Other Controversies

Seriously, Can Comedy and Cancel Culture Live on the Same Planet?

By Carl Unegbu

Comedy is at a quite different place today than it was just a generation ago.  In that simpler time, comedy was essentially about making people laugh, whether it was slapstick humor or one involving social commentary.  Then society as a whole started to change, beginning in the 1960s, with the push to create a more just and less oppressive society. Thus began our society’s journey to its ultimate destination, namely, our present era of “political correctness” (PC), which requires all of society’s speech to respect the sensibilities of its oppressed or vulnerable groups. In so doing, PC has tended to create around said groups a zone of protection from offensive speech.  

More consequential yet in our new PC society, especially for comedians who make their living by talking, is the emergence of a rather virulent and oppressive offshoot of PC known as “cancel culture,” courtesy of the confluence of social media, woke culture and the relative decline in the importance of comedy clubs in the career advancement of comedians. As the name implies, cancel culture simply “cancels” people for expressing offensive or objectionable opinions in the social conversation; it also cancels places and institutions for representing said offensive ideas.

In the current architecture of the cancel culture phenomenon, “wokeness” functions as the litmus test for cancellations while social media is the forum for the trial and execution of convicted offenders of the woke orthodoxy, a regularly updated and sometimes unpredictable code of conduct.  Over the past two or so decades, as one might predict, especially since the advent of Twitter, the so-called PC brigade has increasingly weighed in on just how far comedians can freely swing their bats in exercising their art form. In other words, they’ve taken a position on what sort of “material” comedians are permitted to use for their work.

Hence, over the said period, several comedians have gotten into trouble for literally running the red light of political correctness, including Tracy Morgan (gay jokes); Dane Cook (Aurora, Colorado theater shooting); Bill Maher (cowardly US soldiers vs. brave terrorists) George Lopez (Kirstie Alley’s weight problem); Gilbert Gottfried (Japanese tsunami jokes) and Tosh. O (rape jokes).

Not surprisingly many in the comedy community find this state of affairs simply unacceptable. Lisa Lampanelli’s May 2013 guest column for the Hollywood Reporter (“How Political Correctness is Killing Comedy”), for example, aptly captures the prevailing sentiment of the comedy community on this matter: fundamentally, most comedians believe their art form is subjective in nature when it comes to what jokes appeal to different people and that to deny an artist the chance to explore his art is like forcing your beliefs on him. 

So, the question arises, can comedy and cancel culture co-exist with each other on the same planet?  As uncomfortable as it might seem, the short answer is, well, they’re going to have to.

For starters, political correctness, to be sure, seems to have some redeeming qualities, considering our society’s history of oppression and the relative permissiveness of our laws in that regard. True, there is always the risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of cancel culture. Yet, PC in its good moments might actually have a salutary influence upon the civic life of any modern society. For instance, in America, the First Amendment, which is a wonderful gift that we enjoy, nonetheless gives protection to so much hurtful and, arguably, unnecessary speech that might well be homophobic, xenophobic, racist or misogynistic. Perhaps in those circumstances, it may not be such a bad thing for PC to occasionally step in and try to civilize our society.

Take the Don Imus controversy in 2007 concerning the Rutgers University basketball women, whom the late former radio host and humorist had attacked without any provocation as “nappy-headed hos” during an infamous episode of his show “Imus in the Morning.” Though to his credit Imus later apologized for his wrongheaded actions, the fact remains that he was well within his First Amendment rights when he lobbed the rather gratuitous attack on the hapless ladies. In fact, prior to the firestorm that followed his attack on the women, Imus was known to tout his irreverent show as the “First Amendment at its best and its worst.” 

Now what’s the way forward in this apparent standoff between these two warring contingents, none of which is entirely blameless. Well, the starting point here is to recognize that cancel culture isn’t going anywhere soon. Under the circumstances, therefore, it is comedy more than the cancel culture squad that has to adjust to the “reality of the times”, not least for the very simple reason that comedians actually have a job to do and a living to make for that matter. Speaking of which, it must be noted that comedy is now a mature art form at a brilliant “golden age” moment, where the rewards of success are literally astronomical compared to its past.

More importantly, since comedians are doing comedy not for themselves but rather for the broader society, they must consider their “shtick” as something of a service or product being offered for sale in the marketplace. As a matter of sheer economics, it is no more a winning strategy for a comedian to push comic “material” that the audience, owing to changing sensibilities, won’t find funny than it is for a salesman to be offering goods that his prospective customers won’t buy owing to changing tastes.

For good or ill, navigating the waters of cancel culture has become a cost of doing business today in our society and must be accommodated as such. Not least because political correctness and cancel culture are not directed at comedy alone: they set down rules of general application touching every segment of society, including politicos and corporations.  

In the end, the good news for talented comedians with a healthy imagination and creativity is that there is still a lot of game on the ground, meaning that there is yet so much funny stuff out there in the real world that can be said without necessarily burning down the town or breaching the proverbial “red line” drawn by contemporary society, however debatable the said line might be. Besides, in real life anyway, one cannot simply say whatever one likes any more than one can do whatever one likes.  So, there you have it!

Spy Magazine and Today’s Brutal Political Satire: An Origin Story?

By Carl Unegbu

A remarkable feature of today’s political satire is what appears to be its “snark and insult” character. By most accounts, it wasn’t always this rough and mean.

Perhaps the most persuasive theory on how we started down this brutal path is that the now defunct Spy magazine from the 1980s and 1990s put us on it.  Paul O’Donnell, a writer at Mediabistro.com, reportedly declared that “We’re all Spy now.”

The obvious question that arises is whether there is anything to this legacy theory?

For starters, when Spy debuted a generation ago, during the excesses and glamor of the swaggering ‘80s, it made no secret of its ambition: to take the baton to the noggins of the rich, famous and/or powerful and of course to try to take them down a peg or two. Indeed, as if to serve clear notice (to anyone listening) about the magazine’s intended brand of journalism, its maiden edition in 1986 was captioned JERKS.  In it, the magazine proceeded to ridicule individuals that it considered the “Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers.” Quite interestingly, this list included Donald Trump, who the magazine would, in due course, famously describe as “a short-fingered vulgarian’. Not one to be outdone in the insult department, Trump in turn dismissed the magazine as “a piece of garbage.”

For sure, any casual observer at the time could have easily noticed the magazine’s signature style and tone in dealing with its famous subjects, with its unabashed snark and insult bent. A piece that ran in its March 1988 edition could perhaps give those unfamiliar with its work a good sense of the magazine’s modus operandi. The said piece dealt with the subject of people who doubled as managers/boyfriends to their clients and it ran under the (appropriately) provocative headline “Behind Every Great Woman is a Drunk Man (With a Wispy Mustache).” The piece was accompanied by photos of three separate couples, with matching captions to boot. The first photo was captioned “Yesteryears’ Cyndi Lauper and husband manager Dave Wolf”; the second photo’s caption was “Tina Turner and Ike, In Between Spectacular Beatings”; and the third caption read “Twiggy and Nigel “Justin de Villenueve” Davies”.

In that same piece, the writer also wondered in a separate passage why a [then] 24-year-old beauty like Jenny McCarthy would be dating her manager Ray Manzella who the writer claimed resembled “a mangled Ted Danson”.  McCarthy herself was not spared the writer’s vicious ribbing and was described as a “breast-augmented and armpit sniffing former Playboy model”

So, anyhow, that’s the sort of stuff Spy was doing back then. Now what are the political satirists doing today? Well, first, it is not hard to notice that the current practice of satire has steadily become a “no-holds-barred take no-prisoners” business that often carries with it a clear point of view reflecting an ideological slant to the debate on social issues. For instance, shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (previously Jon Stewart), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which are arguably the dominant actors on the scene, make no secret of their left-leaning point of view. From the right flank of the ideological field, Greg Gutfeld’s eponymous new show Gutfeld!  (on the Fox network) is joining the party and his stock in this regard is rising steadily. To be sure, these are all news-based shows that hit pretty hard on the events of the day and the people involved in them.

Concerning the legacy question, what can barely escape notice is the obvious parallels that exist between Spy and today’s political satire, not least the shared attitude of critical or even snarky take on their respective subjects.  In fact, anyone who follows contemporary political satire probably won’t have much trouble recognizing the strong presence of Spy’s signature snark and insult in the work of the satirists. And for that matter, this phenomenon seems so infectious that even non-satirists are playing the game, too.

For instance, Trump himself, a favorite target both of then Spy magazine and today’s satirists, deploys this shared tactic of snark and insult in dealing with his opponents both in and outside the political arena, whether he is mocking handicapped people; belittling political opponents based on their physical stature or denigrating female enemies as fat pigs or ugly. Indeed, during the 2016 election, as James Poniewozik of the New York Times rightly observed, he habitually treated political campaigning “like a roast, “

Yet there are those who don’t exactly feel comfortable with the notion that a legacy exists between what Spy did in its day and what today’s satirists are doing: Daniel Radosh, for one.  Having worked as a reporter for Spy then and is now working as a senior writer on The Daily Show, Radosh is someone who can perhaps be described as a rare common link between the two worlds at issue.  As Radosh sees it, what Spy did and what, for instance, The Daily Show does, are different things in the sense that the former is journalism, albeit humorous journalism, whereas the latter is comedy, news-based though it may be. Perhaps a distinction without a difference?

Apparently not in the opinion of Radosh. He explains that what Spy did was genuinely based on the principles of journalism, where professionals would actually dig up facts and do a reporting of the news, albeit with an “attitude of playfulness, rebellion and irresponsibility which was what made it fun.” Thus, at all times they, as journalists, had to be responsible with the facts. On the other hand, he notes that The Daily Show as a news-based comedy show often relies on the facts already dug up and reported by the journalists and tries to make a joke from them. (Radosh, however, acknowledges the long form storytelling and reporting on John Oliver’s news-based comedy show as an exception to this journalism versus comedy dynamic.)

So, given the above, what does one make of the link between Spy and today’s satire?  Well, it’s obvious that Spy’s signature snark-and-insult tactic is practiced on both the left and the right in their work, not only against their targets but also in their ideological feuds with each other. In a perverse way, therefore, Spy can claim credit for starting us down this road in our political satire. Whether or not one chooses to use the term “legacy” to describe this phenomenon may well be a matter of perspective. Yet it is perhaps fair to say, though, that anyone looking to place the viciousness of our current political satire in its proper context might do well to take a look at what Spy magazine did in its day. Well, so there you have it!

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