5 Tricks People Who Complain About 'Cancel Culture' Stole From Comedy
I’ve been a lifelong fan of comedy and a professional comedian for nearly 14 years, and in that time, there have been a lot of trends hyped to be “the death of comedy as we know it.” For the longest time, political correctness was the culprit, and after 9/11, we faced the fabled "death of irony.” Then, starting around summer of 2015, we started noticing audience members were getting really touchy about anything political for a reason that was eventually banned from Twitter.
And, over the past couple years, stand-up comedy has been facing a new threat: Political Correctness: Part 2 - Dracula's Revenge, otherwise known as “cancel culture”... a boogeyman so powerful, so feared, and so nebulous that I’m surprised you can’t summon it by saying its name three times into a mirror. But you see, cancel culture is a joke, and by that I mean it is literally a joke. The folks prognosticating about the dangers of cancel culture have been cribbing the same ol' tricks comedians have been using for ages, such as …
It’s “The Aristocrats”
The Aristocrats is a classic street joke that goes all the way back to vaudeville. There is no definitive telling of the joke, as the joke allows whoever is telling it to put their own unique spin on it, and make it as filthy as they can. Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza made a brilliant documentary on it that I cannot recommend enough. Here is a mashup of the joke from over 60 comics who participated in the film. But overall, it’s not a great joke. It’s got a so-so premise and a corny punchline, but it’s the setup that grabs attention. Nothing is off-limits. To tell the joke well, you have to shock the listener as much as you possibly can for as long as you can, and desensitize them just enough to want to keep listening out of morbid curiosity.
Does that technique sound a bit familiar? Because that’s practically the style guide Fox News’ primetime lineup, as well as the entire business model of OANN and Newsmax. As long as it continues to get ratings, they’re gonna keep airing segments that try to tie Mr. Potato Head, Kermit the Frog, and Pepe Le Pew as part of the same asinine culture war. It's like they want the viewer to storm the Bastille over a Super Smash Bros. roster made up entirely of characters most people think about maybe once every three months.
And much like with the Aristocrats joke, when these news outlets see that their viewers start to get tired of the setup, that’s when they’ll know it’s time to pull the chute, and that's because …
It’s Catchphrase Comedy
There are two types of comedy catchphrases. The first is when the catchphrase happens organically. A comedian tells a joke where one part gets an unexpectedly huge reaction, so they write more jokes to riff on that theme. Before they know it, that’s all they’re known for. They’re locked into telling those jokes for the rest of their career no matter how sick they are of telling them, all because the merchandise sales are just too lucrative. That’s why Jeff Foxworthy always saves the “you might be a redneck” jokes for the encore.
The other kind of catchphrase is forced upon the audience whether they want it or not. The marketing people love it, it tested well with the key demo, and it looks good on a t-shirt. It’s the wacky sitcom sidekick trademark that may not make any damn sense, but they’ll throw it in the script for every damn episode. It is Dyn-O-Mite! That’s what she said!
“Cancel culture” is the “Bazinga!” of political discourse, and the phrase “woke cancel culture” is basically “Bazinga, did I do that?” It’s quickly losing what little meaning it ever had, but it trends on Twitter every time, so you bet your ass it’ll be in the script again next week. And once the audience gets tired of the character, the network will simply spin it off into another iteration of the same damn thing. There's a reason Hugo Chávez keeps popping up in the news as the monster of the week, even though he's been dead for eight years. He's been turned into David S. Pumpkins.
It’s a (Crappy) Roast
Part of the fun of watching a roast battle is when the two contestants are good friends. They know one another’s history, and they know each other’s pressure points. They can get personal, but there’s also a mutual level of respect and admiration that prevents them from making the insults too personal.
It’s a different story when the two contestants don’t know each other very well and don’t know each other’s boundaries. One comic might say something that cuts a little too deep, and knocks the other for a loop. It’s three levels of humiliation happening at once: the sting of what they said, the audience laughing at them, and the pressure to win the battle. They have to come up with a good comeback fast, it has to hit hard, and they’re not interested in being funny because this shit just got real.
That’s the sense I get when someone talks about the “woke mob” coming after them. They feel personally attacked, and they want vengeance. It's not even about being right about anything, it’s about making the other side appear more wrong.
For example, when Dr. Seuss’ literary estate pulled six of his books from publication, that’s all the outrage merchants needed to hear. Oh my God! The woke mob is trying to cancel Dr. Seuss! Even after the estate explained their decision, the cancel culture narrative strangely shifted to “We can’t read Dr. Seuss anymore, but our kids can watch Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion perform a lesbian sex act at the Grammys?!?”
Okay, a couple of things. First of all, the books still exist, they’re just not gonna be reprinted. In fact, thanks to all of the outrage, those books are now collector’s items. You can still read everything Dr. Seuss ever wrote. You can also read everything ever written about him. Secondly, unless there’s some significant overlap in the key demographics for children’s books and caring deeply about the Grammys that I’m not aware of, those two things have nothing to do with each other. That whole argument is whataboutism, moving the goalposts, appealing from ignorance, and a false dichotomy all joining forces to form the Voltron of logical fallacies.
It’s just not an honest debate. Hell, it’s not even an honest roast battle. Because like a proper debate, roast battles have moderators, time limits, judges who name a definite winner, and both opponents have to say these things to each other’s faces.
They’re Doing Crowd Work to Fill Time
For stand-up comics, the ability to do crowd work is a very useful skill. When it’s done well, it can be a great way to engage the audience or diffuse a situation with a heckler. If it’s done badly, the crowd can get hostile or worse: cold. Either way, no comic has a tougher time than the comic who has to go up after someone who does crowd work, especially bad crowd work, because by then, the audience has been conditioned to think that’s how interactive the rest of the show is.
It’s the same thing with news networks. They have to fill 24 hours of airtime, seven days a week, and it can’t all just be the actual news. So, they put on their opinion shows and roundtable discussions which filter the news through a very specific lens and hopefully spark a conversation. These shows do the crowd work, getting their home audience to tweet about it and get those shows trending. See: the time Fox, uh, tried to cancel Dr. Seuss.
But once those shows are over, the opinion host has to hand the mic over to the real news anchors, who are the reason it’s called a news network in the first place (even though all of the ratings would have you thinking otherwise).
They Have A Bad Comic's Mentality
When I first started doing comedy, I got a job working the door at my local comedy club. Part of my job was to follow out anyone who left the show early, mainly to check if they had paid their tab. A lot of comics, the in-your-face, equal-opportunity-offender kind, would take great pride in how many people walked out during their set. “If you’re pissing people off, you must be doing something right.” they would tell me after the show.
I would always tell them that every time I follow these people out to the lobby, I would ask them if they had a problem with the show, because the manager was worried about bad Yelp reviews. The vast majority of the time, those customers weren’t leaving early because they were offended. They were leaving because they were bored.
I think of that every time I see a politician or a commentator complaining that they’re losing followers on social media and that Big Tech is trying to silence them. And you know it must be true because they said this on national television, and the YouTube clips of that were all over your Facebook feed. A far more likely explanation might be that many of those followers were fake accounts, or they were suspended for a terms-of-service violation. An even better explanation would be some of those people just, well, moved on with their lives.
The ones peddling the cancel culture narrative have a real problem, and it's that most people's everyday existences are barely affected by the hobgoblins of cancel culture. Just look at their own failed attempts at canceling, I mean, “calling for boycotts.” They tried to boycott Hamilton ... despite the fact that at the time, the show was only being performed in two cities and had a nine-month wait list for tickets.
People smashed their Keurig machines and burned their Nikes; products they had already paid for. They wanted to boycott Univision, CNN and MSNBC; channels they never watched in the first place. Just recently, they called for a boycott of Major League Baseball because the organization caved to a different boycott threat … sweet Jesus, this is exhausting.
The ironic thing is, because while our technology, the internet, and social media may have brought us all closer together than ever before, it has also put us at risk of a new digital Dark Age. Everything we post online, every podcast, every news report, this article … it’s all just ones and zeros on hard drives we’re not gonna be able to access decades from now. Future archaeologists are gonna think our world ended sometime between 2008 and 2016, because that’s when the newspaper industry downsized their print runs and switched to digital only. That would be the ultimate punchline to the joke that is cancel culture: on a long enough timeline, everything will be canceled.
Top image: Deepstock, Lightspring/Shutterstock