If you’ve not seen Ricky Gervais’ Humanity on Netflix yet, I highly urge you to do so... it’s brilliant! For me, it felt like something different; a stand-up routine that cleverly challenged the audience in a new and often unexpected way. At times, it was intelligently brutal, addressing societal issues that plague us all across the various incarnations of social media, finally saying in public the things many of us think and feel behind closed doors, afraid of being judged, bullied and ostracised if we were ever to say them out loud. To watch this show is to feel liberated.
An attribute I find intriguing about Ricky Gervais is that he seems to totally get what it means to be a figure of notoriety, or celebrity, in the 21st Century. Although I use it, I don’t much like the word celebrity because it no longer carries with it the value it once did. It’s a catch-all word for famous people and quite honestly, one size does not fit all. In one camp, you have those who are famous for being famous; reality ‘stars’, if you like. In the other you have, for example, the multi-award winning actor and director Clint Eastwood, with an illustrious career spanning 70 years. For the record, Ricky Gervais is in the Clint camp.
Towards the latter half of Ricky’s Humanity show, he raises the issue of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. You probably know what that is by now but if you don’t, I’ve blogged about it before. It’s an egregiously cruel event that has no place in this world. The ability to include the topic in a stand-up comedy routine in such away as to not depreciate it while communicating the true horror of it is something I’ve never seen done before. And it made me realise how precious a commodity a fame-driven global platform is in the 21st Century and how so many people who live under the banner of ‘celebrity’ don’t grasp that.
A problem exists in that if you’re not famous, you’re not heard. I’m sure you’ve been in the situation before when you’re trying to do something positive, like raise money for a charity and your Twitter or Facebook post has a handful of likes from the same small group of people that engage with you on a daily basis. Thousands of people chasing funds for thousands of good causes amid a melee of noise. It’s impossible to be heard. Unless, of course, you have fame on your side. A good dose of infamy can give you direct access to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people which is a sling shot in to the palms of fans on a scale never seen before in human history. And with his 13.2million followers at the time of writing, Ricky Gervais really understands that. He plays with and entertains his followers while regularly embracing the the big issues (animal welfare, for example). And he’s not alone. Just looking through my Twitter feed in no particular order, Liz Carr (the actress who plays Clarissa in Silent Witness) campaigns on her feed to end homelessness while musician Rick Wakeman is an Ambassador for Animals Asia, tweeting about the bear bile trade in China and Vietnam. They get it.
But, many ‘celebs’ don’t appreciate the benevolence potential of their appeal. They don’t fully appreciate the rare influence that enables their voice to be heard FOR GOOD above the other 330million. A voice that can be of social value in addition to everything else that makes their feed popular. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that there is a balance. You follow a favourite singer to get a voyeuristic look in to their life and maybe the inside track on new material. You certainly don’t want them beating you round the head day in, day out creating fatigue about any said topic. But, used considerately, a tweet about an issue you knew nothing about from an artist you respect could engage an enquiring or receptive mind. It might not, but it stands way more of a chance than if it came from 99% of other users. And besides, if it doesn’t work for one then there are possibly millions of others who might respond.
Some quick and dirty stats for you by way of an example. On March 30th, Ricky sent this tweet:
In total, it had more than 5,000 engagements. Now that might be only 0.4% of his total Twitter audience but that’s still 4,700 engagements more than if it hadn’t been sent at all. And let’s face it, 0.4% of Ricky’s audience equates to a damned sight more than almost anyone else’s.
Which leads me finally to answer the question that forms part of the title of this blog. What makes a good 21st Century celebrity? Fame can no longer be viewed as the frivolous end result of an endeavour that’s popular with the public. It’s something that has power attached - the power to be heard above and beyond most others. At best, people pay large sums of money for this power. At worst, they blackmail and kill. So, with this power must come some form of social responsibility. Therefore, a good 21st Century celebrity is simply a successful person of note who creates time to use their influence for the pursuit of benevolence.
Ricky Gervais, like many others, embrace this to full effect - and just look at what he’s achieved for the greater good.