Daniel Sloss Proves the ‘You Can’t Say Anything’ Comics Wrong By Saying Everything

Sloss speaks to Cracked about his current show ‘CAN’T,’ cancel culture and the power of provocation
Daniel Sloss Proves the ‘You Can’t Say Anything’ Comics Wrong By Saying Everything

If cancel culture is really killing comedy, then why can’t it stop Daniel Sloss?

The most obvious indication that a stand-up comedian is lazy is that they’ll try to impress you with all the controversial jokes they “can’t” tell. For the last 15 years, a Scottish stand-up wunderkind has been crafting shows so dark, so touchy and so gleefully, indulgently indecent that it’s impossible to explain why the fun police that’s supposedly been locking up all the most offensive comedians in fun prison wouldn’t start their investigation at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There, in the late 2000s, Sloss exploded onto the international comedy scene, selling out entire seasons at the prestigious festival when he was just a teenager and shocking crowds with his profanity, his playfulness and his love of line-crossing.

For as long as he’s been performing stand-up, Sloss has challenged the notion that any topic is off-limits to comedy. In his 2018 Netflix special DARK, Sloss told his story of growing up with a disabled sister who died at the age of 7. Sloss structured his HBO special X, released in 2019, around the difficult subject of sexual assault and the rape of his good friend by another person close to him. His self-released 2022 special SOCiO invited audiences to wonder whether he, and they, were diagnosable sociopaths.

Now, Sloss is touring a show called CAN’T that challenges the arguments made by comics who abuse that word in regards to what is and isn’t “allowed” in humor. Sloss has spent the last two years working on CAN’T in theaters across the world, and he spoke to me last week at the start of the American leg of the tour about how his experiences in places where comedians face political persecution shaped his feelings toward both the importance of provocation in comedy and the pathetic excuses made by those who can’t pull it off.

You’ve just started the North American leg of your tour of the show, CAN'T. What can audiences expect to see from you this time around?

More of the same in the sense that, you know, it’s my style of comedy, which is very aggressive and swear-y and rude, but, deep down, empathetic and kind, just cruel while doing so. And I’m sort of talking about — I mean, the main thing’s happened in my life is I’m a fucking boring father now. So that’s a fair portion of it. And then, also, looking at “cancel culture,” especially in this country, and how much it exists and to what extent.

Specifically, I would assume, as it relates to stand-up comedy, to your industry?

Yeah, and how some of the worst comedians in the world I know use cancel culture as an excuse, like, “Oh, I’m being canceled!” And it’s like, man, I’ve performed in India and in Turkey and in Russia. I know comedians who have been arrested for doing comedy and making jokes about the government. Getting yelled at online because you said something racist isn’t really the same thing as your freedom of speech being under attack. It’s annoying, I’ll acknowledge that, but it’s not the end of the arts.

In the U.S. and the U.K., we’re seeing established and successful comics do entire shows centered around this idea that they've been restricted or censored. What makes them think that they can’t say what they want to say?

Society changes, the line is different everywhere you go, and society pushes back. It used to be the case that you told the fucking joke in a comedy club, that’s where it fucking died. And three people would be upset by it, and then they’d go out and complain, and nobody would care because it’s three people. And, you know, they might go to a newspaper, they might do whatever. Whereas nowadays, we have the internet, and so what’s happening is that people are allowed to come after you. They see a show of yours that they don't like, and they’ll just be like, “Hey, I fucking hate you. This is the thing I hate about you. This is why I think you’re shit.” And it’s on your phone, the thing that you look at all the fucking time. So, man, I get it, being canceled must suck in the sense that you get all of this negative fucking feedback and whatnot. But also, grow up you fucking baby! This is feedback! I hate to sound like them when they talk about like online bullying, but put the fucking phone down, cunt!

There are cases to be made that, the cancel culture mob, it does exist, and there are consequences of it. What happened to Shane Gillis is a perfect example of it. It was a podcast clip taken out of context while people were looking specifically for things to take him down for. There was an online mob, and it cost him his job and that's fucking real. I mean, now he’s more successful than he would have been if he’d fucking done SNL!

But the thing that these people never mention is that the people who are canceling them are not people they ever would have wanted in their audience anyway, and they're just being shown to a wider audience. If the whiniest people in the world were offended by them, that would make me want to go and watch that person.

There is a real career benefit for a lot of comedians who get this label of being “canceled,” or “uncancelable,” and there’s an entire genre now of “anti-woke comedy.” What draws people to canceled comedians?

It’s the fucking myth that these shitty comedians have been peddling for 50 to 60 years, which is, “Come see me now, before I’m not allowed to say it!” You know, “Fire sale! You better come out and support this thing, because, if you don’t, it’s dead!” And also, of course, there is a market for shock humor and abusive humor. And, man, I’ll defend all comedy. I will defend anyone’s right to make any joke about any fucking subject. But if your joke is shitty and poorly crafted and people yell at you, you don’t have my fucking sympathy. I’ll defend your right to make that shitty fucking joke, but the entire time I’m defending you, I’m gonna be like, “Really? That’s what you wasted your fucking stage time for? Get better.”

That’s been a throughline in your work for over a decade now. I’m just wondering, have your thoughts about the comic’s right to offend evolved over time?

I mean, yes. They’re allowed to offend, and they just always are. And, again, sometimes art is provocative and sometimes it’s only there to provoke and upset. Do I find value in that art? No. Does that make it any less art? No. But I think it’ll find it’s fucking audience. And I think, at the moment, we’re going through a learning curve with this technology that our monkey brains aren’t designed to handle. We’re not designed to know this much about each other all the time, being constantly fucking communicating to the nth degree. Across the internet, there needs to be a curtailing of people being allowed to just say what they fucking want anonymously. 

That needs to go away. I mean, I knew the internet was fucked when I first got Xbox Live back in, like, 2003. They gave me a headset and an internet connection and I could talk to Americans who could shoot me in the fucking head, and just have the freedom of that anonymity to say the most awful fucking things. As a 13 year old, I got it.

I think comedians absolutely should provoke, and, especially in turbulent times when the boundaries are being tested and the limits of free speech are being tested, I absolutely think it’s their responsibility. But you’re allowed fucking feedback, and you’re allowed to be yelled at in your freedom. Freedom of speech is freedom to say whatever the fuck you like on stage, and freedom of speech is also the right of those audience members to go, “Okay, we thought that was fucking shit.” 

Now, do I think that they should be able to take your job off you and bust down your front door and make your family’s life a living hell? Do they have a right for you to hear that abuse constantly? No, they don’t. So turn off your phone you goddamn loser!

I want to go back to something you said earlier about comics in India and Russia, and these places where the government can come after you for your jokes. You’ve taken CAN'T all over the world at this point, and you’ve performed in a lot of those countries that don’t have the same protections on free speech and freedom of expression as the U.S. and U.K. Does the message of this show resonate in places where jokes do have serious consequences?

It does. It does resonate, but it’s their version of it. In India, cancel culture actually fucking exists. Like, to an awful degree. A comedian can go on stage and make a joke about a religious figure or a politician, and somebody in the audience won’t like that, and they’ll go and tell the government. And then that comedian will be arrested. They will be beaten up in jail. They will have to flee the country, and they won’t be allowed back, and their family will be harassed. Real, actual fucking consequences. I think they look at comedians, especially in this country, being like, “I’m being canceled!” with a little bit of like, “Ohh, waah, are you?”

We know a comedian in Turkey who was arrested for insulting an old religious figure. I mean, say what you want about this country, I could go on stage tonight and say, “I hope Joe Biden dies. I think Donald Trump is a piece of shit, and I’d love to see him get hit by a car. I’d like a rock to fall on Obama’s head. I’d like George Bush to explode and die.” I could say any of these really awful, unfunny things about any of your political figures, and there would absolutely be, like, maybe some outrage, maybe some law people pissed off, they would probably fucking talk about it. But the audience would react and they’d be like, “Okay, what was the fucking point of that?” They wouldn’t be scared for me, they’d just be, like, annoyed.

In Istanbul, when I went on stage, just as a joke, I was like, “I think that (Turkish President) Erdogan is…” and then I didn't say anything. And you could hear the assholes clenching in the room, because even the audience was like, “Do not, for the love of fucking God, do not say whatever you’re about to say. It’s just not worth it, there’s a 50/50 chance that you’re going to prison.”


Last year, when women started to come out with their stories about being sexually assaulted and abused by Russell Brand, you were the only comedian who appeared in that documentary about the allegations. You talked about how, not only was his predatory behavior an open secret, but that comedians were actually instructed to remove references to his alleged crimes from their acts by powerful people in the industry. When you hear comics complain that there’s this conspiracy out there that wants to destroy everyone’s career over edgy jokes, are you struck by this irony where you’ve seen the opposite happen, where bad actors are actually protected by this web?

He was protected by all of the people around him, first and foremost. Everyone in the industry knew, and the people around him knew, and they were the ones that were stopping the story from spreading and doing all the evil things that they needed to do to intimidate people and to silence them. I was certainly fucking annoyed and disappointed at being the only one. And I do sort of sneer, now, at lots of British comedians — the left-wing ones who pander to the left-wing, the ones who will sit there and be like, “Oh, I’m a feminist. And I believe in this, and I believe in that, and I believe in doing the right thing and fucking silence is violence and blah blah blah,” all of these bumper-sticker things that they say to get the audience. And when push comes to shove, none of these cunts did it. Like when the actual moment struck, none of them did the very simple thing.

And, what I did wasn’t brave. What I did wasn’t big. It only looks big and brave because of the lack of action from lesser men. That’s the only reason why I looked impressive. I did the bare minimum, which was that I acknowledged a rumor and a secret that we all knew about on television. I didn’t make any direct accusations. I didn’t give any specific examples. All I did was go, “Yeah. Hello. I’ve absolutely heard this, and we all have, by the way.” 

That was all I fucking did. And all of these, you know, holier than thou — “artsy wankers” is what we call them in the U.K. — just didn’t do it. It irks me. It still fucking irks me. And it’s on the other side. It’s like, I get pissed off about the right-wing comedians claiming they’re gonna be fucking canceled, and then I complain about the left-wing comedians having zero fucking accountability.

Have you talked to any of these left-wing comedians about it?

Oh no, man, I don’t. I’ve got a long list of names in my phone of people who I’ll just never speak to again. The thing that really fucked me off was that I had so many British male comedians in my Instagram DMs being like, “Hey man, what you did was really fucking brave. Super. Embrace it.” And I’m like, “You know you can say something now, right? Just because you weren’t in the documentary, doesn’t mean you can’t go online and just say, ‘Oh, by the way, all of these rumors have been around forever,’ and do the exact same thing.” They couldn’t even do that. So, yeah, there’s comedians who I’ve been friends with for years who I’ll just not speak to again. I’ll be friendly enough with them, but I don’t respect them anymore. And I used to just not respect their comedy, and now I don’t respect them as people.

When I was asked to (appear in the documentary), I had long conversations with my wife, I had long conversations with my friends and my parents, my in-laws. My manager had been like, “Let’s just be brutally honest here. What are the pros of doing it, and what are the fucking negatives of doing it?” And we went through everything, but the one sticking point was always that it was, very simply, the right thing to do. As somebody who has made a career and has an audience based on him preaching that you have to do the fucking right thing — especially when it comes to sexual assault and rape — and that men do need to do more, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I hadn’t done it. 

There’s plenty of negative things that happened after the documentary came out, and there was lots of unpleasantness, but the positive feedback vastly overwhelmed any of the shit. And, also, I would do it again in a heartbeat for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. The same reason I did it then and there. I was doing a very small thing that’s the bare fucking minimum. And as somebody who says people need to do the bare minimum, I did it.

And you have been walking the walk. Back in X, I loved how you described the way you were slowly bringing up sexual assault to men as turning the heat up on the frog in the water…

…Which, by the way, is an absolutely horseshit experiment. I found it out halfway through the tour. Some woman who came to the show was like, “Oh, by the way, I’m a psychologist. And just like, you know, there’s absolutely zero evidence to that.”

I didn’t want to say it.

You know what? That’s annoying and it does reduce it, but the analogy still works in the sense of describing what I’m doing. But yeah, utter horseshit pulled out of me arse.

But it is a really great way to structure a show around what you want to talk about. And, just to tie this back to CAN'T, is that kind of how you’re addressing cancel culture on this current tour?

I’m talking about it as, like, there’s this myth where you can’t say anything. I’ve done this show around the world, and I was partially silenced in places like India and Turkey. There were certain lines that you just can’t do there. But, man, I make horrible jokes about fucking everything. I make jokes about the Holocaust. I make jokes about abortions, miscarriages, both atomic bombs in this show. I talk about kids dying. I talk about kids’ surgery. I make jokes about cancer. I make jokes about Israel and Palestine. I make jokes about the Jews. I make jokes about cancel culture. I make jokes about murder. And, again, I make references to rape and sexual assault. 

I’ve done this show for two and a half years, I don’t get fucking canceled. You can talk about anything if you have the skill and decorum capable of fucking doing it. And, to other comedians, I will defend any comedian’s right to get it wrong. You are absolutely, in your pursuit of comedy, allowed to be like, “Okay, I’m going to talk about this really offensive thing,” and you drop it, and it smashes, and you’ve got ink everywhere and you’ve made a fucking mess. And it’s really bad, right? As long as, in that lesson, you learn, “Okay, I gotta be careful. I’m definitely gonna play with dropping it again. But I’m gonna give it a couple of years, do some fucking learning, and then come back and do it in a better way,” I will defend any comedian’s right to say offensive things in those moments.


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