Rhod Gilbert Reveals The Crippling Shyness That Nearly Killed His Comedy Career

Dogged by chronic anxiety from a young age, he almost never went ahead with becoming a stand-up

It’s hard to imagine, even when he’s telling it to your face, but Rhod Gilbert suffers terribly from shyness.

The 49-year-old award-winning Carmarthen comic has struggled with social anxiety his whole life, the details of which he examines in a new TV documentary.

“It’s probably going to come as a shock to some people, and I can understand why,” says Rhod, whose Stand Up To Shyness airs on BBC One Wales next week.

“But when I was in university in Exeter I didn’t speak to anyone at first, couldn’t bring myself to do it – and it went on that way for ages.

“I wouldn’t go to the canteen like everyone else, I’d instead choose to buy my food from the local petrol garage and then I’d eat it alone in my room.

“I’d end up missing loads of lectures too – until, one day, my tutors took me to one side and gave me a friend.”

“Yeah, to be like my mentor, to take me under his wing and drag me out of my shell. The powers that be even moved me from where I was staying into his halls of residence.

“And it worked. Probably because he was a Welshman in a strange land too. Stuart McDonald his name was, from Monmouth.

“We’re still really good mates, today. If it wasn’t for the fact he now lives abroad I’d have had him in this documentary with me.”

Talking of which, the show also reveals how the funnyman’s battle dates right back to his early childhood.

“I honestly can’t think of what might have sparked it off, but I’ve always preferred being on my own – or perhaps I should say that I’ve always felt more comfortable in my own company.

“I’d even refuse to go to school when I was at primary age, and if you look at any class photo with me in it I’m always the kid with his hand in front of his face, or turning away from the camera.

“In Cubs camp I even locked myself in a Portaloo for virtually the whole weekend,” he laughs, but it’s a hollow sound.

“Honestly, I’d have some bawling rows with my parents about it – they’d be like, ‘That’s it Rhod – we’re getting the doctor out’.”

I wonder how much of these feelings or insecurities, call them what you will, he inherited.

Indeed, in a 2012 chat I had with Rhod, he mentioned once getting to the final of a Channel Four talent show, not long after he’d started out in stand-up, and ringing his mum to tell her.

And, rather than, ‘Great, well done son’, he recalled her reply being, ‘Oh God, no’.

“I’ve totally got that same trait,” he smiles.

“Like, when someone persuaded me to do a comedy course in 2002, I ended up skiving off most of it.

“I’d ring up from the pavement outside the venue and say I was too ill to make it in.

“And, once I’d hung up, the sense of relief would be palpable – I felt like I’d been let off the hook.

“I don’t even know what I was so afraid of – getting something wrong and looking stupid, or ending up the butt of someone’s joke?”

That didn’t change when he started getting gigs either.

“Oh, I’d be over the moon if they got cancelled,” Rhod winces.

“I swear, even if I’d had to drive all the way to Leeds after a full day’s work to do a show, nothing would have made me happier than to find out upon arriving that the booking was off.

“Although it meant I wouldn’t get paid, wouldn’t get back home until 3am and then would have to go back to the day job on just a few hours sleep – I’d still feel elated.”

However, it was Rhod’s rapid rise through the ranks of comedy which, oddly, proved his salvation.

“You’d think having the spotlight on me, speaking as a naturally shy person, would be a nightmare, but no,” he shrugs.

“If anything, the opposite was true – becoming known, having some sort of minor celebrity, became like a lightsaber or a protective suit.

“Because, whereas before I’d be scared of social situations and having to make chat-chat with strangers, I now had the upper-hand.

“Horrible way to phrase it, I know. But, these days, if anyone comes up to me I already have an idea of what they’re going to say, so I’m prepared.

“That way the ice is already broken and it’s others who are nervous about talking to me, not the other way around.

“And now, if I catch anyone staring at me, I figure they either recognise me or are trying to work out if I’m that bloke off the telly, whereas previously it just made me feel self-conscious.”

But, as Rhod discovered whilst making the new doc, it’s problem that isn’t often talked about.

“Well, it’s not exactly a cool alpha male thing to admit, is it?” he says.

“Especially in this day and age where anyone seen as sensitive is labelled a ‘snowflake’ or something equally derogatory, which is part of the reason I wanted to do this programme.”I want to stick two fingers up to shyness, make people aware that it’s a widespread problem and not just something they and they alone are going through.

“What is more, I met plenty who suffer with it way worse than me – people whose lives are being destroyed because they struggle to so much as leave the house.”

And during the show Rhod takes three acutely anxious types and puts them through the very process that turned his own life around – he coaches them to become stand-up comedians.

“Two of them wouldn’t have dreamed about doing anything like that in a million years, so it was a tough one to pull off.

“That said, it’s not like I booked them a gig at the Glee Club in Cardiff on a Friday night in front of a crowd full of drunken hecklers – I did at least try to ease them in gently.

“Actually, I picked the Buffalo Bar, a mid-weeker when my mate Mike Bubbins was comparing, and slotted them in and around more experienced comics.

“The crowd was selected to be particularly supportive and I told the new acts they could do as much or as little material as they liked.

“And, in fairness, they all did well – although that still didn’t stop me from worrying like hell about what I’d done.

“Had things gone wrong I could have set back any progress they’d made by bloody decades.”

Rhod adds that he’d have liked to make a whole series on the subject, as opposed to just a 60 minute one-off special.

“I’d love to have been able to travel around the world seeing how it affects different people in different countries and looking at all the various ways it’s treated, but time wasn’t on our side,” says Rhod, adding that he’s about to return to performing live himself.

In fact, aside from a handful of charity shows to raise money for Velindre Cancer Centre, he hasn’t set foot on stage in the last six years – a situation he hopes to rectify later this year with a handful of “under-the-radar” pub shows in front of just a few dozen people.

Quite an usual way to rediscover his mirth-making mojo, given that he’s normally seen playing to packed houses at super-sized venues.

“I was thinking about it the other day and couldn’t believe the Flaming Battenburg Tattoo tour was in 2012; time’s flown,” says Rhod, currently also putting the finishing touches to the new series of his Bafta Cymru-winning BBC Wales programme, Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience.

“The last live date I did was for Velindre at the Wales Millennium Centre in September last year, where I was joined on stage by the likes of Greg Davies and Michael McIntyre – that was the first time I’d had to write new material in ages.

“I hadn’t missed up until that point, but the minute I put pen to paper I started to remember how much I loved it.”

So, with 30-minutes of new material under his belt, Rhod elected to first try it out at a Northampton boozer before a small group of pint-drinking punters.

“About half of it worked, the other half not so much,” he laughs. “So I kept the good bits for the WMC show.”

And the further fruits of that labour will be getting an airing at this May’s Machynlleth Comedy Festival, at which he’s playing three nights – tickets for which have already been snapped up.

“That’ll be a very early ‘work in progress’-type affair, but the plan is to then do a few under-the-radar, low-key gigs – a pub in Abergavenny in front of 50 people , for example.

“Then, next year, I hope to return to touring properly.”

And, for a man who took the fear of being laughed at and turned it on its head, you can tell that moment can’t come soon enough.

Rhod will be announcing the dates of his comeback pub gigs in the coming months. Visit his website at www.rhodgilbertcomedian.com for further details

Rhod Gilbert: Stand Up To Shyness is on BBC One Wales on Wednesday, January 24 at 9pm

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