David Baddiel talks trolls, storytelling and the power of comedy ahead of Northampton show

Peter Ormerod interviews David Baddiel about his new show, Trolls: Not the Dolls, which comes to the Royal & Derngate this month

Tuesday, 7th September 2021, 1:50 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th September 2021, 2:09 pm
David Baddiel: 'I'm a big fan of the power of comedy, and the power of comedy to displace and defuse and to make people not be so angry'
David Baddiel: 'I'm a big fan of the power of comedy, and the power of comedy to displace and defuse and to make people not be so angry'

"If you had to give the show a mantra, that would be it," says David Baddiel. "David Baddiel uses comedy to defeat hate but doesn't always succeed."

There has always been something simultaneously high-minded and childishly knockabout when it comes to Baddiel. His current one-man show, which comes to Northampton this month, takes as its topic online trolls and how he has sought to deal with them. Cue expertly worded put-downs, exquisite mockery and laughs galore at their expense.

"I was always different with the way I dealt with trolls," he says. "People either say 'don't feed the trolls' or they get very angry with them. My thing was always to treat them like hecklers.

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"I'm very used to anonymous men shouting abuse at me from the dark and I'm going to embrace it and try and make it funny. There's a section in the show where I show me doing that. We have a thing about improvisation in the show, where if you improvise, you say 'yes' to something. So you don't reject or get angry or block the troll.

"It's part of my project, which is trying to make all this anger and rage into comedy. It doesn't always work, and I make that clear in the show, but that's the only way. I'm a big fan of the power of comedy, and the power of comedy to displace and defuse and to make people not be so angry."

Something that needs clearing up early on is what Baddiel means when he speaks of trolls. For those fortunate enough to be ignorant of the term in its modern form, it is typically used to describe people who engage in particularly hostile forms of online abuse. Baddiel has faced so much of this and studied it so closely that he has developed a sort of troll taxonomy, a way of defining the species and understanding its variations.

"I make it very clear that I don't think a troll is just someone who takes the p*** out of me - that's totally fine. They range from people who I call the one-worders who literally call me a w***** all the way to very high-minded people who very high-mindedly tell me off in a kind of headteacher-like way, or the people who just can't get any jokes at all.

"Social media is very literal, and quite often you realise there are people who just don't understand what a joke is. It might be unfair to call them trolls, because they might even mean well, but I don't care because my definition is anyone who shuts down comedy or joy."

Baddiel is one of countless performers now returning to the stage after an 18-month pandemic-induced hiatus. But while many of his peers can simply dust down old routines, the nature of social media means the show has had to adapt. There's less Donald Trump, for a start - not that that has made life online any more pleasant.

"I think it's got worse if anything", says Baddiel. "Everyone has to respond in a very tribal way to anything you say now and that has become worse over the past two years. The actual movement of the general conversation towards getting more angry and more mad and less nuanced is still there.

"You can't essentially do jokes now without someone finding a tribal way in to get angry about the joke. Often that involves them not being at all interested in what the target of the joke is - they just see it involves someone they think is in their tribe, and they get angry about it. And very much both right and left - as soon as they think their tribe is being attacked, they get angry about it."

There is an age-old debate about whether our media drives social change or simply reflects it. Baddiel is clear about what he sees as Twitter's role.

"I think it's a dynamic, but I think it's driving it. I don't think it is just a megaphone. The delivery system changes the content if it's on this scale. It doesn't if it's just a bloke with a megaphone, but if it's four billion people with megaphones, then it does change the content."

Not that the show is bleak, by any means. "Towards the end I change tack. I say for all this madness and all this rage, and it is driving this tribalism and lack of nuance in public discourse, here are some of the times when people aren't angry and I've just said something that really chimes with people and they get hilarious about it. It makes me feel like the conductor of a great comedy orchestra.

"Then I bring it together to show how when I'm dealing with trolls - some of the most hateful, the Holocaust deniers, the antisemites, all that stuff - I show how I try and take them down with comedy and people back me up by following the jokes I've started. It becomes very joyful at that point."

So is this about the joy of laughing at the troll, or an attempt to soften the heart of the troll?

"I know people do that - when someone from Atomic Kitten meets their troll and everyone cries. When I do it, it's more about appealing to the heart of the people watching.

"It is much more like a comedian and an audience in that my position is that the troll is the outlier. The troll is saying the abusive things, but most people are not trolls. Most people are empathetic, which is entirely what trolls are not, and which I'm worried social media is making the rest of us lose - empathy for other people. I appeal to the communal heart and say that people who say horrible things to people they don't know is s***, but here we can all laugh at it, and that's a good thing.

"Towards the end of the show I bring it together by talking about how sometimes I'll do a funny thing on Twitter and people will run with it and they'll say other funny things back. But then I ask if this can work when I'm dealing with trolls. And I show some of my most extreme trolls, and at first it doesn't seem to work. But then I show an example of one time when it really worked and was really moving as well as really funny."

Perhaps it is time for the nation to recognise what an astounding career Baddiel has had. He first found widespread fame on BBC Two's topical sketch comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience alongside Rob Newman, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis. It's worth noting just how long ago this was - the first episode aired in 1990, on the day of Germany's reunification. There is as much time between then and now as between then and 1959. It's also worth noting how its most famous sketch - History Today, in which Baddiel and Newman would play aged professors whose attempts to discuss notable periods from the past would swiftly descend into puerile insults (and make ubiquitous the phrase 'that's you, that is') - exemplified much of what would become Baddiel's learned/lowbrow schtick.

Then Baddiel and Newman became the first comedy act to sell out Wembley Arena. Then Baddiel teamed up with Frank Skinner to present Fantasy Football League, whose influence can be detected today in innumerable TV shows and podcasts. Then he and Skinner co-wrote and recorded a song about being an England football fan and called it Three Lions (you may have heard it once or twice). Since then, he's had enormous success as a writer and novelist for children and adults; his latest book, Jews Don't Count, is an acclaimed polemic about how antisemitism is often overlooked by the progressive left.

To the observer, it looks like a career of astonishing variety and versatility. To Baddiel, it really isn't.

"I think there's one thing, which is that I'm good at storytelling. It seems to me that you're telling a story if you're on stage for two hours. You're also telling a story in a football song. You're also telling a story if you're writing a serious polemic about antisemitism. You're taking people on a journey through words and they're coming out the other side.

"I've never seen any borders between doing that as a stand-up and doing that as a film-maker or doing that as a documentarian or doing that as whatever. When people say 'you do a lot of things', I always think 'well, it's not as if I'm a comedian and a footballer'. But I am good at almost anything involving language and story. That is my job.

"I've applied it to more types than most people do, but that's because I don't recognise the borders. My son, one day, said to me 'dad, why doesn't Harry Potter run away from the Dursleys and try to find some better parents?'. It gave me the idea for a children's book about a world in which children can choose their own parents. Immediately, I thought 'I can write that' - I hadn't written a children's book before but I can write stories. I just wrote it and it sold half a million copies. But I didn't go and read lots of children's books and learn how to do it - I knew I could do it, because I'm a storyteller."

Comic, commentator, writer, topper of charts, vanquisher of trolls but above all, then, a teller of stories. That's him, that is.

* David Baddiel: Trolls – Not the Dolls comes to the Royal & Derngate, Northampton on Monday, September 27. Visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk/whats-on/david-baddiel20 to book.