The actor and comedian discusses his new CBS sitcom, The Great Indoors, why he wanted to do this show, and the current state of world affairs.
Actor and Comedian Stephen Fry
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Stephen Fry has been making PBS viewers laugh for decades now as costar of the British comedy’s “Blackadder”, in “Jeeves & Wooster”. He’s now back in front of a live studio audience, this time for his new sitcom, “The Great Indoors”, on CBS.
The prolific author of several books is also known for his short-form writing, 140 characters at a time [laugh]. We’ll talk about his love-hate relationship with Twitter and his 12 million followers.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Actor Stephen Fry in just a moment.
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Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Stephen Fry to this program. PBS viewers may remember him from “Blackadder” in “Jeeves & Wooster”. He is now getting back to his sitcom roots in the new CBS comedy, “The Great Indoors”. Before we start our conversation with Mr. Fry, here a clip now of him as Roland, the editor-in-chief of an outdoor adventure magazine, to be exact.
Tavis: I think I get it [laugh], but what convinced you that this was the right vehicle at this point in your career?
Stephen Fry: Well, it was a mixture. I mean, I think Joel McHale is a wonderfully talented guy. I’d seen a bit of “Community” and I remembered him from “The Soup” on E! where he began his career. I liked the script, the pilot. I spoke to Mike Gibbons, the creator, and he’d worked with James Corden actually a lot.
And I thought that it was smart and funny and diligent and I’d long wanted to go back to the old world of a multi-camera old school sitcom in front of an audience, you know. It’s a very specific type of entertainment and a rather delicious one. Plus you don’t work nearly as hard as you do in drama [laugh]. Shorter days, not that that’s, of course, a reason.
Tavis: What is it about the specificity of that multi-camera shoot that you like?
Fry: Well, I suppose it harks back to day when television was a kind of national fireplace around which the whole family would warm themselves. There’s something very — it’s because of the laughter that’s live and the performances that are kind of chirpy and live with it to just sort of — there is a sense of what comedy can best do in terms of just warmth, I guess, and family.
And this show, “The Great Indoors”, is a kind of family show, although it’s a workplace comedy. It’s about generations. There’s my generation, Joel’s generation, then the younger generation of millennials. So it’s like grandpa and part of the children, if you like.
Tavis: And you’ve embraced their medium, Twitter, which I’ll come back to later in this conversation. You’ve embraced their medium, but what do you make of hanging out with these youngsters onset every day?
Fry: They’re wonderful. I mean, they’re terrifically warm and friendly. Of course, they live in a world that I have no understanding of really. I’ve never heard of any of the musical groups that they mention [laugh] or anything of that kind.
You know, we come back after a weekend and I say, “What have you been doing?” and they describe something they’ve done on the Sunset Strip at three in the morning and I say how I’ve been to see L.A. opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion [laugh].
Very different sort of world, but we respect each other. Maybe that’s a lesson for the wider world and the body politic. We may be different, but we can celebrate our difference [laugh].
Tavis: I think we’ll get back to that at some point in this conversation. This may be a silly question, but not the first or last that I want to ask on this program, I am certain. What is the difference for you, if there is a difference, between situating yourself in an American comedy versus the stuff that PBS viewers and others have seen you do around the globe?
Fry: It’s a good point. I mean, PBS, the kind of short turn for a PBS British drama is a Masterpiece Theater thing which involves cocktail shakers and vintage cars and a Dame of the British Empire at the very least in some form or another [laugh] in an aristocratic kind of atmosphere pertaining everywhere in Old England that people want to exist.
Obviously, sitcoms — well, the most obvious thing when you’re doing an American sitcom is the sheer volume level of the audience. The staggering amount of whooping that goes on [laugh] is just bizarre. You walk onto the set and people scream and they’re in a frenzy. I don’t know if they’re clamping their thighs together and shivering with lust and excitement or something.
Or they’ve been fed some weird narcotic that I don’t know anything about, one of the opioids that are spreading around America, apparently. So, you know, there’s a very sort of different atmosphere. It’s very lively. We British are a little bit reserved, as is probably known.
Also, I mean, just technically, obviously, things like “Jeeves & Wooster” were a single camera, but “Blackadder” you mentioned, that was in front of an audience. The thing is, in Britain, we make a comedy series, there’ll be six episodes in the season and you might do three or four series.
You know, the greatest of them all, in my opinion and many others’ opinion, was “Fawlty Towers” and there was only two seasons of that, so 12 episodes. That was it. But then it’s a very different way of — you know, John Cleese wrote them with Connie Booth. He wrote every single episode. There wasn’t a staff, you know.
On this show, “The Great Indoors”, I think it was probably by Episode 11 that we started to repeat the lead writer. So that’s how big our writing staff is on the show. So, you know, each episode will have a different lead writer and we’ll go through 12 people actually before you start to…
Tavis: Well, you need that if you expect to get the syndication.
Fry: To feed the beast, exactly right. You make the wheel.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. That’s how that works. I was laughing, though, Stephen, when you said that you Brits are a bit reserved. You are, but I would not call that jacket reserved. What color is that, my friend?
Fry: Well, I don’t know. Pumpkin possibly or I’m going to go — maybe your audience has a view — burnt apricot is possible, something. Well, it’s a cheering thing, isn’t it? What I believe these days interior decorators call a pop of color.
Tavis: Yeah, a pop of color.
Fry: Now there’s — actually, just a sidebar…
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Fry: When I first lived in America, I was in New York. The first question people ask you is whereabouts are you? Upper East and SoHo, you know, whatever. Their second question is who’s going to decorate [laugh]? What? I buy a picture and put it on the wall. But I got so kind of overwhelmed and bullied by people recommending decorators.
I eventually got this decorator who came into the house and had this extraordinary book. I mean, he’d done Anna Wintour’s Connecticut beach house and all these. I thought he’s going to be so expensive. So I said, “I’m sorry. I’ve never had a decorator before.” He said, “Oh! Oh! I’m not a decorator. Oh, no, no, no. I find the decorator in you.”
Tavis: Wow [laugh]. Only in New York [laugh].
Fry: I mean, from him I first heard the phrase of pops of color. A classic with a twist and pops of color.
Tavis: Yeah. I find the decorator in you. I’m laughing thinking the kinds of questions you would get asked in L.A., which is like, “Who are you wearing?”
Fry: A touch of that.
Tavis: I guess every city has its own — those kinds of crazy questions one gets asked. You went there earlier, so I want to come back to this now, which is this moment that we find ourselves living in. Let me back up a bit and then we’ll come to the Trump era in America. You were for or against, I think — I would assume — against Brexit?
Fry: I was against Brexit. I was for remain, I suppose. But it’s an interesting point because, you know, one’s kind of — it was a negative that we were defending. The positive was to leave whereas one tried to suggest the positive was to stay.
I joke to my American friends here in California in particular. I said, you know, “I left Britain to avoid this rise of populist nativism and right wing xenophobia and rain, and I come to California [laugh] and five inches a day for seven weeks and a whole new political identity for the country.”
It’s interesting. For an outsider, it’s fascinating to watch. As someone who’s long been involved to a small extent to politics, I’ve always felt, as I have with almost everything I believe firmly, is I’ve hated those on my own side who bully the enemy or, that’s to say, our opponents.
And I think of what’s happened here as much more a failure of the left than a turn for the right. When I hear people say we’ve got to do this and demonstrate about that, I say, “Whom are you thinking you will convince by appearing on the street or shouting? Whose mind are you going to change?”
I’m a practical fellow and I think, if you do want society to change or you want the political outlook to change, then you’ve got to think practically about it rather than being right. Anybody can be right and scream that they’re right. You’ve got to achieve what is right. And that takes patience and practicality and it takes the understanding of the point of view of others.
You know, I sort of want to strangle the person who came up with the phrase “basket of deplorables” because it was so dumb. It was so failed to understand human nature. Human nature is, you know, what we all live with. It’s no good having ideas and abstract thoughts about politics. You’ve got to understand it’s about people.
I believe if you go to a crowded shopping mall or a busy town square and you throw a pebble, it would land on the head of a decent person. The person will help you and it’ll be good. There are, unfortunately on the fringes, people who are noisy and intemperate and deeply tribal. And I think the tribal instinct in humanity is a very sad one, don’t you feel?
Tavis: I concur and I also will say that this is not at all unexpected. I figured that we’d get into a conversation, as bright as you are, that would open me up in 18 different ways. So I’ve been listening to you and didn’t want to interrupt. I got three or four questions now I’d like to follow up on if I might. Just based upon what you said, Stephen, in no particular order, number one.
I hear your point about the illiberal nature that the liberals have taken on. And in some ways, I will concur with that. What troubles me about it mostly, I think, is that it gives rise to these idiots like — what’s this guy? Milo, Melo? Who’s the…
Fry: Milo Yiannopoulos, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So the argument is that — some believe, at least — that it gives rise to that kind of racist — I mean, I just find him to be irascible. I find his rhetoric to be not just racist, but a contestation of peoples’ humanity.
Fry: And it wakes up in male students the worst kind of bratty, bratty kind of attitude to women and…
Tavis: Exactly. I totally agree. I guess the question is how much of that which people will celebrate until they get caught — he was invited at CPAC until they learned more. Simon & Schuster gave him a book deal until they learned more.
Fry: Now he’s gone and now he’s left Breitbart.
Tavis: And now he’s left Breitbart, yeah. So at a certain point, even they have to cut their losses, so to speak. But how much of the illiberal liberalness breeds that? Or is that just him run amok?
Fry: It’s a really interesting point. I think his generation — another example who’s European, but it had a huge fan base here was PewDiePie, the YouTube guy who apparently paid people to show anti-Semitic signs as a kind of joke.
I think there is this sense amongst a certain kind of young, especially male, figure who never watches television. They’ll never watch PBS. They’ll never watch the main networks. They won’t even watch the fringe or specialist premium cables or any of the others. They spend their life picking up material from the internet, from YouTube and from all kinds of other sites.
And they speak to us in languages that we don’t understand. They use phrases — I mean, one of the favorite of PewDiePie and this Milo guy is SJW. We are the enemy. SJW means social justice warriors. See, we grew up in an age in which it was simply unquestioned.
It was part of the social contract and the international consensus that social justice was something we all aimed for. They think social justice is a busted flush at the very least. They think it’s entirely the wrong path for humanity to go down and that it’s basically liberal speak for trying to tell people how to think and behave.
We find ourselves — those who regard ourselves as vaguely progressive or just who want the world to be a nicer place and a friendlier place without putting too big a philosophical or political gloss on it — we find ourselves suddenly we are the ones who are regarded as the Orwellian threat to freedom because we tell people how to think, apparently.
And that’s something we have to address, but it’s a really important question. You know, transsexuals get beaten up. Gay people get beaten up. Black people get killed by the police. Women get raped. There are…
Tavis: But the question is, though, is it legitimate or is it an excuse?
Fry: Yeah, that’s the point, isn’t it? Exactly that. There is a problem that minorities suffer, but there is also a lack of understanding amongst those who wish to protect those minorities and wish to see them taking their full and proper place in society, whatever the gender or anything else.
There’s a lack of understanding that, if you force people into, you tell someone to respect, then if they’ve got any self-respect, they might say no. Screw you. Why should I? You know, it’s like if you get stopped in the street by someone who just wants to pick a fight with you and says, you know, “Some me some respect.”
I have this nightmare that I’ll say to them, “Look, show me that you deserve my respect and then I’ll respect you, but I’ll show you fear [laugh].” By all means, I’m afraid of you, but I don’t respect you, I have to say.
I don’t respect your gun or your knife. I fear it. That’s a different thing. Respect is earned, you know. I think if you just tell people this is what you must think about, I’m not suggesting I have the answer except there are virtues that the older I get, the more I believe in.
And there are not the great capital letter Virtues like justice and mercy and compassion. They’re smaller things and they are kindness and cheerfulness. And I think in the face of adversity, cheerful people become mightily heroic.
It’s a great quality. You know, the cheerful person at the store, the cheerful person who lets you in through the traffic, the cheerful person who thinks and is considerate. Politicians don’t tend to put those words into a program or a manifesto in saying that we will be cheerful. You can’t. It comes from inside, obviously.
But I think the way you question a politician is when they don’t seem to adduce those kinds of qualities as being what they stand for. And I think there has been a tendency of the left to speak in abstracts to talk about people, but not individuals.
The great Jonathan Swift, one of the great satirists, he said, “I love Peter, Paul, John, Andrew, but I hate and loathe and detest that race called man.” [laugh] And I think we have to just get back to our individual treatment of each other.
Tavis: I think, though, there are those who see those kinds of virtues as a weak response to the kind of attack that’s being waged now in the era of Donald Trump. So I’m not saying those things are not legitimate. You see my point?
Fry: I do. It’s very ironic because I so often feel that the way I want to respond as a pretty died-in-the-wool atheist is a very Christian one or at least what used to be considered Christian.
Tavis: Not these Christians [laugh].
Fry: No, exactly. But is to take the enmity and to take the hatred and not throw it back and not scream. But you’re right. I think this is the problem with being a liberal. And I am a liberal. I’m not a hard left and I’m not anything.
And liberal is flabby and weak and isn’t sure and says, “Oh, dear me. Oh, can’t everybody be nice to each other? Oh, dear, what a pity. Oh, let’s try harder. Oh, come on now. Oh.” That’s it [laugh]. You know, one of the great heroes was the English novelist and essayist, E. M. Forster, who wrote a book called “Two Cheers for Democracy”. He couldn’t summon the third [laugh]. And that’s sort of how I feel, you know.
Tavis: Let me ask this. So the other thing I wanted to get back to was you were talking about bullies. And if Donald Trump is anything, he is a bully, to my mind at least. The question is that comes to my mind listening to what you said, Stephen, is how you contest, how you push back, how you, to use the word of the day, resist? How do you resist a bully and honor your edict to not attack the bully?
Fry: Well, I used to be very keen on chess and I remember a chess master to me, he said, “You know, the best move to play in chess is not the best chess move. It’s to figure out what move your opponent least wants you to play. That’s the best move to play. And if you can figure out what they don’t want you to play, play that even if it isn’t as good as the move.”
So it’s all very well to talk about, you know, the bullying and the narcissism and the brashness, the lying and the braggadocio and all the other qualities that we see in the president. You know, my first thought was it’s very simple. He is the most extreme example of a narcissistic personality disorder as I understand it, not as a professional psychiatrist, obviously, that I imagine in public life.
And I know that in my lifetime, there has never been a single individual on this planet who’s been more talked about at every bar, every table in every restaurant, every talk show, every radio talk show. You know, everybody’s talking about him all the time.
And I kind of imagine that he’s like some sort of Dr. Seuss figure who’s like a balloon and every time his name is mentioned, he gets a bit bigger and a bit bigger and a bit bigger. He feeds off this energy. He’s like a Star Trek alien, you know, who feeds off the mention of his name. So the answer, of course, is to stop talking about him.
Tavis: But does he just keep getting bigger or does at some point he implodes? Does he implode or explode?
Fry: That’s what everybody is thinking. I know people on the show I work with who said he was never going to win who now say he’ll never last the first year…
Tavis: He won’t have a second term [laugh]?
Fry: Yeah, and so on. But if you imagine that the press decided they would cover Congress and, you know, the various Cabinet members and what they said and did, but they would simply never talk about him. They would actually ban his name from the pages. Of course, it won’t happen because he’s click bait, you know. You probably already…
Tavis: They hate him, but they love him [laugh].
Fry: Yeah. Have you seen how much junk mail comes through your spam filter saying, “Trump’s latest something” because they know people will click on it? They want to see what he said. They want to see what fury he’s unleashed on this or what claim he’s made here.
But that will be the answer, would be not to feed his appetite for being mentioned and never to mention his tweets and never to mention his statements. That would work, but, of course, no one will do it, unfortunately [laugh].
Tavis: And tell me more than about your speaking of tweets, about your love-hate relationship, as I would characterize it…
Tavis: With Twitter and social media, yeah.
Fry: Well, I was a very early adopter of all things digitally really. I was the first person — well, the second person in Europe to own an Apple Macintosh, for example, in January ’84. First was my friend, Douglas Adams, who entered the shop together. He got it first, then I got the second [laugh]. That was January 25.
That was a great day in the history of computing. So I always love these new things. When social media began, I saw Twitter as a very interesting and exciting thing, so I joined it early and so amassed quite a following.
Tavis: 12 million and counting.
Fry: 12.5 million at the moment, yes, which is terribly useful in terms of publicity. It means I’m afraid I discovered before Trump that you can bypass the press.
In Britain, you know, the print media, once you’re following exceeds the circulation of all the British newspapers, then when you’re doing a film or a book or whatever it is, a TV show, and the publicity person says, “Oh, will you do this profile for the Times or the Telegraph or Daily Mail or whatever?”, you say, “No, I’ll just tweet.” That’s fine [laugh] because I’ll reach more people.
So there’s a bit of a cut-out there and that’s helpful. But, no, I believe that Twitter in the same way that I believe the internet, so foolish. optimistic and naïve I am, that this would be a way the world will come together.
And we would understand each other better and we would like each other better. We would know more. It will be a fantastic tool for education and for the spreading of ideas and sharing of thoughts and sharing of experiences, and that we would come together.
Instead, the opposite thing has happened. Rather than being centrifugal, it’s been centripeople, or the other way around. You know what I mean. It’s balkanized and ghettoized opinion and everyone is endlessly discussed, trapped in their filter bubble, and they don’t listen to each other anymore. That is a depressing side of it.
And I’m afraid my relationship with Twitter now is a one-way rather than two-way. That’s to say I tweet, but I don’t read. I don’t even look at the page of general tweets. I only look at mine and just put out because part of the thing is I’m incredibly sensitive.
If people are nasty to me, I get very, very upset. I know people who can really take it. They don’t mind. I mean, my friend, the marvelous writer, J. K. Rowling, she gives as good as she gets to anybody [laugh]. She’s fantastic. She doesn’t seem to get upset by it, and good on her.
Tavis: I’m with you.
Fry: Yeah. Now my husband is reading your book at the moment. It’s about Michael Jackson, the last days of Michael Jackson.
Tavis: Yeah. “Before You Judge Me”, yeah.
Fry: Yeah, “Before You Judge Me”, that’s right. He’s enjoying it.
Tavis: Tell him I said thank you.
Fry: Yeah, I will. I should have brought it in for you to sign [laugh].
Tavis: Well, I appreciate that. I’m just happy to know that there’s a book of mine in your house somewhere [laugh]. That makes me happy, man. Maybe watching “The Great Indoors” will take our minds off of all this Trump and save us from this dreaded future that we seem to be sinking into. Anyway, I’m honored to have you on the program, Mr. Fry.
Fry: It’s been a real pleasure.
Tavis: Please come back again.
Fry: Thank you. I’d be delighted to.
Tavis: I enjoyed talking to you immensely.
Fry: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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