BN1 Chats with… Dane Baptiste

The weekday existence of a rising comedian doesn’t meet my preconceptions it seems. Rather than lunching with a boisterous entourage at some trendy eatery, Dane Baptiste is perusing today’s periodicals and hanging with the casualties of ‘Big Society’. Taking my call in his local library, he’s apologetic for the building’s untraditional amount of background noise, but he’s adamant he needs to be there. “If I do sit at home I may have a porn seizure, also I’m not going to fall into any kind of YouTube trap,” he laughs. It’s a blithe opening salvo for the South Londoner, but he’s not fooling me. Beyond his initial flippant offerings, his work expresses the experiences of an increasingly unheard demographic.

Intentionally or not, he’s becoming the voice of an urban youth disaffected by worsening inequality. There are millions of young people who grew up in unremarkable homes, with loving families and little to fear, who now find themselves with crushing prospects in an unsympathetic world. “There’s a new type of growing pains. When you’re arriving towards your 30s you’re supposed to graduate from a lot of this angst, but people still have it.” With his realistic take on politics, family pressures and diversity; Baptiste is being propelled towards mainstream success. As well as preparing for a stand-up tour, which hits Brighton’s Komedia on Weds 9 March, he’s about to see his modern reality return to BBC Three.

After a successful pilot last year, ‘Sunny D’ has been given a full series. One of the brightest shows to grace the BBC in a while, it’s the latest commission in their next-generation programming line-up. “It comes from a lot of boxsets I watch, like ‘The Wire’ or ‘The Sopranos’, in that it features characters who are trying to balance their professional lives, their home lives and their ideal lives.” Co-starring Gbemi Ikumelo and the legendary Don Warrington MBE, ‘Sunny D’ is a quick and clever look at the ‘quarter-life crisis’. Baptiste’s character is 29 and lives with his parents. He might be smart and ambitious, but an uninspiring job and claustrophobic home-life are hardly offering opportunities to shine.

Job security keeps our protagonist trapped in a soulless routine, but will he gamble on following his dreams? It’s a situation many will identify with… “The ‘D’ can stand for many things. Determination to achieve, or our desperation in how there’s no work places, or New Labour selling a dream of getting a higher education meaning a good job. There are certain people who’ll be earning £30k, yet will still be homeless.” In Baptiste’s neighbourhood the house prices are soaring. Now London is second only to New York and Hong Kong for expensive living. Private sector rent has increased by 34% during the last decade, with the majority of London prices now exceeding the typical admin, sales or care sector salaries. Somehow the capital’s residential density remains the lowest of any major European city, yet many young people struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

He was once in the same position as his on-screen counterpart, dreams obstructed by career ladders and concerned life was headed nowhere. Rather than submit to corporate nonsense he realised there was nothing to lose. “Sometimes it’s the best foundation to pursue your dreams. You can be doing a 9-5, and still not be able to afford the indicators of a professional or an adult. So you might as well do what the fuck you want!” Nominated for 2014’s Best Newcomer at Edinburgh Comedy Award and listed as One to Watch all last year, he’s dealing with the expectations for his tour in typical fashion. “I’m confident now if I have an audience it will go quite well. Most of the pressures are out of my control. All you can do is continue to work and strive to be an original voice.” Live, Baptiste offers similar heartfelt introspection to his TV work, his complex and realistic world-view exploring the tribulations of the UK’s youth.

He certainly has an inquisitive mind, asking how real celebrities can find the time to appear on reality shows, why many homophobes can revere the Kray Twins and did Tony Blair became Catholic so he can hide in Vatican City when those human rights abuses catch up? “Or… he’s doing it because he wants to be ordained as a minister, so he won’t get taxed on his properties!” Not simply casting out a slew of conspiracy theories and quick judgements, Baptiste has researched and thought about his art. This might be good thing, because much of the population aren’t asking enough questions. “I don’t want to patronise people with what I create. It’s a unique position, in terms of entertainment, to be a comedian because you can add a journalistic aspect to your act.” Occasionally there’s note of awkwardness in Baptiste’s voice. Whether it’s simple modesty, or just embarrassment at revealing a truth we’ve all glossed over, it’s hard to tell.

There’s evident disgust when he discusses how anyone can be elevated due to a lack of talent, as long as they make other people feel better about their situation. “This is who we put on a pedestal now, and it’s a sad thing. The question is, ‘what’s so lacking in your life that you need someone worse off to feel better?” Modern culture too often champions ignorance, while reinforcing the idea that if anyone dissents or dispute the populist view they’re a ‘hater’. As such, people in their late 20s and early 30s are increasingly being reduced to adolescents. “It’s all about how many sweets you have and how many toys you can have. Beauty has become commodity. People spend more money on how they look than on their homes. The crazy thing is we needed to keep spending.” Exploring a society where celebrity culture and weapons are the only exports the UK has left, Baptiste is determined comedy can be used as an honest form of politics, perhaps even a weapon to fight back.

As well as the impending series and tour he’s now developing new ideas, including an idea for a sports show. So he’s certainly not shy of hard work. While people are heating up their breakfast he’s thinking about his dinner. “I’d have been doodling in a Monday morning meeting, or trying to write some material at work anyway. Being incentivised and financed to do it now is fine for me. I really enjoy it.” So today he’s holed up in the library, with a rich slice of London life parading before him, kept company by school kids, the homeless and the lonely whilst he writes. For all its diversity it’s an environment he loves, and even celebrates. “Not all trolls can afford their own computer, so they can come and insult people with anonymity on their side. It’s like the circle of life in here.”

Dane Baptiste’s ‘Reasonable Doubts’ comes to Brighton’s Komedia on Weds 9 March. His BBC Three series, ‘Sunny D’, is out later this year.

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