How bad was it out there for comedians in 2023? The “You can’t joke about anything anymore!” crowd was so outraged that they opened their own comedy clubs devoted to providing a haven from the threats of cancel culture. “I’m drunk and on mushrooms in my new club!” boasted Joe Rogan, safe within the confines of his new Austin, Texas sanctuary, the Comedy Mothership. “This is as high as I’ve ever been onstage. I need to connect with this moment. You can’t fire me from my own club, bitch!”
Comedians getting fired? “We've been very scared, you know.” That’s what Whitney Cummings told me earlier this year about the backlash against comedians and their too-hot-to-handle jokes. “I’ve heard this from a lot of comics. We’ve been scared to work on new stuff and say incendiary things” — all for fear of losing work or reputation.
And maybe there’s good reason to be skittish. Look at the online backlash experienced by comedian Matt Rife after he opened his new Netflix special, Natural Selection, with a joke about domestic violence. The bit stirred up a maelstrom on social media, which blew into a full Category 5 hurricane after Rife “apologized” to his critics with a suggestion that they buy special-needs helmets. The outrage, it seems, goes both ways.
In recent months, the list of comedians complaining about the evils of cancel culture is longer than the line to buy Taylor Swift merch. In addition to Rogan and Cummings, we’ve heard the cries of Rob Schneider, Woody Allen, Steve Harvey, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Jon Lovitz, Dave Chappelle, Donald Glover, Roseanne Barr, David Spade, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese and Jerry Seinfeld. The comics are under attack!
In some ways, that unlikely statement might just be true. Comedy has taken on new prominence in the national conversation around culture, according to comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff, author of Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars. “Comedy being drafted into the culture wars seems to me to be a very recent phenomenon,” Nesteroff tells me. But while some things have changed, it’s important to remember that comedy and outrage have been linked for as long as there have been people to shout about the jokes that offend them.
‘Twas Ever Thus
Outrageous traces the roots of “You can’t joke about anything anymore!” back to at least the 1800s. As mass media developed, social critics came for the likes of Steve Allen, Bob Hope and Milton Berle for their filthy contributions to the decline of Western civilization. “You crack a joke about lawyers, there’s a letter the next day from a legal group,” Groucho Marx is quoted as complaining in Outrageous. “You make funny about doctors, the AMA writes in. You have an audience of 30 million and your sponsor receives eight letters saying his comedian is a jerk, and he’s terrified. This is what has cramped humor.”
In the 1970s, people complained about the immorality of Three’s Company, “but that had more to do with drafting things like gay rights and homosexuality into the culture wars than comedy itself,” explains Nesteroff. “In the ‘90s, The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, Beavis and Butthead were all comedies, but they weren’t necessarily the focus of the culture war.”
So when did comedy — comedy! — become part of the ongoing discussion on Fox News and similar outlets? It’s “when comedians themselves — high-powered comedians, famous comedians — started to talk about it,” says Nesteroff. ”When a major celebrity publicly makes a point that concurs with evangelical politicos, they’re immediately elevated and lauded.”
We don’t listen when someone with an overtly conservative or religious agenda gripes about cancel culture. But when Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld says they don’t want to play college campuses anymore because they’re afraid of complaints about offending? The arguments about the repression of free speech suddenly sound credible.
And thus, comedy has become adopted as an extremely effective weapon in the culture wars. “Comedy is universally loved. People love comedians,” says Nesteroff. “So the idea that there might be a boogeyman out there that's trying to destroy comedy or take comedy away from you? Well, surely whoever is doing that must be evil. So if you can convince people of that, it’s a good way to to draw a line in the sand between us and them.”
“It correlates with this idea that there’s a war on free speech against conservatives,” Nesteroff continues. The censors are coming for both conservatives and comedians — or so the argument goes. “Put them together as if it’s part of the legacy of free speech battles.”
It’s the same logic, Nesteroff explains, that divisive politicians employ around gun rights: “These people are evil. They're going to take what you like away from you unless you vote for us. Support us, we will protect you.” But be careful, he warns: In culture wars, the people who are claiming to protect you are often doing the the exact opposite. For example, some of the same organizations decrying cancel culture in comedy today are the same ones who funded the fight against George Carlin in the 1970s.
The New Taboos
So are people completely off-base when they complain about restrictions on comedians “these days”? Nesteroff says there are new taboos around certain comedy material that were ignored in earlier decades, creating the illusion that you can’t say anything anymore. In his view, the current danger zones are the f-slur for homosexuality, the r-slur and jokes around transgendered people, even though he remembers those terms being very common in 1990s stand-up comedy. While not every comedian used those words, “they were still provocative even then,” he remembers. “And there were movements even then to not use them.”
As Chappelle knows, today’s audiences are more sensitive to defaming transgendered people than they used to be. Comic Rosie Jones got flak this year when she used the r-slur in the title of a documentary. But the new taboos aren’t completely off-limits, depending on how they’re used. Nesteroff says he’s heard them all on popular streaming shows, including Fargo, Euphoria, the Righteous Gemstones and Stranger Things. In those cases, the offending terms are “almost always used by either a villain or an adversary or a bully, and it fits the characters.” In other words, even taboo words and concepts work in the appropriate context.
So yes, comedy material that draws criticism certainly exists. But “rules” or “taboos” designed to reduce bigotry shouldn’t be equated with “you can’t joke about anything anymore.” The Joe Rogans and Roseanne Barrs of the comedy world can get away with so much more than comics only a generation or two removed. Lenny Bruce got arrested for saying “schmuck” on stage in 1962. Carlin was nabbed for vulgarity in Milwaukee in 1972. Richard Pryor got arrested in 1974 for cursing in Virginia. In 1990, cops threatened to arrest Andrew Dice Clay over his foul-mouthed act.
“The reality is that the majority of the most common comedy subject matter today would have been censored not that long ago,” Nesteroff says. “Criticism of religion, criticism of politicians, expressions of sexuality. Nikki Glaser’s act would not have been permissible in most venues, and certainly not on television, as recently as the 1990s.”
Outrage Is Better Than No Reaction at All
Another reality: Some comedians in 2023 are purposely manufacturing outrage because, well, attention is attention. As the year came to a close, Rife generated more headlines for his online scuffles than for his stand-up. Was it a coincidence that all the noise kept Natural Selection in the Netflix Top Ten much longer than most first-time comedy specials? Whether Rife’s antics were calculated or just a young comic figuring it out in real-time, the outrage probably helped more than hurt.
“If you go to the Comedy Store, there’s a show that’s almost all provocateur-type comics,” says Nesteroff. “What I mean by that is ‘comedians who cannot necessarily get big laughs from beginning to end.’ And when you can’t get big laughs from beginning to end, sometimes any reaction will be a worthy substitute. Nobody wants to go up there and die in silence, so if you can get the audience to ooh and aah, at least you’re getting something. So there’s a whole genre of provocative comedians who will do things to provoke. And the audience will go ‘ooooooh’ and the comic will be like, ‘What? What? What? Can't take it? Come on, fuck you!’”
That’s a disingenuous move on the comics’ part since they set up the audience only to condemn them for their disapproving reaction. “But if you can't get big laughs, then sometimes provocation becomes a worthy substitute because anything is better than dying in silence,” Nesteroff tells me.
That goes for older comics as well. 2023 featured several comedians whom we hadn’t heard from for years until they found new relevance as culture warriors on Fox News. Do they believe what they’re spouting off about, which sounds a lot more like think-tank talking points than punchlines? Possibly, but no doubt participating in and contributing to comedy outrage has given their careers new pertinence.
Don’t discount the role of social media in feeding the comedy indignation cycle. Comics like Ricky Gervais employ outrage on Instagram and Twitter like tactical publicity bombs, posting clips that are guaranteed to explode and then burn for days.
Social media is emboldening comedy audiences as well. It’s easy for online critics to shout back when someone like Gervais pokes, but the fury is spilling into comedy clubs as well. Many of the most popular TikTok comics build a following by posting videos of their crowd work, the spicier the better.
Of course, crowd work is a two-way street. Comedy audiences raised on TikTok videos come to believe that talking back to comics, even confronting them, is part of the price of admission. “I’ve heard a lot from comics that audiences are more vocal,” comic Graham Kay told Inside Hook. “The things that get promoted on TikTok and Instagram are mostly crowd-work videos, so people see people talking to the comedian and it normalizes it.”
Audience members shout when jokes offend them. Comics shout when they feel censored or criticized. The histrionics create a lot of noise, all based on a false premise.
You can’t joke about anything anymore. Really? Who could possibly swallow that hypothesis? All evidence shows that comedians have more freedom than they’ve ever had before. One of the most popular comedies in recent memory was named Schitt’s Creek, a title that couldn’t have been whispered on television 20 years ago. Nudity and profanity are rampant on HBO and streaming services. “Canceled” comics regularly play Madison Square Garden. You can say or do practically anything.
But people have been convinced otherwise. “Social media has been great for political propaganda and distorting the truth and repeating things over and over and over until people believe them,” says Nesteroff. “The only reason that people believe this concept that you can’t joke about anything anymore is because that argument is repeated relentlessly, every day, all day, by a variety of different sources.
“And eventually, people believe it.”