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What Links the Game Show Safeword to Trolling?

This article is actually related to three blog posts I have considered writing. In one, I would wonder what separated TV comedians from internet trolls. British TV comedy shows, particularly panel shows, seem to consist of smug, well-dressed comedians who, seemingly instead of telling jokes, produce insults to humiliate people, particularly celebrities, considered unpopular. I was going to compare this to the attitude of internet trolls, smug people insulting other people from behind their computers. I was also going to wonder why the TV personalities were considered comedy heroes and champions of free speech, while those that used the internet were considered criminals, even suggesting that those on TV achieve higher status by creating harsher insults, while commenters on the internet were dismissed as vicious trolls for making the slightest criticism. The second would consist of my opinions of the growth of humiliation in entertainment. From ordinary people doing dares and completing embarrassing challenges (which are broadcast on the internet) to TV game shows which feature humiliating tasks and panel shows which are seemingly designed to make the guests as uncomfortable as possible, seemingly embarrassment and humiliation have become almost essential aspects of enjoyment in modern British society. A third post would consist of my opinions on a branch of the media focussed on narrowing the gap between fiction and reality, such as “experiential advertising” (adverts that are experienced) and hidden camera shows (where members of the public interact with invented characters).

While I never managed to write these posts, seemingly the themes I had intended to describe in detail can be applied to the game show Safeword. The game show itself seems to be an excuse to push the celebrity guests to their limit and, in my opinion, is part of a group of game shows that are thinly veiled excuses to humiliate the contestants.

Before analysing the programme, I would like to state that this post is not an analysis of the jokes and humour exhibited in the show. The host of show clarifies his opinion of those who do not like the humour and I am more concerned with the relationship with trolling than discuss whether on not these shows are suitable for TV or should be banned.

The show begins with an introduction for the teams. Each team consists of two comedians and a celebrity guest (with one of the comedians taking the role of regular team captain). The teamwork can be compared to darts, with the two comedians playing the role of players (as they use their skills to try to create insults that will help win) and the guest forming a dartboard (as they are not required to do anything except allow themselves to be insulted). The comedians are introduced, followed by the two guests, who enter through a door and sit on a throne, which actually seems to increase the humiliation by flattering the celebrity before they squirm. The safeword is then generated by using a “Safeword Generator”. This basically consists of a series of topics accompanied by unflattering photographs. The comedians then try and create a safeword using the topics, with the safeword designed to be a word or phrase the celebrity would not feel comfortable shouting out in front of an audience. The first round is called “Hacked”. In this round, the comedians have access to a social media account belonging to the celebrity on the opposing side and, using both text and pictures, post material that is embarrassing to the celebrity and not something they want read. The second round is called “Burned”. The celebrity picks a picture which reveals an embarrassing picture and a topic, the opposite team members then pick a comedian to stand at a podium and insult the celebrity based around the topic. The third round is called “Slam Down”. Both celebrities stand opposite each other and take turns insulting each other, using their safeword to call a comedian to add an insult on their behalf. Interestingly, originally this round involved the comedians insulting each other, but seemed to have changed in later episodes. Points are scored based on whether the celebrity is able to weather the abuse or if the comedians are able to upset them enough for them to use their safeword.

While most of the programme involves some comedians humiliating the celebrity guests, some aspects of the show seem to encourage trolling. During the “Hacked” round, the presenter stops the creativity to read out responses from the internet community. All the respondents seem to believe it is actually the celebrity who was written the comments (and not part of a game show) and some of the responses seem to be supportive of the celebrity. Unfortunately, some of the responses read out by the presenter seem to be abusing the guest, many of which are not creative or clever comments, but just vicious insults. While the idea of this segment seems to be to show how the social media community regards the posts, reading out abusive posts seems to encourage trolling. Instead of trolls being seen as nasty individuals who need to be avoided, they are transformed into creative and comedic people who are welcomed into the mainstream and rewarded for their viciousness.

A number of TV shows seem to have used comments from trolls as comedic material, such as celebrities reading out these comments. I actually do not feel comfortable with this. While there has been a lot of debate regarding whether trolls should be banned from social media or allowed to continue as part of free speech, I personally feel there is a difference between allowing trolls to insult people and promoting their abusive comments.

A number of years ago, a man was convicted for sending abusive messages to a well-known MP. While a lot of coverage was dedicated to his spiteful comments and threats, a columnist (who knew the person twenty years before) also made an interesting observation. Before he began threatening people, many of his social media posts were strange messages about famous people (such as offering to buy an island from a wealthy businessman or claiming to be attending a social meeting with a talent show judge) which seemed to demonstrate a desire to become a friend of celebrities and join their society. The columnist also wondered if the troll would get pleasure knowing his name was in the same newspapers as ones which reported about the lives of the celebrities he was interested in. Using this case as an example, I feel that elevating trolls to the level of minor celebrities in comedy shows would encourage this sort of behaviour, particularly if they are rewarded with more time depending on the viciousness of their comments.

The parallels between the trolling and the show are actually deeper than the design and humour of the show. The official Twitter feed for the show seems to extend the taunting of the guests. The posts on the feed contains pictures of the contestants looking shocked and exasperated and comments gleefully discussing how the celebrities were being “roasted” and describing their humiliation, which adds an extra sadistic element to the show. Strangely, these comments are used on guests who do not seem affected by the abuse and rarely use their safe word to stop the humiliation.

The host made some interesting comments in an interview before the show was aired. Weirdly, he claimed he would not enter the show himself as he was the sort of person who would start screaming and throwing things under similar circumstances. He also suggested that he thought some of the celebrities did not know how the show would proceed when they first entered.

I feel this show promotes trolling of the celebrity guests in the show and seems to incorporate aspects of trolling in the advertising of the show and it’s social media presence. While I am not making a case for the show to be banned, it seems harsh to use vicious online comments in the show and continue to taunt the people who appear on the show afterwards. I also feel this show is part of a culture of humiliation and degradation in the media, which seems dedicated to embarrassing game show contestants and attempting to push them as far as possible before they are overwhelmed.

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