Sandi Toksvig: Can Social Change Start With Laughter? When comedian and TV host Sandi Toksvig came out as gay in the early 1990s, she used humor to recover from the onslaught of vitriol.Today, she says, humor can help bring about social change.

Sandi Toksvig: Can Social Change Start With Laughter?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: Sandi, this is Guy Raz.

TOKSVIG: Hello, Guy. How are you?

RAZ: I'm the presenter of the program.

And this? This is Sandi Toksvig. And she's a comedian.

TOKSVIG: San Franciscan people, they love to talk about their feelings, don't they?

RAZ: Yeah.

TOKSVIG: I learned not to ask the waitress at the breakfast how she was 'cause she would tell me. When a British person says how are you, they don't want to know. It's awkward.

RAZ: And intrusive, right? Yeah.

TOKSVIG: Yes. Oh, I don't want to know. I really - I can't deal with it, so.


RAZ: Sandi's been a fixture on TV and radio in the U.K. for more than 20 years, starting with a British children's series in the '80s called "No. 73."


TOKSVIG: If you see a letter Z or A-B-C-D-E-F-G.

RAZ: Sandi was also a regular on all kinds of comedy shows like "Call My Bluff," "Mock The Week" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"


TOKSVIG: You've got a little bird on your shoulder.



RAZ: These days, Sandi's the host of a BBC show called "QI."

TOKSVIG: Well, "QI" stands for quite interesting. And it's full of information that you go, really? I didn't know that (laughter).


TOKSVIG: Here are some new names for things. But can you tell me what any of them are?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Al desco (ph) is having your lunch.

TOKSVIG: Having your lunch at your desk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A belfie (ph), I can't remember what a belfie is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A belfie is where you take a selfie but you have a bell.


TOKSVIG: No, it is a selfie, but what of? What part of you is a belfie?




RAZ: OK. So that's what Sandi does in front of the camera. But off-screen, she's had a slightly more serious role as a political activist. And it all started with something that happened back in 1994, when Sandi came out - publicly.

TOKSVIG: And there wasn't a single out gay woman in British public life. I was already on television then and on the radio and so on. And I just thought this is not right. I have nothing to be ashamed of.

RAZ: But it turned out a lot of other people didn't feel the same way. Because remember, this was in the early 1990s. Sandi picks up the story from the TED stage.


TOKSVIG: Everybody has inside themselves what I call an activation button. OK? It's the button that gets pressed when you think, I must do something about this. Now, it gets pressed for all sorts of reasons. So I was born gay. OK? I've always known. I don't think my family were the least bit surprised. So my activation button was pressed when I had my kids born to my then-partner. So I decided to come out. Everybody warned me that I would never work again. But I decided it was absolutely worth the risk.

Well, it was hell. In Britain, we have a particularly vicious section of the right wing press. And they went nuts. And their hatred stirred up the less stable elements of society. And we got death threats, enough death threats that I had to take the kids into hiding. And we had to have police protection. And I promise you there were many moments in the still of the night when I was terrified by what I had done.


RAZ: But Sandi found that even in those moments of darkness, sometimes the way that she found the light was to just laugh about it.

TOKSVIG: When we laugh out loud and we realize that there are others who think the same as us, then we feel better. And maybe it encourages us to keep going and not to just sit at home and lock the door and think, I'm not coming out till this is over.


RAZ: On the show today - Painfully Funny, ideas about why humor is often the most powerful tool we have in dealing with pain, crisis and the general chaos that life throws our way. For Sandi Toksvig, humor was just sort of a way to make sense of things.

TOKSVIG: Well, there was a really long period of time when if the newspapers ever referred to me, even if I was talking about, I don't know, cake making, they would put lesbian Sandi Toksvig.

RAZ: Wow.

TOKSVIG: And I thought, wow, I don't really see how that's relevant but OK.

RAZ: (Laughter).

TOKSVIG: Yeah. You become the go-to spokesperson although, again, we talked about British feelings for a very long period of time. Nobody really wanted to talk about it. They were so horrified that I had been so upfront about it. So in a way, I sort of wasn't asked any questions at all because they were appalled that somebody was not only out, had children, and all the children seemed to have, you know, just one head each and perfectly happy. You know, it was a mystery to them all.

RAZ: (Laughter).


TOKSVIG: I have to say, I have to tell you that my kids had a most marvelous time having two moms. When my daughter was at university, she got flu. And both mums rushed to be with her. And we were both looking after her and making soup and tidying up. And one of her friends came in and went two mums? Not fair.

RAZ: (Laughter).

TOKSVIG: 'Cause it's just way better.

RAZ: Did it have a negative effect on your career at all for any period of time?

TOKSVIG: Sure, sure. I lost work for sure and was told that I couldn't possibly host certain shows and that it was - wouldn't be appropriate.

RAZ: I wonder whether, I mean, you describe what happened after you came out and this long period of fear and obviously must have been quite painful to endure that. How were you able to withstand it? I mean, what did you...

TOKSVIG: Yeah. It was tough. If you get death threats, trust me, it's not fun. But you have to stand for the things that you believe in. You have to stay strong inside. And I don't know how else you do it. I love the - there's a - I bought a T-shirt when I was last in America that said I stand on the right side of history. And you have to believe that. I genuinely believe that equality for everybody is better for the whole of society.

RAZ: So after coming out and then dealing with everything that came with that, Sandi's activation button was pressed again in 2015, this time for women's rights.


TOKSVIG: We decided to found a brand new political party 'cause here's the critical thing. The one place women and men are absolutely equal is at the ballot box. OK. Now, we have no idea what we were doing. We didn't know how complicated it was to start a political party. I thought it can't be that difficult, men have been doing it for years.


TOKSVIG: So we started by calling it the Women's Equality Party, OK? And straightaway, people said to me, why did you call it that? I said I don't know. I just thought we'd be clear.


TOKSVIG: I didn't want what we were doing to be a secret, you know? I just...


TOKSVIG: And then some people said, you can't call it that. It's much too feminist - ooh, scary word, ah. I can't tell you how many times I've heard somebody say, I'm not a feminist but - and I always think if there's a but in the sentence they can't all be roses in the garden. And then I started getting asked the hilarious question, are you all going to burn your bras?


TOKSVIG: Yes, because bras are famously made of flammable material.


TOKSVIG: That's why all women spark when they walk.


RAZ: How are you able to react that way? Like, how are you able to joke about things that other people might just pull their hair out and get really angry about and say what - you know, explode with anger?

TOKSVIG: Well, I - see, I think the way to get people to pay attention is to not do that and not appear like some, you know, raging person who wants to burn their underwear because actually I'm not like that. I'm a perfectly normal, sensible human being who wants to try and make the world a better place. And I'm very interested and I keep an eye here in the U.K. of the big increase in ratings there seems to be on the late-night shows that are using humor as a weapon in the current political situation. I think that is the way forward, and nothing is more disarming to a critic than you finding them funny.

RAZ: Yeah.

TOKSVIG: You know, what - how dare you call a party whose aim is to get equality for women the Women's Equality Party? Why didn't you pretend and call it - I don't know - the Pink Handbag Party? What is wrong with you? That's just hilarious.

RAZ: Yeah.

TOKSVIG: And also life is full of things that we believe to be true, which are not true. No woman ever burned her bra in the '60s. It was made up by a journalist.

RAZ: Yeah. I even looked it up on the internet, and I could not find anything about it.

TOKSVIG: No. What happened was - I don't know how old you are, my darling. I'm sure you're young as anything, but there was a time when Vietnam - people who didn't want to go and serve in the Vietnam War burnt their draft cards.

RAZ: Yeah.

TOKSVIG: And that idea was conflated with the protests that were held at the Miss America contest. They did crown a sheep Miss America, which is funny but nobody seems to remember that part. That I would have liked to have seen.

RAZ: I mean, this is like - that's the thing. Like, I suspect that you don't sit around and consciously think, I am going to use humor to advance my ideas, but it's just sort of your temperament. Is that right?

TOKSVIG: Yes, it is, absolutely. And I think you have to keep smiling. Lots of bad things happen in the world, lots and lots of bad things. I wake up every day and I think really? This is happening now? It is so heartbreaking and so appalling that the only thing I think you can do is you have to start combating it with activism but also with remembering that we're human beings and we have a sense of humor. I don't see any other way forward, frankly, because if you just sat and thought about those things you would just sob all day long.


TOKSVIG: Nowhere in the world, for example, do women have equal representation in positions of power. OK. Let's take a very quick look at the top 100 companies in the London Stock Exchange in 2016. Top 100 companies - how many women running them? Seven. OK, seven that's all right, I suppose, until you realize that 17 are run by men called John.


TOKSVIG: There are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies...


TOKSVIG: ...Than there are women. There are 14 run by men called Dave.


TOKSVIG: Now, I'm sure Dave and John are doing a bang-up job. OK.


TOKSVIG: Why does it matter? Well, it's that pesky business of the gender pay gap, OK? Nowhere in the world do women earn the same as men. And that is never going to change unless we have more women at the top in the boardroom. We have plenty of laws. The Equal Pay Act in Britain was passed in 1975. Nevertheless, there are still many, many women who, from early November until the end of the year by comparison to their male colleagues, are effectively working for free. In fact, the World Economic Forum estimates that women will finally get equal pay in 2133.




RAZ: I mean, all the examples that you give in your talk, like more companies are run by Daves or Johns than there are women who run companies. I mean, it would be funnier if it wasn't so depressing.

TOKSVIG: I know. I know. But I'm just trying to point it out. You know, life is - has it's many amusing sides to it. I have to say, Mr. Trump, bless him, has been a boon - frankly a boon - to satirists the world over.

RAZ: (Laughter).

TOKSVIG: So you could be depressed or you could just also find the funny side. And so it makes me smile, I have to say, when I say something and I can see people go, oh, you know, they get really enraged by this. It makes me laugh more. It is - the Greek drama masks were tragedy and comedy, and they stood side by side. And the Greeks knew that, and we should know that, that in the midst of despair that we are still human and a sense of humor and a good laugh is one of the things that makes us so human. Laughter brings you together. I think that's - I saw that when I was in the theater last night, and I heard 700 people all laughing together, and I thought, we don't even know each other but we've been brought together by that wonderful noise.


TOKSVIG: So you've just got to keep going for it.


RAZ: Comedian Sandi Toksvig. She hosts the show "QI" on the BBC, and she's going to co-host the next season of "The Great British Bake Off" later this year. You can hear her full talk at On the show today - Painfully Funny. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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