‘The Office’ Creator Stephen Merchant Says Left Has Replaced Right As Comedy Police

The comedy police have undergone ‘quite a significant shift’
‘The Office’ Creator Stephen Merchant Says Left Has Replaced Right As Comedy Police

Of the two creators of the BBC’s The Office, Stephen Merchant is decidedly less strident than Ricky Gervais regarding the evils of cancel culture. Sure, he believes comedians have to be careful these days. But it’s a situation of “T’was ever thus” — with a twist. 

Comedy has always had its cops, Merchant told The Guardian, but “I think the difference is that it used to feel like it was the Right that was policing it. It feels like it’s the Left that’s doing it now, and it’s allowed the Right to become the arbiters of free speech. Which does feel like quite a significant shift.”

Merchant isn’t shaking his fist at Cancel Culture with Capital Cs. But he does believe audiences are more easily offended these days, citing “sensitivities that seem out of all proportion with the joke. I’ve noticed it in stand-up, how you’re more cautious because you don’t want to spend weeks on Twitter trying to justify a joke you were just experimenting with. Because putting out the fires is exhausting.”

Unlike Gervais and others, Merchant takes a nuanced view of how comedy evolves: “I’m also aware that sensitivities shift over time and that people are allowed to criticize and query things, and we do look back at old comedy and think we wouldn’t do that anymore.” 

So he’s not mad at all the snowflakes who decry certain kinds of jokes? “I have no objection to the sands shifting. I think that makes sense, and I’m loath to become a kind of ‘old man of comedy,’ railing against the younger generation. But you do feel like there’s a sensitivity to the words before they’ve even heard the joke or the context.”

Comedians, especially those of Merchant’s generation who grew up with Monty PythonNational LampoonGeorge Carlin and Richard Pryor and similar influences, came to believe that the “nothing is sacred” axiom was an essential foundation of comedy. “And that’s easy for me to say as a white, heterosexual middle-class bloke, but it used to feel like the things you weren’t allowed to joke about were the very things you should,” he reasoned. “So for the older generation like me, you do feel a bit like there was a freedom there. And that it was your own conscience and judgment that meant you were the arbiter of your own taste. And that didn’t mean people weren’t offended or that you didn’t make mistakes. But now it does feel like there’s a danger, that there’s a prescriptive list of things you can joke about.”

At least Merchant is aware of his white, heterosexual middle-class blokeness, a condition that explains why he’s not currently partnering with Gervais. Rather than choosing to stay in that bubble, his current BBC series The Outlaws gives Merchant the chance to work “with other writers who are from different backgrounds to me, or younger, a different perspective in order to try to keep one foot in the real world.”

Merchant also isn’t above calling out other comics who venture into cringey territory — or worse. Even in the early 2000s, he slammed Russell Brand as a cult leader who would poison the Kool-Aid, and then take the last sip. “I guess,” Merchant told The Guardian, “that’s borne out to some degree.”


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