David Baddiel interview: Twitter trolls and death threats from a ‘Poundland Dickens’
Internet trolls who have laid into comedian David Baddiel on Twitter ought to watch their backs as he’s coming for them with the best kind of revenge - ridicule.
The stand-up star and bestselling children’s author has been the target of an avalanche of daily abuse, most of it anti-Jewish, in recent years. But instead of getting mad, he's been getting even in the funniest possible ways.
“I try to turn trolling into comedy all the time,” says David. “My standard response to abuse on social media is to try and make it funny because I always thought online trolls were like hecklers - these are people who shout abuse at you from the dark and I have experienced that before in comedy clubs.
“It's part of the comedian’s process to try and make that funny, so I never held with the ‘don't feed the trolls’ thing, which means don’t engage with them. It is probably the right thing for most people as they are not comedians and are likely to be upset and angry about the abuse. I have got upset about it, but mostly I don't.”
There’s been plenty for David to practice his sharp ripostes on, including a man he described as a "Poundland Dickens" after the troll said David should “hung and drawn in a public square”. Another man tweeted that David should “bog off”, which the comedian mused probably hadn’t been heard since it was used in a playground in 1987.
On the morning of our interview, a woman called Laura Denning has replied on Twitter to a BBC announcement that David is presenting a documentary about Holocaust denial to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day by calling him an "onanist" - a posh word for w****r.
This seems to have taken even David aback. “I'm interested how she can have a timeline absolutely full of concern for the world and other people, a self consciously ‘good’ time line and yet she has tagged me so I will definitely see it in my notifications that she thinks im a nasty little onanist I was just interested in a way,” he says.
“It is quite difficult replying to trolls on Twitter because you don't know how real they are and whether it's a made up identity. I assume the person who did that is real because I went and checked on her timeline and she seemed to have an enormous amount of stuff that suggests she was a real person. But you never know how much effort Putin will go to to suggest they are real people,” he laughs.
In his new stand up show, Trolls: Not the Dolls, David is turning the spotlight on the people sending him online abuse. Common wisdom is that replying to them only encourages more of a pile on, but David’s idea that they are just hecklers means he has spent years putting them in their place and now he’s pulled together a show that promises a “comedy journey into our culture’s most dank virtual underground.”
His last two shows Fame: Not the musical and My Family: Not the sitcom, have both drawn on personal stories from David’s life.
“But they have also included stuff about social media,” he says, “and I just thought the way we live now, which is so much online and so much about this strange way of being where everyone is furious with everyone else, that I should try and turn that into a whole show.”
Does he wonder, in the show, just exactly what is driving people to be so aggressive online?
“I talk a lot about this in the show,” he says, “that really at the heart of the problem with trolling is an incredible lack of empathy; a lack of being able to understand what it feels like for the other person in this situation. I think that at heart is the way out of it - to try and make people understand how to be more empathetic.
“That doesn't answer the question of what's wrong with people,” he admits.
“Firstly it's quite a small number of people who do this. I hate to quote Margaret Thatcher but I'm going to, I think there's a silent majority who are not shouting and not angry, but the trolls get a lot of attention because that’s what they want.
“Social media is about identity and there is an easy way of making your identity more noticed and that's to be very loud and angry about your opinions or whatever and to attack someone.
“The other thing I think is we live in a culture where it is quite hard to imagine the inner world of someone else because, this just occurs to me as we speak, we have evolved to know about seven people, maybe 12, in a cave. And if you only knew 12 people you probably were quite empathetic with them if you needed to kill a mammoth or whatever they needed to do.
“But now we feel we know thousands of people, but we don't know them. They are just phantoms on our screen and we don't treat them as real.
“I think most of the trolls are immensely surprised if I reply to them because it is like they haven’t actually factored in the idea that I'm a real person who might decide to engage with them.”
And although most of these insults are water off a duck’s back to him, the sheer volume must take its toll sometimes?
“In the show I’m making fun and enjoying being abused and getting back at them,” he says.
“But in the second half it gets a bit darker. I show one example where I just say what is the psychic cost of seeing this stuff on my screen every morning and I think it is damaging and I think it can be very bad for your mental health.”
His friend, the journalist Giles Coren, has taken down his Twitter account and, according to David, they talked about the reasons behind his decision. “He did say you know it's not great for your mental health and I think that can be absolutely true and I sometimes think I shouldn't be on it.”
Also, David’s wife, the actor, writer and comedian Morwenna Banks - known to parents as the voice of Mummy Pig - is also not a fan of social media.
“She has never had any kind of social media - its anathema to who she is. We are different people: she is incredibly private I’m incredibly unprivate,” says David.
“In all of my shows I tend to reveal as much as possible about myself but she does the opposite. She is someone who doesn't understand why I want to be on it and she doesnt like it if it ever gets out of hand, and sometimes it does.
“Maybe 20 times over the years I have been on (social media) it has started to get me down. She thinks ‘just come off it’, when that happens. But so far that hasn't happened and I have made a show out of it.”
Also, it’s not as though his Twitter life is all doom and gloom - far from it. “I do enjoy the jousting,” he admits.
“Also I'm quite addicted to it. There is no doubt I’m addicted. I do occasionally think I shouldn’t look at it for a bit
“To be honest with you it’s addictive in a very simple way - because it is short. So you think I can go on Twitter for ten minutes in between writing this... whatever I'm writing. And I will just do an odd tweet and then the next thing I know two hours have gone and I've been down a rabbit hole. I find it difficult to completely cut myself off from Twitter.
“I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter, which is the one I'm on most. Instagram seems to be a lot blander. I think it is a brilliant thing in many ways and it is certainly nice to feel you have an audience on Twitter who you know like you and will respond to what you said.
“But I also think it has normalised an incredibly extreme level of anger and abuse which I think is spreading out of the screen. If you look at culture and politics and the way people are now you can see that people are much angrier and they are much more likely not to talk in a normal way and be furious and shouty with each other. I do believe that has been completely fostered by social media which has a very binary attitude to what people think.
“Another thing I think is we never used to write everything down in the past. We spoke to each other mainly and occasionally we wrote a postcard but if you are not a professional writer you don't spend much time writing, certainly not about your extreme thoughts and beliefs
If you write something down that you believe I think you do turbo charge it a bit and it becomes more extreme by the act of writing.”
However, it’s not all a constant barrage of abuse and fending off trolls. Sometimes David just goes on social media for the cats.
He says: “I posted a picture of my cat and now hundreds of people post pictures of their cats in funny situations and I think that's the way forward.”
David Baddiel’s tour will be at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge, on Wednesday, February 5, 7.30pm. Tickets: £30. Box office: cambridgelive.org.uk.
More by this authorAlex Spencer