Discussing the light and shade of social media in an exclusive interview with comedian and writer, David Baddiel
He doesn’t seem to mind being phoned by me at 9.30 am – guilt drags him out of bed in the morning as his wife gets up to make their son some breakfast “even though he’s really old enough to do it himself.” Their 18-year-old has a featured role in the acclaimed comedian, writer and Twitter veteran’s new one-man show Trolls: Not The Dolls: “I talk about my son because he’s like living with a troll because he’s a teenage boy. I talk about the way he trolls me at great length,” but this isn’t the first time that family has entered Baddiel’s repertoire. His last show, the Olivier Award-nominated My Family: Not The Sitcom, described by its writer as “A twisted love-letter to my parents”, explored with candour his late mother’s sexuality, and his father’s dementia: “the family show was very personal and involved taking things to quite an extreme in the way I was talking about my parents…this show is less personal. I mean, not that it’s not personal at all…every so often I break off to talk about me in all sorts of ways that most people consider to be private.”
The new show, which tours throughout the first half of 2020, is a decade worth of analysis and commentary on the peaks and troughs of social media communication and its wider impact, through the microcosmic world of Twitter: “It’s about my love/hate relationship with social media… I would say the things I hate most about it are the lack of nuance; you try and say something slightly complicated on it, particularly about politics, and you just get people shouting at you from their very fixed positions. They just ignore the fact you’ve tried to say something nuanced.
“There are these sort of weird silos all over social media and that, I think, is not good to help people think about life, because the truth – truth, I think I only have one motto in life, and it’s not a motto at all but if I did it would be ‘The truth is always complex’… real truth in life is very complicated and social media, in particular, Twitter, doesn’t really yield complicated truth.”
Accepting the complexity of truth and using it to communicate with nuance doesn’t come naturally to the stubborn, and the Twitter echo chamber does little to counteract this. Paired with a sense of anonymity, trolls can get aggressive without seeing reason to be empathetic. So the show also explores the real-life impact of this: “I also talk about, quite sort-of seriously at times, the psychic effect of people slagging you off all the time on social media. How it actually feels… [The show] is saying: why are people getting so angry? And what is it doing to the way we all interact with each other? If you make a joke about any of these things, often quite an innocuous joke, people lose their shit. And why is that, is that part of the problem? Is that part of the reason that people are so extreme? So really that’s what it’s about. It’s a sort of virtual diary of me and the world, my view of the world over the last ten years with all the rage and stuff that comes from me doing that talking.”
The extent to which trolling culture has crossed over into reality is no more apparent than with, in Baddiel’s own words, “the troll president” Donald Trump: “lots of politicians use twitter, but he entirely speaks like a troll on Twitter. The capital letters, the shouting, the way he gets incredibly aggressive with anyone who disagrees with him – entirely, he fits the characteristics. So, what I’m talking about here is not a fringe way of speaking, its right at the centre of power now, the way that trolls talk and the way that trolls interact.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Social media doesn’t have to be a platform for negative communication and often it isn’t. In the show, Baddiel also highlights what he loves about Twitter and why he has found it addictive: “Social media can be about shutting doors between us but it can also be about opening doors… I don’t actually have this in the show but this is quite a good example I think… I tweeted, with flat-earthers, that’s obviously a big thing on social media with people believing the earth is flat, ‘who do they think benefits from the lie that the earth is round?’ I got lots of answers, but one person said ‘Lisa Stansfield’ – Lisa Stansfield is a pop star who in the 90s released a song called ‘All Around The World’ and I thought ‘That’s brilliant’. That’s a brilliantly funny answer.
“Social media is a cess-pit, but it can also be an incredible place where people are really funny, and I talk a bit about how sometimes by fighting the troll, when people join in it can feel like I’m the conductor of a great big comedy orchestra.”
“If someone slags me off, most of the time I might be hurt for a split-second and then I think: material…”
So how does one ‘fight the troll’? In preparation for the interview, I was scrolling through Baddiel’s twitter and came across an example: career troll, Katie Hopkins, had tweeted about comedian Nish Kumar. ‘We need to bring back proper laughter. Not polite politically correct cr*p’ to which Baddiel comically pointed out: ‘Not sure I can think of anything more timidly polite and politically correct than not properly spelling out the word crap.’ On this, he explained: “I was very happy to say that thing about Katie Hopkins because I do think it was incredible!
“When people have a go at me, and I talk about this in the show as well, I say don’t get angry, don’t get furious, try and use something that they’ve said – agree with them if you like, but then use something that they have said to make them look stupid, and that’s from years and years of dealing with hecklers…I did that from a really early time and it has turned out to be quite popular with my audience, it felt like doing it in a live situation where someone shouts something at you and you repeat it and you try and make it funny.
“If someone slags me off, most of the time I might be hurt for a splitsecond and then I think: material… if you do that it says you really haven’t hurt me. I retweeted one that Richard Herring did which is quite a good example. Someone wrote ‘Imagine finding Richard Herring funny or relevant these days’ and he wrote ‘Wow that’s hurtful, but thanks for replying that I was once funny and relevant, that’s really cheered me up’… the key take-away is you think ‘Richard has not been hurt’. He’s made something funny out of it and that is the win I think.”
Comedians, much like politicians (although for politicians it is often reluctantly), are a prime example of people who voluntarily open themselves up for scrutiny for a living. In this way, Baddiel approaches trolls on his twitter feed like hecklers at a live show – remaining calm and relying on his instinctual astuteness to improvise a response that turns the negative into a positive. The thing about comedy, for me, is that good comedy is more than just funny. Anything can be funny – a video of a cat’s meow sounding like it was saying hello in a southern American accent made me snort like a pig as I scrolled through twitter. What makes something comedic – is wit. Having the intelligence to make an interesting statement wrapped up in laughter, is what makes me click retweet. And in a similar way, it sounds like Baddiel’s Trolls: Not The Dolls is his way of addressing the meaner side of the internet – putting it to use and putting a smile on our faces at the same time.
David Baddiel brings his brand new one-man show ‘Trolls: Not The Dolls’ nationwide as part of a 52-date UK tour with upcoming shows at:
- The Lowry, Manchester on 26th January
- Cast, Doncaster on 12th February
- Kings George Hall, Blackburn on 13th February
- Hull City Hall on 14th February
- Harrogate Theatre on 15th February
- Sheffield City Hall on 28th February
- Grand Opera House, York on 6th April