Comedy Isn't Canceled, Just Accountable
Don't look for any new Steve Harvey comedy specials anytime soon. He won't even try because of “cancel culture,” he told the Television Critics Association. "Nobody can say anything he wants to — Chris Rock can’t, Kevin Hart can’t, Cedric the Entertainer can’t, D.L. Hughley can’t. I can go down the list." (Apparently, “PC cancel culture” isn't stopping Harvey from hosting every show on basic cable.)
Comic actor Jamie Kennedy, for one, doesn’t like where all this is heading. “If we put a magnifying glass to everything in history, I will assure you with the new guard you can almost cancel everything,” he told Fox News. “It's a scary time (and) at some point you've got to live, right? It's like there's no forgiveness anymore."
Kennedy and Harvey are hardly alone. From Billy Crystal to Chris Rock to Donald Glover, comedians are raising the alarm: If cancel culture rules, no one will be able to do comedy anymore! Losing comedy forever would indeed suck -- but is it truly in danger? Let’s dive deeper into the 'cancel crisis' that many of today’s comics seem so afraid of.
On the Cusp of Wiping Out Comedy
Although she doesn’t cite any, you know, actual examples, British actress Dame Maureen Lipman warns comedians who have offended people are being banned from ever working again. “I think it’s in the balance whether we’re ever going to be funny again,” she says. “This cancel culture, this punishment, it’s everywhere. ‘You said that, therefore, you must never work again.’ We’re on the cusp of wiping out comedy.”
She won’t get any argument from Billy Crystal. “It’s becoming a minefield and I get it,” he told the New York Post. “It’s a totally different world and it doesn’t mean you have to like it.”
Let’s ramp it up, Jon Lovitz! “I’ll just say it, it’s no different than McCarthyism,” Lovitz told Page Six, presumably in his trademark comic shout. “As soon as you say to a comedian like me, ‘You can’t say that,’ the first thing in my head is, ‘Oh, and now I have to.’ If you don’t have the ability to laugh at yourself, don’t go to a comedy club. I’m not changing my act.”
Lovitz had better be careful, warns fellow Saturday Night Live alum David Spade. The snarky comic remembers a time when the goal was to push the envelope as far as possible in order for audiences to notice you. But now, Spade reckons, things have changed. “Now you say the one wrong move and you’re canceled. I’ve been in the business doing it for 20 years, so I hope comics are allowed to be comics.”
To be fair, none of the comics mentioned thus far are advocating for mean-spirited jokes or punching down. But they’re definitely afraid of something -- mainly losing a job if they inadvertently say the wrong thing in the pursuit of a chuckle.
For other comics, the threat of cancel culture is stand-up comedians censoring themselves before torch-carrying Twitter mobs get the chance to do the job for them.
"We're getting boring stuff and not even experimental mistakes because people are afraid of getting canceled," Donald Glover posted in a series of now-deleted tweets.
That echoes Chris Rock’s gripe, complaining that fear of cancel culture is making comedy “unfunny” and “boring” -- not only comedians but (less) funny TV shows and movies as well.
That’s a lot of famous funny people sounding the alarm. Could woke culture be making things worse for comedians than ever before?
The Tug of War Between Censorship and Free Speech
The Fear of Cancelation, 2022 Version, is personified by two comedy voices in particular: Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle.
In podcaster Rogan’s case, it’s not a comedy routine but dicey information about Covid cures that has him in hot water. His controversial medical opinions have led several prominent musical acts, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and India Arie, to leave Spotify in protest.
As for Chappelle? His 2021 Netflix special, The Closer, set the Internet on fire with bits about trans women and his support for J.K. Rowling. GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition released statements condemning the special, and a large group of Netflix employees staged a walkout after the streamer declined to remove The Closer from its service.
Uncomfortable times for Chappelle and Rogan to be sure, but canceled? Maybe not so much.
In fact, argues comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff, comedians have more freedom to share controversial thoughts and ideas today than ever before.
For all those who comedians want to go back to the “good old days” when stand-ups could let the funny fly without fear of reprisal … when were those days exactly?
Certainly not at the start of the 20th century, argues Nesteroff. That’s when vaudeville comics, many armed with ‘hilarious’ routines about the Irish and Italians, found themselves getting angry letters and even death threats unless they found new targets for their jokes. Blacks, Native Americans, and Jewish folks launched similar protests, which caused The Topeka Capital to lament: “If the raid should extend to all sorts of people caricatured in the theater and in print, then good-bye to comedy.”
(Comedy survived, by the way.)
The dawn of television saw networks scrubbing “any material which we consider derogatory to any minority group — that’s on a common sense and public relations basis.” Cuddly Make Room For Daddy star Danny Thomas was incensed! “From now on I’m going to use as much dialect material as possible in my guest appearances,” he said, sick and tired of the “over-sensitive” and the “thin-skinned.”
“There isn’t much laughter anymore,” cried the Wilmington Morning News, “because there’s no way to speak in any light fashion about any group of people anywhere.”
(Laughter also survived.)
Mae West, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor all spent time in jail for jokes that some in the culture found offensive. Andrew Dice Clay canceled a Texas gig in the 1990s fearing he’d suffer the same fate.
Their comedy survived. And none of the comedians of today, last we checked, are spending time in the pokey for their hot takes and insensitive jokes.
The Myth of Cancel Culture
Here’s the thing, comics -- you’re artists! And now more than ever, you get to say whatever you want. But there’s an important caveat: You can get criticized if people don’t like what you have to say. That’s the bargain, and it’s a pretty fair one.
“When I see comedians complaining about this kind of thing, I don't understand what they're complaining about," says perpetually baked comic actor Seth Rogen. "If you've made a joke that's aged terribly, accept it. And if you don't think it's aged terribly, then say that."
And if the heat gets too hot in your comedy kitchen? “Then don't be a comedian anymore," offers Rogen. "It's not worth complaining about to the degree I see other comedians complaining about."
Comic Shazia Mirza thinks this whole cancel culture business is a myth. “As a comedian, it is my right to offend you, and it is your right to be offended,” she says. “Trust me, nothing can shut a comedian up.”
Like it or not, that means Chappelle has permission to do uneasy material. He’d made a career of it well before The Outsider -- it’s just that his older jokes made a different set of people uncomfortable. “Chappelle knows this, but it hasn’t stopped him,” says Mirza. “Everyone’s voice has the right to be heard – and his is being heard.”
Good news: If people disagree with Chappelle, those voices can be heard, too. Comedians don’t get to say offensive things without consequences. You don’t like it? Tweet about it. Stage a protest. Walk out of your Netflix job. All within your rights. Make so much noise that the counter-argument can’t help but be heard.
It’s almost like … a conversation? In fact, the comedians you’re yelling at just might listen and actually learn something.
Kevin Hart lost a gig hosting the Oscars when some of his old tweets featuring homophobic jokes resurfaced. "If people want to pull up (that) stuff, go ahead," Hart told the Sunday Times. "There is nothing I can do. You're looking at a younger version of myself. A comedian trying to be funny and, at that attempt, failing. Apologies were made. I understand now how it comes off. I look back and cringe. So it's growth. It's about growth."
It doesn’t hurt to remember that comedy itself has a built-in cancel button -- the audience. "When you’re a comedian, when the audience doesn’t laugh, we get the message,” says Chris Rock. "Our feelings hurt. When we do something and people aren’t laughing, we get it."
But let’s not feel too sorry for the poor comedians who feel like they “can’t say anything anymore.”
The Chappelles of the world are doing fine, whether some of us like it or not. He’s still playing sold-out gigs at huge venues like the Hollywood Bowl, telling one crowd “if this is what being canceled is about, I love it.” Something tells us even Steve Harvey will find his way through this.
Instead of dreading woke controversies, maybe comedians should consider embracing them. It’s like Ricky Gervais tweeted in 2019:
“PC culture isn’t killing comedy. It’s driving it. As it always did.”
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Top image: Warner Bros.