Wake Up, You’re On TV

Being Toastmaster for a science fiction award ceremony appears to be something of a banana skin. Years ago we had Harlan Ellison’s GropeGate at the Hugos. Jay Lake and Ken Scholes attracted some negative comment for their performance in Reno. And last night John Meaney attracted a lot of flak for his performance at the BSFA Awards. (See here for some reaction.)

Inevitably, when these things happen, those at the center of the storm tend to get characterized as Bad People, much to the bemusement of those who know them. I should note here that I’m an openly out, female-identified trans woman, but I count Jay and John as good friends, and my one interaction with Harlan was very pleasant. I’d feel perfectly safe in their company, which is more than I can say for some of the people who attend Eastercon. But people, including me, occasionally say dumb things, especially when they think it is their job to make an audience laugh.

The thing about an award ceremony is that it’s not like being in the pub with your mates. It’s not like giving an after dinner speech at a gentleman’s club. In these days of U-Stream it isn’t even a case of giving a speech to a small group of fans who are predominantly older, male, bearded and beer-bellied, and who will get all of your fannish in-jokes. You are on TV, being watched by people all around the world, and you need to be aware of how that audience will react to what you say.

The same goes for ceremony organizers. If you are going to run one of these things, and put it out to the world, you have to be aware that anyone might watch, and react to what goes on. That means talking to your toastmaster in advance about what is going to be said, and accepting some of the responsibility if you get negative feedback.

These things are not necessarily easy. We are all learning to come to grips with the global village in which we now live. But ultimately the only way to avoid train wrecks is to think about these issues, and be careful about what is said.

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20 Responses to Wake Up, You’re On TV

  1. Michelle Feltham says:

    Very sensible advice on all fronts. Comedians (even nice ones!) often risk slipping into taselessness when trying to be funny; it must be much harder when stand-up isn’t your regular gig. Still, these things do leave a nasty taste in the mouth and so a bit more of a sense of, and a show of, responsibility would be welcome.

  2. James Davis Nicoll says:

    my one interaction with Harlan was very pleasant.

    What a shame Connie Willis cannot say the same. It’s also a shame it’s part of a pattern of bad behavior on Ellison’s part.

    What I particularly liked about GropeGate was the tepid fauxpology Ellision issued before deciding he was the real victim in it all.

    • Cheryl says:

      Inability to accept that you’ve done anything wrong is often the thing that turns bad behavior into a monumental train wreck.

  3. Daveon says:

    I think it’s harsh to worry about this with Fen myself. Over the years, the Oscars, the Brits, Golden Globes, British Comedy Awards and many other enormous events have demonstrated that even a skilled performer, a team of writers and a cast, literally, of 1000s means jack for being able to deliver an awards ceremony.

    I’m still trying to get my head around my actual position on this one, as the things that annoy me about the report might not be the same as annoy other people.

    • Cheryl says:

      Well you might not want to worry about it, but others do. Kevin and I had management responsibility for the major Events at Glasgow in 2005 and I can assure you that we worried about such things, because we knew people would hold us responsible if anything went wrong.

      • Daveon says:

        While I’m not terribly good at it, I do think the axiom: only worry about things you actually can do something about, is a good one.

        My experience in Fandom has taught me a couple of things, firstly, no matter how hard you try, somebody will be offended by something. While, I think you should mitigate against obvious offense (not done by the BFSA) – trying to mug trap every instance is gong to fail, and probably fail in a variety of spectacular ways.

        Secondly, there are situations that are always going to cause offense, annoy people and otherwise cause problems just because.

        Be it the nomination process itself, the content of the awards ceremony, the seating arrangements at the awards, the running time of the awards, the colour of the staging in the background at the awards, the height of the stage, the use of flash photography, the…

        That’s not to absolve the stonkingly bad job done here in the BSFA Awards, just recognising the impracticality of not offending somebody in fandom. :)

        • Farah says:

          In this case what stands out is that the tweeters are not “the usual suspects” (ie me, I was not there). At least one was someone John had thought had rather enjoyed the jokes

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  5. Randy Smith says:

    I appreciate your comments very much. In nearly twenty years of working backstage during the Hugo Awards I’ve noticed a significant shift in how we go about planning what will happen on stage. The requirements of video production are increasingly affecting staging decisions. For many years I had been hoping for the ability to livestream the awards. Last year in Reno, it finally happened! Now, we will need to start figuring out what all of the unintended consequences of the technology will mean. I fully expect that we will be behind the learning curve on this for several years.

    • Cheryl says:

      And I appreciate how much effort goes into staging the ceremony these days.

    • One (presumably) unintended consequence: of streaming the Hugo Awards ceremony: A Hugo acceptance speech is nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation the following year.

      If you’d put that into a science fiction story, readers would have scoffed.

      • That’s true to some extent, but I do know that people were talking of nominating it for the following year’s Hugos during and immediately after last year’s ceremony. Also, the framing sequence of the 2005 Hugo Awards (“Prix Victor Hugo”) was nominated for the 2006 Hugos, and we were unable to stream that ceremony. (We wanted to do so, but at the time, the costs in time and money quoted to us for doing so was prohibitively high; costs have come down in the past half-decade to the point where I expect streaming the ceremony will now be considered an obvious and expected part of the event.)

  6. Colum Paget says:

    Cheryl, please stand for Parliament! I would vote for you!

    I can’t quite think what John Meaney was thinking, but at the same time I believe he didn’t mean to offend people. I felt sorry for him, but I felt sorry for the audience too. We’ve all had jokes backfire and leave us with egg on our faces, but not normally so many in one go.

    Part of the problem with award routines in general is that they feature comic turns that people don’t know are coming. Comedy always flies close to the wind as regards giving offence, but if you went to see Bill Hicks (I know he’s dead, he’s just who came to mind) or someone then you know what you are letting yourself in for. At an awards ceremony, you’ve got no choice, so you’re subjected to material potentially against your will, if you see what I mean.

    The thing to do now would be for people to focus on preventing this in future. Do we really need full-scale comedy routines at award ceremonies? By their nature they are always going to be dangerous.

    People are there to see who wins the awards. I’d rather hear a little bit more about the authors/works that are in the shortlists, than any kind of comedy routine.

    If we are going to have a comedy routine, then I think there should be multiple proof-readers to catch any obvious howlers (one well chosen person, yourself for instance, would surely have been enough to ensure John was told “John, you can’t do this stuff!”)

    People need to be thinking about what they want the BSFA awards to be, and maybe making the tone even a little more serious, and less like the oscars.

    Colum

    • Cheryl says:

      Colum, if I stood for Parliament it would take the Daily Mail about half an hour to work out that I’m openly trans, and the next week’s papers would be full of lies about me and my family.

  7. Colum Paget says:

    # You are on TV, being watched by people
    # all around the world, and you need to
    # be aware of how that audience will react
    # to what you say.

    To be honest the people in the room thought it was awful too though. John’s routine was, as you say, in-jokes, but the subset of fandom they were aimed at was smaller than the room. U-stream isn’t the problem, though I agree it’s a good metaphor for the problem. But if the event hadn’t been streamed, it would still have kicked off, because it would have been a long, long routine of in-jokes, the stuff about Ms Beukes would still have been offensive, etc, etc, etc.

    Even if the event wasn’t being streamed, the awards would still be a cultural artifact bigger than the people in the hall on that day. The BSFA awards are an ongoing tradition . If you do a routine of in-jokes about your mates, you make them look like they’re some little thing that a small clique of friends give to each other. They are bigger than that, bigger than any number of diverse people who can be in the hall, because traditions have a temporal element.

    I’m not sure if I’m making myself at all clear here, but I just think we need to take the event a little more seriously, perhaps?

    Colum

  8. Colum Paget says:

    Kudos to the commenters here too. I don’t agree with all that’s been said (assuming I’ve understood what’s being said), but it’s all been said in a calm, respectful manner. Most ‘discussions’ on the web are just screaming matches, so it’s good to see this.

    Colum

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