Jewish standup comedian and writer David Cohen discusses his new book, Stand Up, Barry Goldman.
Despite living further afield nowadays, David Cohen is still a Leeds lad at heart: “I grew up in Leeds in the 1960s and 70s,” David explained: “My family belonged to Moortown Synagogue, which later moved onto Shadwell Lane to become UHC. All of my formative years and simchas took place there. I went to the local youth club called Dror, which was a kind of paramilitary ring of Habonim. My brother Reuven and my sister Ruth Bell both stayed in Leeds. They’ve both been active in the community, Rabbi Reuven has led the Lubavitch youth activities for 40 years while Ruth runs the Heritage Centre on Shadwell Lane. Whenever I came back to Leeds I was only ever know as Rabbi Cohen’s brother!”
David left Leeds for a varied and successful career as both a standup comedian and writer: “I started doing standup in 1983, and was in the business for over a decade, performing more than 2,000 shows, from Edinburgh Fringe Festival to tours in the US. After that I moved into writing TV shows like Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You. I also wrote for sitcoms like My Family, and Lee Mack’s Not Going Out. More recently I’ve been writing all of the songs for Horrible Histories.”
Now David has moved on to writing novels: “Really, ever since I was fairly young, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. That was always my dream. I just kept getting distracted from doing that. I went to university and then I became a journalist. I thought that was how you became a writer. Then the whole alternative comedy thing blew up and became much bigger and I found it easier to go out and be a standup comedian. It didn’t require the kind of discipline and hours that a novel would. When that stopped, I felt I needed to find something to replace it fairly quickly so I went into the comedy writing for TV because I’d done quite a lot of that. It’s only since I began writing songs for Horrible Histories that I became more disciplined as a writer. When the songs are so short, every word has to count. That’s when the ability to write something bigger like a novel came and three years ago I sat down and thought ‘time to finally write a novel.’”
The novel, Stand Up, Barry Goldman, follows the eponymous protagonist as he strives to become a standup comedian: “It’s a very fictionalised version of my life really. It’s gone through three big rewrites, and each time it’s become more fictional and less autobiographical. It starts off with me – or rather Barry – as a teenager, wanting to be a poet. He performs poetry and he goes to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and that’s where he finds this new alternative comedy starting up, and he tries to be a part of that. But he’s drawn back to Leeds by his family, for various reasons. It’s really a coming of age story about this middle-class Jewish Leeds boy in the 1970s.”
Full of laughs all the way through and with a heartening ending, the novel certainly brings a smile: “I hope that people laugh a lot, when they read it. There are little signposts of 1970s Leeds in there, little in-jokes and things. There’s a lot of stuff about Leeds United in that era and the kind of arguments that Jewish people had between themselves about Israel, which are eternal. I think people will recognise the kind of things that were going on and how they’ve developed to where we are now. I hope that people will say to their friends ‘you must read this book, I really enjoyed it’. That’s all I want them to take away from it.” Stand Up, Barry Goldman is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk