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

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!