Rhod Gilbert: “I think about my cancer 24/7. But there’s humor in it, definitely’ | Comedy
A a lot has changed since Rhod Gilbert started filming The Book of John in 2019 – a tour that still hasn’t finished. It was first interrupted by a pandemic. You may have heard of it. Then, in 2022, Gilbert had to interrupt the tour again with a persistent unexplained throat problem. Trekking in Cuba to raise money for the Velindre Cancer Center in Cardiff, of which he is a long-time patron, Gilbert discovered the problem was actually cancer – for which he has been undergoing treatment at Velindre ever since. “I’m sitting here doing chemo,” he tells me, “with a picture of me on the wall as a fundraiser patron. You couldn’t make it up, honestly.
The tone of voice, via Zoom from Wales, is recognizable to anyone familiar with the 54-year-old’s stand-up. The escalation of dismay is the keystone. On stage, he goes into a full-fledged rant and stays there. Or it was. “It’s a little mellowed now,” Gilbert said. So much the better: Gilbert needs to take care of himself. This is his first national newspaper interview since being diagnosed with stage four cancer in July while recovering from surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. “It’s weird,” he admits. “I don’t know how much to talk about cancer. I haven’t really found what to say. I’m more than happy to talk about it, but I haven’t had time to process it at all.
He came out of his recovery (“Some days I’m well enough to potter and other days, or whole weeks, I’m in bed”) to discuss the digital and DVD release of The Book of John. The show marked a departure for the Carmarthen man and a career high (more or less 2008 for ages Rhod Gilbert and the award-winning Mince Pie). After years of tackling life’s milder irritants – gas stations, baked potatoes, the tog of duvets – with apoplectic fury, he returns after a seven-year hiatus with a show that deals with subjects of considerable importance: mourning; a recent mini-stroke; difficulties conceiving a child with his wife, actress Sian Harries. Warming up was always Gilbert’s trade, but now he had everything to warm up to.
What’s remarkable about the show is Gilbert’s candor and, while he’s carved out territory he’s never approached in 20 years of stand-up comedy, how funny he makes it all. That’s partly because his roaring mouse shtick, even “softened”, is still hilarious. It’s also John’s. John was Gilbert’s driver throughout the show’s taped time because, after his mini-stroke, the comic was not allowed to drive. Always on hand with choice idiocy as Gilbert’s life crumbles around him, John’s dumb talk is the grease that oils the wheels of the show.
John is, I dare believe, a bulletproof device for bringing lightness to heavy materials. “Device? What!” Gilbert replies, and I’m afraid that with my barely concealed skepticism about John’s real existence, I’ve unleashed another rant. But no: there is a twinkle in Gilbert’s eye. “Up until this show,” he says, “all of my stand-up was made up. I think almost everything was entirely fictional. And on this show, that’s not the case. It’s all real stuff that happened: stroke, my mother’s Alzheimer’s, fertility treatment. And John exists. I hired a driver that year. But yeah, there’s comedic license taken with our arguments He pauses, “To say more than that would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?”
The Book of John was not the first time Gilbert publicly addressed male infertility. With shows such as Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience and Rhod Gilbert’s Growing Pains, many will know the Welshman more as a TV presenter than a stand-up, and in that role he presented two intimate, autobiographical documentaries of the BBC, in 2018 and 2021, on social anxiety and infertility. They had a big impact – and they also changed the direction of his career.
With his 2012 live show The Man With the Flaming Battenberg Tattoo, Gilbert felt his stand-up was failing. “I had to look for things to be angry about, to match what I was doing,” he says. “And it’s clearly diminishing returns. I felt that, and I think the audience felt that. At the end of this tour, he announced that he was quitting live comedy. And for seven years, “I didn’t miss it at all. Did not write a word. Not motivated in any way to do so.
But the experience of making those documentaries, and all those other “stuff of life” he was dealing with, opened Gilbert up to a new way of working. A man who had never lied except on stage began to tell the truth openly. A man with extreme social anxiety has started talking to strangers about his most intimate experiences. “As I got older, I started to feel – and maybe it’s a little weird – that I have a bit of a platform here. And I should do more than just talk about toothbrushes. More than that, however, he adds, “I’ve definitely grown into someone who wants to be really open and talk about things, and who sees the value in talking.” It’s the same with his cancer today, he says .
“Roughly there were two reactions to my comedy,” Gilbert says. “You’re funny or you’re not.” Whereas now I get letters and emails from all over the world from people talking about their own experiences with a stroke, their parents’ Alzheimer’s disease, or infertility. It’s a totally different answer. And I really like that. Offstage, Gilbert says, “Years ago, if I had gone for a walk on the beach with the dog, I would have kept my head down and wouldn’t have talked to anyone. Whereas now, if someone stops me, I’ll find myself in an hour-long conversation about infertility, cancer, whatever. The most intimate conversations. It’s a turnaround – and an unusual role for a comedian. I tell Gilbert that I can’t imagine Jimmy Carr having a date on the beach. He replies, “I can’t imagine Jimmy Carr on a beach, to be honest.”
Gilbert is so attached to his new, unfiltered way of being that he’s already making plans for the stand-up show that deals with his experiences with cancer. “If I’m okay,” he says, then breaks off. “I have to stop saying that. People scold me. When you are going through Cancer, any sign of doubt or negativity is very quickly nipped in the bud. And so he begins again:When I’m doing, the next show will be in the same vein. Cancer is on my mind 24/7, but when I’m well enough to write, I jot down a few things. And there’s humor in that, definitely.
This belief represents another reversal on the part of Gilbert, who doubted he would ever write another stand-up show. “Every Edinburgh I was like, ‘How to Earth am i going to write another show next year? How am I going to write another five minutes? Whereas now I’m crazy. I have a 250 page document on things going on. Don’t rule out a return of the off-stage Book of John star, either. “The response to John is just crazy,” says Gilbert. “People waiting in the wings say, ‘Is John there?’ He’s like a folk hero! He’s more popular than me!
All of this gives Gilbert something to focus on as he goes through a tough time. “All my work is gone. My social life is gone. It’s all gone. Everything. It’s just me and fucking cancer, really. The last seven postponed shows of The Book of John tour are scheduled for 2023:” Having them is something to look forward to, really. But I make things very dark, and they’re not.
Today, he’s been heartened that his stand-up pals – Rob Brydon, Greg Davies and others – are rallying to his aid, promoting The Book of John’s release on social media and beyond that, because Gilbert is not well enough to do so. himself. “I’m really conscious about sanity now,” he says, “and I check myself every day. I feel good, oddly. I am happy, optimistic and hope that next year everything will be fine.