Simon Brodkin was already a stand-up in the making at the age of 13. “I cut my teeth on the year 9 comedy circuit,” he says with a grin. His compulsion to make people laugh had been there from a young age. But in lockdown last year, Brodkin made a discovery that helped him understand his desire to play class clown: he was diagnosed with ADHD. On reflection, it was his then undiagnosed ADHD that was driving him to that position of class clown. “Not everyone with ADHD is funny,” he quickly adds. “But when you’re in class, you’re not concentrating on anything, so let’s make everyone laugh.”
Since his diagnosis, 44-year-old Brodkin has really been getting to know himself. Before then, he’d rather have been anyone else. In the late Noughties, Brodkin became a household name as the so-called “chav” character Lee Nelson, who went on to land his own BBC comedy series and nationwide tours. When he crashed Kanye West’s set at Glastonbury, he was Lee-zus to West’s Yeezus. And when he threw a wad of money at then Fifa president Sepp Blatter in a statement on corruption, it was as footballer Jason Bent. Brodkin was one of the country’s biggest pranksters, but it was always under a different name. You’d think that self-confidence was a given for a man who gigged across the country, gatecrashed an X Factor live show and played pranks on some of the world’s biggest leaders. In reality, he was anything but.
Now, he’s working to change that. In 2019, he made his “first foray as myself” at the Edinburgh Fringe with the stand-up show, 100% Simon Brodkin. It felt like a huge moment for him, a “this is the real me” statement. The critics, he tells me, were less convinced. He puts on an uppity critic’s voice – Brodkin does a lot of voices throughout our conversation – to impersonate one review: “‘He says ‘100 per cent Simon Brodkin’… I think this only feels about 65 per cent.’” He drops the character. “And you know what? They were probably right. The critics were correct because I wasn’t yet ready to be completely open.”
This time, things are different. He’s back at the Fringe with Screwed Up, a brand new show currently playing to sold-out crowds and impressive reviews. He’s been praised for “humanising” himself on stage by showing his “genuine insecurities and vulnerabilities” – “an insight into the feckless, self-obsessed manchild behind the slightly exaggerated, feckless, self-obsessed manchild,” according to a review from comedy website Chortle. In Screwed Up, Brodkin explores the major changes that have occurred in his life in the past three years – the pandemic, learning that he was of Russian descent and his ADHD diagnosis. The latter, in particular, has completely changed his life.
Brodkin is a Fringe veteran, his first show – Everyone But Himself – debuting in 2006. Dropping his persona, though, was intimidating. The first time Brodkin did comedy as Brodkin, it felt completely new. Lee Nelson was a comfort blanket that he was used to leaning back on. “My instinct always was to pull the rug, ‘I don’t really feel that, I haven’t really got that, jokin’!’” he says, adopting Lee’s voice. “Lee was all about set up, punchline, set up, punchline.”
Brodkin always refers to Lee in the third person. Initially, he was one of many comedy characters Brodkin did when he started out; it just so happened to be the one that stuck. After shows, he’d stay and chat to people in character after live performances, “shoddy tracksuit” and all. The reason, he realises now, was because he “wasn’t comfortable as myself”. Lee was his way of hiding.
The move seemed like madness to some. “My manager didn’t want me to do it,” he says. “He was like, ‘What are you doing, this is working.’” His first gig was in a Pizza Express in central London; it felt like starting again. He recalls questioning: “How do I even stand? How do I walk? How do I hold the mic?” “Any beginner goes through [that] but when you’re a beginner beginner, no one’s paid anything to get in and everyone’s going, ‘This’ll be s***.’ But when you’ve got loads of people watching, going, ‘He’s the guy on three DVDs, massive tours, Live at the Apollo,’ it’s a little awkward.”
Although Lee was still financially lucrative for Brodkin, he wanted a change of creative direction. One pivotal moment came after he failed to get booked for I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! because “apparently not enough people know my name”. The comedy, the pranks, he says, were also becoming “less and less Lee”. The character came from “this tiny little world in south London” and didn’t have an opinion on a lot of the stuff Brodkin did. Being in character also held him back from being honest on stage. “Jesus, someone could have paid me a lot of money and [I’d have still said] no. It would have just felt totally, totally at odds with everything.”
Making the shift from 65 to 100 per cent Simon Brodkin came when he was diagnosed with ADHD. Initially he was “dismissive” of it, and didn’t think he’d talk about it on stage. The time he kicked what he thought was a full bag of clothes in frustration and instead smashed his foot into a wall? He spent the eight-hour wait in A&E thinking just how funny it would be to talk about. But this was different.
Things changed one day when Brodkin was sat in his car listening to a podcast about the condition. Brodkin was a doctor before he made the “rather impulsive decision” to give it all up for comedy, but he knew little about ADHD. The podcast was an eye-opener. “It was a doctor talking about what a lot of his patients experience with ADHD… and I cried because [it] was like someone had been following me about my entire life, writing down what I do and then saying that’s a disease. It was just like, ‘that’s me’. That is me. That is me. That was the moment [I knew] this needs to come out on stage.’
Now Brodkin is embracing that vulnerability. It’s been hard to get to this point, he says, but it’s getting easier. “When you have ADHD, you see things a little bit differently. I always felt a little bit like an outsider and you spend a lot of your life trying to fit in. I remember being slightly different people with different friends and never quite feeling like I could be me. And I think that’s why I got into characters. That’s why that came so naturally to me, because I could pretend to be someone else.”
Letting his guard down has been revelatory; he’s realised that “the world would be a better place if everyone was open… It’s something that I’m going to be getting my head around for years, but it feels like quite an exciting time to tell people, because I’m excited about it. Often that’s a trait of the ADHD – unless you’re excited about something, it just doesn’t interest you. Because I’m thrilled by this, I’m like, ‘oh my God, I get it, I understand myself, I want to tell everyone’.”
Now, Brodkin can finally take credit for Lee’s hijinks too. He’s able to remind people that yes, it was him that showered Donald Trump with swastika golf balls while he was running for president, and, perhaps most famously, interrupted then prime minister Theresa May on stage at the Tory party conference to give her a P45.
I ask Brodkin if, given the nature of these tricks, shedding the Nelson character and going by his own name was part of a move to become a more conventionally political comedian. But Brodkin is adamant that’s not the case. The laughs are still always his first concern. “If politics comes into the stunts it’s because those are the best places to stunt, because all the stunt does is capture a moment in a funny way, riding off the crest of what people are feeling,” he says. “In that example, I was looking at Theresa May [saying] ‘I’m strong and stable’, and she was weak and about to fall over. And that was before she danced.”
Brodkin, it seems, has worked out who he is: “I’m a funny guy. I’m not trying to get into politics.” With Lee put to bed, the pranks can be his main focus, and he’s got his sights set on some lofty targets. “With each one, I want to be raising the bar a little bit more,” he says. “After Simon Cowell, there’s only one place to go and that’s the head of state. Because you want the stakes to be higher. Prime minister, president, let’s keep it going. God next?”
‘Simon Brodkin: Screwed Up’ plays at the Pleasance Courtyard at the Edinburgh Fringe until 27 August