head-on and in public settings.

To expose yourself this way, risking rejection, the way Richard is doing, and then extend your hand to people to see if they need help—this is all the best kind of behaviour. So we reached out to Richard to see how he got to a place where he felt ready, even compelled, to be the man he is.

Who was your first role model? Do you remember why?

I think Zinedine Zidane actually, oddly. I was a football fanatic (still am), and so that France 1998 World Cup final where he pretty much single-handedly won the game was one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen. He also seemed like such an incredible guy. Humble in amongst all the fame and glory. He was a great role model. That headbutt, though, in the 2006 World Cup final on Materazzi – talk about illusion-shattering!

What values or behaviours do you remember being encouraged to live out in order to become or be a man?

To stick up for myself. I remember that being drilled into me. Not in a physical way, more just that it was an important life lesson to learn. I think it is, actually. Sometimes it is hard to fight your corner but getting used to confrontation and self-respect is key to a happy life – that does not mean violence, just being able to speak out when things seem unfair. It is something I have struggled with – especially when status is involved – but I will always do from now on.

When you think of the years that were formative to your sense of self, be it to the man you are now or were earlier, where do they fall in your life and why?

I think state school was fairly formative. It was a very alpha place to be and I remember going to school with the mindset that I needed to be tough in order to stop anybody picking on me. Ironically, in my early years there, I probably attracted more bullying my way in my attempts to try and be macho than I would have if I was just nice to everyone. That lasted about two years before I let my guard down. I do regret it. But you learn.

How did you come to discover the creative arts, and how has being a comedian changed your values or sense of yourself, positively or otherwise?

I knew the second I played Macbeth in the school play that I wanted to be involved in the arts for the rest of my life. I felt such freedom in the arts. Acting and writing and playing music, it was just the ultimate release and still is. Of course being around artistic people often goes hand in hand with being around open-minded people and that can teach you to be more compassionate and understanding. That is the most important thing art has taught me.

What have your relationships with men been like over the years, compared to your relationships with women?

Varying. I think in my early years I took great comfort in being around my male mates. Not in a pack-mentality way, but definitely in a way where I felt mutually empowered. That lasted up until the end of university. To be validated by a masculine world now seems alien to me, but it definitely informed my first twenty-one years or so. Nowadays, I feel slightly alienated by male dominant groups. I just do not understand that old side of myself. Now I definitely think women make better company. Perhaps the debate here is not about Men vs. Women (because, let’s face it, gender is more complicated than that) – it is more a debate of Masculine vs. Feminine. I used to feel empowered by masculinity, now I realise that true masculinity often means simply being comfortable with your feminine side.

What does it lend to your sense of self to make work that is emotive and intensely humane about difficult life events?

To try and understand it. Nothing is ever achieved wrapping oneself in knots and thinking the same thoughts over and over. You need to get those thoughts out of your brain and channel them into something else. People are cynical about therapy but it is a lot better than keeping stuff bottled up. I had wrapped myself in knots over what happened to me – I had this notion that one day I would wake up and I would be over it – but I realised I needed to put thought to action to finally overcome. If you put your thoughts down on paper, or out in front of you in a show, or a sculpture, or a painting, or however you want to do it, you can see them for what they truly are and figure out how to overcome them. Writing them down was a release for me. Imagine how great a release it was when I started telling rooms full of strangers. Art has an incredible ability to dwarf the mightiest of themes.

Do you have a sense of duty to address burdensome ideas of how a man should act?

Yes, masculine ideas and the idea that “this didn’t happen to guys” was what held me back. I felt I could not open up because it would shatter people’s illusion of me as a man. Funnily enough, after opening up, I felt more empowered as a man than I have ever felt in my life. Facing fear and overcoming it led to a strength I did not know I had.

The way critics react to your work seems to fall into two camps. Both agree that it’s impressive and important, but one fails to see it as ‘humour’. What do you think’s going on there? 

The laughter count is abandoned at the fifty-minute mark to talk seriously and perhaps they remember the ten minutes of serious stuff because it is more hard-hitting and visceral – whilst also being the last thing the audience hears before leaving. That does not mean it is void of humour, it just drops it to talk seriously for a moment. If I did a show about abuse and it was jokes right up until the end with no deep analysis, the critics would have more of a problem with that.

You said to an interviewer that people come up to you after Monkey See to talk about their own experiences “because they think this guy’s going to listen.” Do you want to be that touchstone for people?

It is fine if they do. If I present myself as a man who has experienced this and got through this awful life event then I must be there for other people as best I can post-show. It is only fair. To say what I say and then not give people the time would be unfair. Ultimately I did this show to try and lift stigma in a public realm. It is my duty to do that personally as well.

Who would you have encouraged yourself to look up, whose behaviour to aspire to, if you were a boy or teenager today? 

I would tell myself to never do anything I was uncomfortable with – and to do what makes me happy and live by the beat of my own drum. You have to satisfy yourself before satisfying others. Also, keep those that love you close. Don’t aspire to be like anyone else. Aspire to be the best possible version of yourself. That’s a fable that is as old as time but still rings true today.

What do you value most? What do you love?

My family. That is a clichéd answer but they have been fantastic throughout this whole thing. Open-minded, supportive – constantly telling me to follow my dreams and keeping me following them during the times I wavered. That is parenting – supporting your child no matter what they want to do (within legal frameworks). Telling your kid they need to be something or they need to do something or follow a family tradition is bullshit and will only lead to unhappiness. No kid wakes up one day and wants to be a lawyer or an accountant or a bank manager (I apologise to anyone who did). Most often they want to be astronauts and singers and actors and footballers – it is the parent’s job to ensure such dreams never die. Mine never did and I am eternally grateful to my parents for encouraging me. Also, thanks for not making me go to church.

Header photo by Marcos Luiz.

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