Richard Gadd in Conversation with Nick Potter

Richard Gadd is a Scottish comedian who is taking his show Monkey See Monkey Do back to the Fringe for the second time. The show is about coming to terms with sexual assault and it has a unique format: Gadd jogs on a treadmill while interacting with pre-recorded audio and video clips. However, the lycra-clad Gadd cannot simply outrun his demons. Instead, Gadd finds it necessary to confront his demons to diminish their power. I talked to Gadd about this show as well as his portrayal of a gay RAF corporal in Against the Law, which is set 50 years ago during the time when homosexuality was illegal. Both of these shows demonstrate how a culture of silence can be dangerous.

NP: How does it feel to bring Monkey See Monkey Do back to the Fringe?

RG: It feels nice to finish it where it all started. These are the last 10 shows that I’m ever doing and I wouldn’t do it again even if someone paid me. I’m not saying that with any twinge of resentment, but I’ve done it over 200 times and I’m looking forward to allowing another show to define me, whatever that may be.

NP: Do you feel like the show has served a purpose for you?

RG: Last year I remember not feeling ready and worrying that the show was going to get panned. My confidence was low and I was psychologically all over the place because of what I was trying to come to terms with at that point. I do think about what would have happened if I had gone home. On a personal level, if you go through turmoil and you tell your friend and then you feel better about it. So if you tell 50 people and friends then you feel 50 times better about it. Sometimes you perform a show and you feel like it’s not working. However, the clarity that I gained through speaking to people and not being ashamed has helped me enormously.

NP: You say that you had these worries, but the response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s critically acclaimed and you won the Edinburgh Comedy Award for it last year. What was that like?

RG: It was the best moment of my life so far, but I don’t want to call it at 27! It was an unbelievable feeling because I was in a bad place. When I got nominated, I was surprised and I would have been happy for just that. I didn’t prepare for winning, which is why my speech was all over the place and it was just me crying and trying to remember people’s names. The show is so weird: it’s very theatrical and has long periods of seriousness, given that I couldn’t do a show about abuse and make it joke after joke after joke. If I did the show in that format, people would go home and go: ‘That was a bit odd’. I needed to be serious to some degree, so then I realised that it’s got to be theatre and comedy. I guess I just never expected a panel to go for something as dark and theatrical as my show, but I was very grateful that they did.

NP: Do you think the show has helped you in terms of therapy?

RG: Art as catharsis is an old idea and I always loved drama back at school. Somebody said there was a thing called ‘drama therapy’ where people are encouraged to perform to get rid of their demons. Back then I couldn’t understand it, but now I totally get how it works and why it’s a popular thing. I can see why art is good for channelling your emotions into something constructive.

NP: You talk about getting rid of demons and the show is called Monkey See Monkey Do. What is the reason of representing your demon as a monkey?

RG: The monkey is quite a powerful image and I felt like I’d succumbed to my core emotions of fear and anger. I felt like I’d become almost primal when I was this angry young man. I also came across this idea of the Chimp Paradox. This is the idea that we have a monkey side, which is the emotional part of the brain, and a human side, which is our rational thinking part that separates us from the monkeys; I just thought that the monkey was a powerful metaphor for losing control. I let my monkey side take over for years, hence Monkey See Monkey Do.

NP: How do you make sure that you tie in the comedy element given the subject matter of the show?

RG: I think we all suffer from anxiety and self-reflective thoughts about how we’re perceived in social situations. I couldn’t even take shopping to a human-staffed checkout so I’d go to places that had self-service machines. I didn’t want to deal with anyone and I became a complete recluse. I thought that you could find humour in these everyday anxieties dragged out to the extreme. Humour is important because you get the audience relating to something and then you can hit them with something serious. My criticism of a lot of drama and art is that it hits you right away and it doesn’t give you time to breathe and think.

NP: Let’s switch gears now and talk about Against the Law where you play a RAF corporal called Edward Macnally. Did you connect a lot to that character?

RG: Without any doubt I connect to the character because he was alive in a time when love came at an extreme cost. A handshake could get you in trouble. There were dossiers released on how to spot homosexuals on the way they walked, talked, and by recognising the bars and bathrooms they frequented. There were almost farcical stories about men being arrested for walking into the wrong sort of place. In terms of prison sentences, rapists could get five years and homosexuals could get up to 10 years. These people had to keep secrets, which is what I was doing for years, so I find it very easy to get to the root of that.

NP: Speaking of the Gay Britannia series, it has been 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Do you think it’s important to shed light on this history?

RG: It’s important to bring attention to it because we take a moment to think about how far we’ve come in 50 years, but also to think about how far we’ve still got to go. I always get caught up with the school kids on the bus where I hear homophobic slurs and I think: ‘Is that another generation brought up with these prejudices?’ They’re not being outwardly homophobic, but it’s something that they’ve picked up from generations above. Those words can hurt someone sitting three seats away and make them have feelings of guilt and shame. Gay people and straight people now have the same legal rights, but socially speaking more could be done to make kids know they shouldn’t be discriminated against. I think this country is very progressive and very much at the head of the pack, although we still have a long way to go. There are terrible injustices happening around the world, like in Chechnya where men are being beaten with lead pipes in front of their families; it’s a violent purge.

NP: Do you see similarities between Against the Law and Monkey See Monkey Do in terms of representing psychological trauma? Do you think there’s a culture of men keeping things bottled up?

RG: There are all those fables we hear where it is the prince rescuing in the princess. There’s still a huge pressure on men to have a stiff upper lip. It’s all changing, but I found it very hard to speak out and I think people see vulnerability as an affront to their masculinity. I think there is a masculine crisis going on at the moment, for example, look at Grayson Perry and what he’s doing with his investigative television series. The brain is often wired to suppress emotions, which leads to things like alcoholism. It’s no dent on someone’s character to open up and talk; I think these draconian ideas of masculinity are poisonous.

NP: Now that Monkey See Monkey Do is coming to its end, what will you next project be?

RG: There are exciting things happening and hopefully I’ll work on another show to take up to Edinburgh next year. Even though the live part of my current show is coming to an end, I hope that it will remain in people’s minds for time to come.

Gadd stresses that therapy is an ongoing process, since you can never truly shake off a problem of this magnitude, but talking about it is the best way to reassert your identity. If you want to watch Monkey See Monkey Do, you can get tickets for it at Summerhall during this year’s Fringe. The show is at 11pm until 27th August.