David Baddiel doesn’t subscribe to the cardinal internet rule of “Don’t feed the trolls”. “They’re essentially hecklers,” he says. “And if someone is heckling me, my reflex is to make fun of them and use what they’re saying to try and create comedy.”
So when someone with the username @Lee48765863 baits him with “Remember when you were funny?” he screenshots the tweet, replying with the punchline “Yes, it was back when you were just a twinkle in the eye of Mr and Mrs 48765863”, to the ritual amusement of his 641,000-plus followers. Job done.
“People ask: ‘Do you feel hurt and upset by trolls?’ The truth is, I feel as hurt and upset as anyone, but within seconds, I think: material.”
Now the self-confessed Twitter addict has metabolised his 10-year love-hate relationship with the platform into a one-man show, Trolls: Not the Dolls, which asks what the online discourse of rage reveals about modern society, and how it’s changing our relationship with politics, truth, culture and mental health.
“We live in a culture that’s very easily triggered into rage, often by innocuous things like jokes, that has very quickly changed the way people think and talk – to the extent that a troll is now in the White House,” he says, reclining into a sofa in an upmarket Manchester hotel, dog-tired after filming a BBC Breakfast interview. “This binary, abusive way of thinking is now at the centre of power.”
When he joined Twitter in 2009, a friend told him: “It’s like a lovely party with all your friends, plus people you don’t know – and everyone’s nice, warm and funny.” Cut to 10 years later, and he’s received death threats, unprintable racism and tweets saying he “should be hung, drawn and quartered in the public square”. “I think one problem is a lot of people have never written stuff down before and think they have to write like a pantomime villain or Dickens to express how they feel,” he muses.
The change neither surprised nor wounded him. Aged 55, he’s a veteran of fame and had already built up armour against criticism. “I’d spent years reading horrible stuff written about me by journalists,” he laughs. One splenetic TV critic memorably quipped of a show: “It goes from Baddiel to worssiel.”
Baddiel says: “In a way, I quite like the democratisation of hate – that it isn’t just reviewers and journalists being horrible about people on the telly. Now everyone’s being horrible about everyone – there’s something liberating about that.”
“We live in a culture that’s very easily triggered into rage, often by innocuous things like jokes.”
As Netflix’s dystopian drama Black Mirror once poignantly observed, incurring the wrath of Twitter can be like “having a whole weather system turn against you”. Baddiel admits to sometimes being stopped in his tracks by the “normalisation of hate” and how greater connectivity has seemingly come at the cost of an erosion of empathy. Someone once tweeted him: “Every time I look at David Baddiel, I think two things – one, he is a shit comedian. Two, he is a shit human being.” As he instinctively was about to post a droll reply, he suddenly thought: “What is it actually doing to me, seeing stuff like that on my screen every single day?” He showed it to his wife – comedy writer and actor Morwenna Banks – who is not on social media and therefore hasn’t been digitally gaslit into accepting this new normal. “She couldn’t understand why someone who doesn’t know me would feel the need, apropos of nothing, to say that. That felt refreshing.”
He points out he is not beyond reproach. The show highlights his own shame-tinged experiences of having been a troll – such as making fun of a Venezuelan poster’s rudimentary English (“I apologised to him – he’s become one of my biggest fans”) or how, when Richard Dawkins tweeted about the death of his 103-year-old mother, he replied: “Sorry to hear that Richard. She is of course not in a better place.” Although a brilliant one-liner, “I felt bad about it. I would say that’s just atheist solidarity but lots of people thought it was mean spirited and inappropriate.”
More worryingly, as a host of the TV show Fantasy Football League, he blacked up as the Nottingham Forest striker Jason Lee. Perhaps it was wrong, he has since said.
Despite all of Baddiel’s impressive polymathic achievements – as one half of Wembley-filling 1990s comedy duo Newman and Baddiel, one quarter of The Mary Whitehouse Experience, a playwright and hugely successful children’s author – his Twitter bio is just one word: “Jew.”
We meet in December, two days before the general election. Anti-semitism is dogging Labour, leading to an unprecedented intervention from the chief rabbi, who effectively urged the community not to vote for the party. Baddiel is one of many Jewish people rejecting a party once seen as his natural political home.
“I’m not voting Labour – but I have done for the rest of my life,” he says. “Discussions about whether Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-semite – which he definitely isn’t in the front of his head – are not really the point,” he disclaims, saying the real problem is the left’s increased reliance on anti-semitic tropes and conspiracy theories over the last 20 years – and its blindness towards them. He is writing a book called Jews Don’t Count, tackling the “heart of the problem” – that Jews have “been left out of the rise of left-wing identity politics”. Although he feels Labour does care about anti-semitism, “they see it as a political, not a moral or ethical problem”.
He says: “That’s the problem. People on social media say: ‘I’m not happy about their failure to deal with antisemitism, but we have to vote Labour because of Brexit.’ Vote Labour if you want – but don’t tell me and other Jews that you’re overlooking the Jewish thing for that, because that just sends a message that it’s not really that important. Personally, I don’t believe any other minority who felt targeted by a political party would be treated that way.”
Anti-Jewish prejudice is not unique to Labour, he accepts, but he is sick of people on the left telling him the Conservatives are weaponising the issue. “Because it makes you feel: can’t we talk about how this feels on a human level as a Jewish person? Do we have to talk about it in terms of whether it’s a smear being used by the Tories? Yes, it is – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
Twitter has amplified the reach of conspiracy theories. At the extreme end, Baddiel – whose mother was a German refugee from the Nazis – has investigated the modern face and history of holocaust denial for a forthcoming BBC documentary. He interviewed a holocaust denier who had previously trolled him. Shellshocked, afterwards, he had his first drink in two years.
“I don’t know how I felt,” he reflects. “I was weirded out by it and had no idea if I was doing the right thing. Obviously I wouldn’t change his mind, which led to a sense of: ‘What am I doing here?’”
But he also interviewed a concentration camp survivor. “That felt like the point – the truth of her testimony is so much stronger because his lies are so absurd. It shines through so powerfully.”
Like “every person who is well known, particularly of my age”, Baddiel is “hyper-aware” of cancel culture – where you can be subject to public contempt on account of some perceived infraction against morality.
“I thought the Booker Prize and the Turner Prize being shared [the former among two joint winners; the latter among all four nominees] was an example of how frightened people are of cancel culture, trolling and aggression. People are so terrified they’re going to get something wrong – and it’ll be something that never leaves them – that they’re afraid of awarding someone or doing anything. Comedians are in that endangered community of people who think: ‘If I say something that’s meant to be a joke, what if it’s misunderstood?’”
Baddiel has always had a Tourette’s-like compulsion to be “ridiculously honest”, and his last stand-up show – 2016’s Olivier-nominated My Family: Not the Sitcom, which grappled with personal subjects including his father’s dementia – was lauded for its bracing candour. The Baddiel of today might seem far removed from the laddish totem of the 1990s.
“I don’t look back on that period with any enormous horror. I enjoyed most of it. I think most of the jokes were defensible – but not all of them. But that’s another thing cancel culture needs to understand is the possibility of a) forgiveness and b) context, but I don’t want to get into that because you get slagged off for daring to suggest there might be a version of the universe where we’re all flawed.”
Other than the aforementioned holocaust denier, he isn’t interested in encountering his trolls in real life. “It’s a bit of a Channel 5 format now – where someone from Atomic Kitten meets their trolls,” he says.
He’s keen not to sound like he’s writing Twitter off as a “cesspit” or electronic toilet wall that people scrawl their bile onto. “It can be a hilarious, creative free for all – and offer a glimpse into lives we previously wouldn’t have been able to see.”
When he tweeted “My confusion about #FlatEarthers is not why they think the earth is flat… but who exactly gains from the conspiracy to delude the rest of us that the earth is round?” some wit responded: “Lisa Stansfield?”
“You know,” he says, chuckling at the memory, “at some level Twitter is still a party – it just has a lot of gate-crashers”.
David Baddiel’s new show Trolls: Not The Dolls tours nationally, including: the Lowry, Manchester, 26 January; Buxton Opera House, 2 February; Cast, Doncaster, 12 February; King George’s Hall, Blackburn, 13 February; Hull City Hall, 14 February; Harrogate Theatre, 15 February; Crewe Lyceum Theatre, 27 February; Sheffield City Hall, 28 February; and Grand Opera House, York, 6 April (davidbaddiel.com)
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