Stephen Fry has left Twitter again after an ad libbed joke at last night’s BAFTAs. His remarks about the dress sense of a costume designer (he said she looked like a ‘bag lady’) have already been dissected and critiqued hundreds of thousands of times.
It was a terrible joke and he shouldn’t have said it. His defence is that he knows her and she will have seen the funny side. Reports from the audience suggest that she seemed unbothered. Nevertheless, Twitter has cast its vote.
Twitter’s dichotomy is that it schools us in ad libbing on some sort of stage, inviting us to feel comfortable in sharing our views, and then punishing us when our views or our jokes are out of kilter with the sensibilities of audience members. That’s fine in a room of people. That’s harder in an auditorium of 300 million.
As an individual’s celebrity grows, I imagine, it must be harder today for him or her to retain a sense of what is public and what is private, what is an in joke and what is fit for wider consumption.
So what felt to him like an entirely appropriate, if barbed, joke at a friend’s expense, has been widely criticised because, he has said, the audience was oblivious to the context and the back story. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable, now I’ll bite you.
I don’t dispute the view that what he said was unkind and graceless. What I question is the mechanic that tips these views in such overwhelming quantity over the head of a performer. Yes, he could look away (or turn it off as he has done), but is that OK? Do we want to shout at people until they put their fingers in their ears?
Artists on stage used to be the recipients of claps, laughs and boos. That’s a narrow repertoire of feedback that could be absorbed, listened to and acted upon. Now they get huge bursts of 140 characters from a potential live audience of 300 million. The world is a 24 hour focus group. Having the fortitude to deal with a barrage on that scale and with that complexity must require the hide of 140 rhinoceroses.
It’s a cautionary note for performers – and any public figures – and maybe one for the audience as well. Yes, Fry is a professional, but that doesn’t make him perfect.
I don’t know him, but I doubt that he intended offence – and I feel equally confident that his views on most things are sound. It was an accident – and perhaps one that we should forgive him for rather than slathering him with our censorious advice in the digital echo chamber.
Fame is part chance, and at its best it must feel like winning the lottery. The question is, is it the Saturday night payout or the Shirley Jackson version?