I keep trying to write up a profile of Martin Freeman, and it's been in the outbox for-absolutely-ever, because I keep getting distracted by laughing myself inside-out at what he does to chat show hosts who attempt to talk to him like he actually is Tim Canterbury. Ninety-eight percent of these things are titled "Martin Freeman being lovely!" and they're all completely correct; I also stand by my assessment that he's kinda pointy. The two are not mutually exclusive.

There are a few different ways to deal with it when someone -- say, Wossy -- insists on trying to spork you on national TV. One, of course, is to simply not dignify any of it with a response. It works on some people, but not well on others, and when it doesn't work it tends to encourage the sporkers to try harder. Another is to throw a hissy fit in return, decrying the behavior and demanding an apology. This is also pretty hit-or-miss, is not very funny, and usually gets you a reputation for being a diva.  You can let it go on for a while before making a calmly backhanded comment about how juvenile the behavior is; this one is especially popular among very dignified women of a certain age like Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren, who use it to wonderful effect. There's a somewhat rougher variation of it where you just sit back and say, "Wow," and then let the host stew for a bit while thinking about what he's done --  best performed by a master of sarcasm like Robert Downey, Jr.

Then there is Freeman's method, which is essentially the same as the classic variation of a game theory puzzle called the Prisoner's Dilemma. The traditional setup is that there are two suspects, being interrogated in two different rooms, unable to communicate with the other. The evidence against them is sketchy, so if they both keep their yaps shut, they'll both only serve five years for a lesser crime. If both of them give details and accuse each other, the resulting evidence will let the prosecutor both both of them away for ten years. But if only one of them talks, the one who talks gets away scot free and the one he points the finger at serves a full fifteen years in prison. There are other variants, but the gist of it is that if both prisoners are "nice" to each other they both get something, if they're both "nasty" to each other they both get a less desirable prize, and if one is "nice" and the other "nasty", the nice one gets shafted while the nasty one gets a big reward. The usual question asked about it is, what strategy will get you the best rewards when applied over (one, two, jillions, infinity) rounds of this, and there have been innumerable programs and contests run to that end.

Now it turns out that the winning strategy for Prisoner's Dilemma, over an arbitrarily large number of rounds, is one called "tit for tat". It's very simple: You lead with being nice, and thereafter, you do whatever your opponent chose to do the round before. Nasty behavior is punished with further nasty behavior, whereas if your opponent keeps choosing to be nice, then everyone ends up being nice to each other until the end of time. And this is basically what Freeman does, especially on chat shows. He's far less concerned with meeting anyone's expectations than he is about behaving according to his own code of conduct, and his code of conduct says that the world would be a nicer place if everyone behaved politely and with a reasonable amount of sanity. So he leads with that, and if the other guy does too, everything turns out fine; and if the other guy decides to be obnoxious for some reason, Freeman promptly stabs back.

He also, notably, flips right back to nice as soon as the other guy does too. He's done Never Mind the Buzzcocks three times, twice on panel and once as a guest host, and in what was either a really unfortunate or a prearranged-for-the-lulz bit of scheduling, when he hosted, one of the panelists on Phil's side was a complete and utter git. Freeman vs Idiot tends to turn out rather like car vs. small oblivious forest creature, and that is in fact what happens for about 95% of the show, but when the git in question apologized for complaining that something was wrong when it actually wasn't, Freeman accepts cheerfully and shakes his hand.

Speaking of Buzzcockx, I was highly entertained to find out that the first time Freeman was on panel, he was asked politely to please stop spitting out all the answers so damn quickly. He has a head crammed full of music. He sings reasonably well, if in a limited range, and there's a wall of vinyl in his living room -- Who Do You Think You Are?, a genealogy program, shows him sitting on the floor in front of the stereo, with a pair of studio 'phones on. He has a couple of specialties, one being Motown, on which his knowledge is pretty well encyclopedic. (He also does tolerably well with modern-ish pop on Buzzcocks and I've seen at least one passing reference to having headphones on with ska leaking out on the set of Sherlock.) One of the reasons he's famously kind of amused by/tolerant of stuff like tumblr is likely that there are a lot of music people that he fanboys so hard it's not even funny. He and his wife Amanda Abbington were guest hosting a radio program at one point and Freeman waxed so enthusiastic about a producer that she asked him whether he wanted to be the guy's friend or his boyfriend -- to which his answer was a very tumblr-esque SOMETIMES THERE'S A BLUR OKAY.

(Actually, I don't know that they're technically married. He says 'wife' and 'married' and wears a ring, but official press says 'partner'. Is there a difference in the UK? In the US, 'partner' instead of 'husband'/'wife' indicates that it's a long-term relationship but the parties in question for whatever reason haven't married -- either they didn't want to, or in the case of gay couples, live in a state that hasn't legalized same-sex marriages. If you live in a state that recognizes common law or de facto marriages, you can essentially get married by shacking up together for X amount of time, and letting it be generally known you consider yourselves hitched, but not all states count that as legal. My parents were considered common-law spouses and filed taxes as married when we lived in New England, but when we moved to Arizona they had to scramble together a license and a JP before my father's company would let him put my mother or either of us children on his health insurance.)

(Also, his missus is a crack-up. She used to be on Twitter from time to time, and someone caught her once to ask if Freeman was aware of the running joke on tumblr comparing him to a hedgehog, and if so, what he thought about it -- "He laughs, he cries, he rolls himself into a prickly little ball and hibernates for the winter." She occasionally shared tidbits about their children, who are apparently both terrifying and hilarious little tykes.)

Martin Freeman also sets off the genius kid alarm pretty hard, although the indicators are different than Cumberbatch's. For starters, Freeman has an excellent idea of how smart he is and also an excellent idea of how smart other people are not. Likely it comes from having a load of siblings -- having people around who are probably as smart as you are but with different personalities gives you a pretty good start on learning to distinguish 'as bright as me only in a different direction' from 'average person' from 'kind of thick'. It also tends to make you not afraid to assert yourself, especially if you're one of the younger ones, which I think he is. He doesn't make a particularly big deal about it, but Freeman is aware that he's not really ordinary (people sometimes ask him if he's an 'everyman' like many of his most famous roles; the answer is always a flat "no", usually in a tone that indicates he thinks this is kind of an idiot question for anyone who's talked to him for more than five minutes to be asking), and I suspect he sometimes has entire days where he just wants to grab people by the shoulders and shake them until the stupid comes rattling out their ears.

One of the more notable bits is that Freeman has the characteristic smart-kid sense of humor. Because it's based largely in spotting established patterns, then breaking them in an equally patterned way, it involves a lot of things like inappropriate specificity or generalization. He got into a back-and-forth over a Paul McCartney album on Buzzcocks, and when the other gent asked, "How many albums have you listened to?", clearly intending it to be a rhetorical question implying that if he thought that one was good he must not have heard many others, Freeman looked him straight in the eye and promptly answered, "Eight." There's also a lot of 'ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer' involved when he does talk shows. Graham Norton asked him if he was aware of the huge female fan following John Watson had drawn on Sherlock and he pointed out very dryly that he did have a computer.

Freeman is also a veritable flood of words when he's not playing a quiet character, and he has quite a mouth on him -- he frequently takes advantage of the fact that British television will let you get away with saying goddamn near anything you want on the air, as long as it's after watershed and you're not being particularly crude or insulting to a specific person. I live in hope for the day someone finally asks him to sit on the panel on QI while Jo Brand is there, and the two of them manage to utterly break Stephen Fry.


  1. "Partner" in the UK is the catch-all term for any relationship beyond the casually dating level of it all. It's not even a good indicator of LGBT awareness, unlike the US. (In my experience, if a US-ian refers to a partner as partner, they are at the very least aware of the gender shenanigans that humans get up to. In the UK it just means that the partner is a partner.)

    Martin Freeman + Jo Brand + QI = Great expectations! ^^

    1. Particularly on QI, where it's a rare day when they manage to get more than five minutes in before someone figures out how to work in a cock joke. A highly intellectual cock joke, but a cock joke all the same.

      I think they'd break the host most 'specially badly because one of Stephen Fry's few remaining spots of shyness pops up when someone makes a pass at him. Jo Brand is one of the few women I've ever seen coax him into the mock-flirting game that a lot of gay men will engage in with straight women, and Martin Freeman will play banter ping-pong with pretty much anybody smart.


Post a Comment