Jonny Pelham: 'I was getting my emotional connection to the world through fantasy rather than reality'
- Jay Richardson
- 30 September 2019
In his current show, Jonny Pelham reveals a childhood trauma that still leaves him feeling numb. Here he talks about his new strategy for finding comedy amid the carnage
Richard Gadd and Hannah Gadsby won plaudits and respect at recent Edinburgh Fringes for shows that dealt with their sexual abuse. Like them, Jonny Pelham is now revisiting earlier material with the disclosure of his own abuse, as an eight-year-old, by a family friend. Yet while he admired the respective 2016 and 2017 Edinburgh Comedy Award winners, he's eschewed their more theatrical, revelatory approach, sharing his mistreatment at his show's start and opting for 'something closer to traditional stand-up. It is very gaggy and punchy I think.'
Off Limits expresses changes over the past three years of the 28-year-old's life, when he went from being 'pre-therapy, very sexually repressed, never even had a girlfriend, never been in love' to entering a stable relationship with another stand-up and 'fairly happy, a lot more present in myself'. As a child, Pelham became a Walter Mitty-style daydreamer in order to cope with both the abuse and the regular surgery required on his legs for his rare popliteal pterygium syndrome. 'I found my body a very difficult place to be, so constructed this ideal world where I would imagine winning an Oscar or being a football manager,' he reflects. 'I was getting my emotional connection to the world through fantasy rather than reality. It was a great coping strategy because I needed to find a way out. But as an adult, it stopped me caring about the world, repressed my anger, my anxiety, my sex drive.'
In both his stand-up and a comedy short he made for Sky about belatedly losing his virginity, Pelham projected a persona that was only semi-truthful, exaggerating some oddball aspects as reason enough for his haplessness with women. Consequently, he states that his previous show, 2017's Just Shout Louder, was only OK: 'a boring, middle-class, beta-male show. The tension within me as a comic is that I don't quite know what my voice is. But this show helps. When I'm remembering going on my first date as a 25-year-old, I'm no longer having to think "what's my relationship to the audience?" because I'm able to just express what happened. Two years ago, trying to talk about this and ignore the abuse, I was thinking "I'm going on this date: what would my character be doing?" There wasn't the same truth behind it.'
Despite this, he can still find the situation very funny where he's 'trying to internet date while not being able to reveal that you were abused as a kid. I'm not angry about it in the same way Hannah is because I'm still quite numb to it.' Instead, he's using his detachment and the insight he's gained from his mother, a therapist working with non-offending paedophiles, to explore how society ignores or sensationalises child sexual abuse.
He quotes some frankly horrific statistics and decries the way we conjure an image of 'evil bogeymen who snatch kids … every couple of years we allow ourselves to feel good by talking about how bad they are. But these are our friends, our family, our neighbours.' Pelham talked to one expert on the subject. 'I don't think he was being hyperbolic when he said that if we understood the level of child abuse happening in this country, it would fundamentally change how we view ourselves. Because it's happening at such a crazily high level.'
Pelham is in love now, and his Channel 4 pilot, Blazing Bangladeshis, about his time in an Asian youth gang, has started shooting. 'I'm fine. Or as fine as any of us are, rather than having this catastrophic thing that I'm always going to be traumatised by. I'd like the show to be funny, light-hearted and not mawkish enough so that people can leave and have a conversation afterwards, instead of abuse being an absolutely massive thing that we never talk about.'
Jonny Pelham: Off Limits, Soho Theatre, London, Thursday 3–Saturday 5 October.