Matt Forde on parents at gigs: ‘People don’t realise when they’re being antisocial’

Comedian and impressionist Matt Forde - David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise
Comedian and impressionist Matt Forde - David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise

Both of the two big talking-points of the 2022 Edinburgh Festival so far have involved acts at The Pleasance, and both have ignited public debate about what comedians are allowed to say. First, the venue’s managers last weekend scrapped the second of two nights by long-term “shock jock” Jerry Sadowitz, on the basis of putatively unacceptable content that “did not align” with the teeming comedy hub’s “values”, and led to audience walkouts.

The furore around that case, however, has now been eclipsed by one involving the leading political comedian and impressionist Matt Forde. He went viral, as they say, with a few Tweets on Tuesday, which related to a “non-walkout” at his show the night before. A babe in arms had started crying early in the show, and it had taken an age for the parent in question to exit the auditorium. Forde estimates that it was well over half an hour before they departed, at his initially reluctant and always polite suggestion.

Afterwards, he tweeted: “I get that it must be tough as a new parent, but please don’t bring babies to adult shows. It’s always a problem… I realise this sounds a bit whiny but it’s just to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” The backlash was swift, and saw many on Twitter denouncing his “attitude” to parents, some even branding him “sexist”.

“Even with all my years of experience on social media, I can’t believe the scale of the reaction,” Forde tells me now, with a laugh of incredulity. “I can write a comedy tweet, and it might get 15 ‘likes’. I tweet to say, ‘Don’t bring noisy babies to a comedy gig’, and it goes around the world. You realise you’ve hit upon a discussion that goes deeper than ‘Please don’t make noise at a gig.’”

Was he tempted to back down? “Not at all. The vast majority of people agree with me, including parents… I’ve had people coming up to me in the street saying, ‘I completely agree with you.’ Angus Robertson, the SNP minister, reminded me he brought his daughter in a papoose a few years ago, and she slept through the whole thing.

“If [babies] don’t make noise,” he adds, “it’s fine. It’s more that once the noise starts, you have a responsibility to the baby, and everyone else in that room, to leave.” A sign of self-centred times? “I don’t know if it’s a new thing, but some people don’t seem to realise that what they’re doing is antisocial.”

Forde, 39, is this week being painted online as a ranting curmudgeon, but he’s the model of calm affability when we meet round the corner from the Pleasance, as genial off-stage as on it. His take on the Sadowitz affair is equally measured. “It’s difficult to comment on that because I didn’t see it. I don’t know what he said. But whatever your principles on free speech, I think it’s hard, if not impossible, to justify comedians using the P-word, and language like that, on stage. It makes me recoil.”

His even-handedness, combined with his comic skillset, have made Forde the darling of politicians as well as punters, even if the parliamentarians are in the firing line of his barbs. Downloaded 7 million times, his podcast, The Political Party, draws them into light-hearted, tipple-assisted chat, and has bagged some big beasts. Recent guests have included Michael Heseltine, Peter Mandelson (who bared his gouty toe) and Angela Rayner (who talked about whether she dressed to distract Johnson at PMQs). This festival, Forde has snared the former prime minister Gordon Brown, and elicited some newsy comments on the energy crisis.

“I never set out to create news lines, I’m not a journalist,” Forde avers, likening himself to a superfan who loves nothing better than sitting glued to BBC Parliament, notepad in hand, or dropping into the public gallery in Westminster and watching a debate in session. “I’m on the side of politicians, and because I respect them, they open up.”

Forde with former prime minister Gordon Brown - David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise
Forde with former prime minister Gordon Brown - David Monteith-Hodge/Photographise

Yet his backstory is more complicated than that. Between 2004 and 2009, Forde worked for the Labour Party: he started as an election organiser, gamely dressing up as a chicken to cluck after Lib Dem then-leader Charles Kennedy at a Leicester South by-election, and he was later an advisor to Mark Meredith, directly elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent. He remains a devoted, even devout, admirer of the New Labour project. But his allegiances are reassuringly non-fanatical, a product of his Nottinghamshire upbringing.

“I grew up in inner-city Nottingham, then we moved to a marginal seat, Broxtowe – I was around people who were moderate Tories.” His mother, a former nun who worked as a nurse, was an influence too. “She was a single mum in the 1980s and 1990s, on benefits in tough circumstances. We were the underclass. I remember the house being cold and her saying, ‘Think warm thoughts!’ She never liked the hard Left, and thought John Major was a nice guy.”

The young Forde flirted with Leftist militancy, but recoiled. “I joined the Socialist Workers Party when I was 14. I lasted a few months. They were just so angry. I remember thinking, ‘This is insane.’” Hence his contempt for Jeremy Corbyn, under whose leadership Forde renounced his Labour membership.

There are obvious points of comparison with Rory Bremner, a hero of Forde’s, but what the latter lacks is a major televisual platform. He thinks there’s a woeful dearth of political comedy on TV tout court. “It’s a boom-time for political comedy. Big stories create a demand for comedy, and since 2014 it has been a fireworks display – the 2015 election, Brexit, Corbyn, Trump, Boris.” It’s a mystery to him why TV execs haven’t got the message. “Given the times we’re living in and the number of channels, there should have been an explosion of shows. We need shows like The Frost Report again, and they need to be on all the time.”

Forde with First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon - Getty
Forde with First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon - Getty

Forde expresses amazement, for instance, that he contributed to the return of the 1980s phenomenon Spitting Image, only for it to stream on Britbox. “It was mad not to put it on ITV. The biggest issue was that no one watched it.” At its zenith, Spitting Image held a mirror up to the warty political class, and Forde insists – gently, of course – that comedy has a key role to play in looking at who’s pulling the strings. “Politics, and how politicians use power, is always relevant – and ripe for lampooning.”

One could happily chat to him for hours – just hearing how he gets, or doesn’t get, an impression right feels like an inside scoop on his targets. About Liz Truss he notes: “She has a chaotic vocal delivery, which is funny – her emphasis is different to other people’s.” Who defeats him? “Michael Gove. I struggle with people who sound a bit Scottish and a bit English. He’s like a dart-board – no matter how often I throw the dart at that area of the board, I can’t get near it.” And his stand-out podcast interviewee so far? The late Tessa Jowell. “It was like meeting a saint,” he says, in all seriousness.

So, final question, as Forde heads back into the Fringe maelstrom: if he could go back in time to interview any politician, who would it be? He plumps first for Churchill, before alighting on John Smith. “But what about Thatcher?” I venture. “How could I have left her out?!” he wails in disbelief. “Perhaps the most transformational prime minister in our history. Of course. It’d have to be her.”

Matt Forde: Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right runs at the Pleasance Courtyard (Beyond) to August 28. Tickets: