Comedy Versus Free Speech: Deconstructing a Never-Ending Story

Comedy today is a long way from where it was just a generation or two ago considering that it has now migrated from the fringes to the center of the cultural conversation. But will it be allowed to enjoy its newfound fortune undisturbed, or will it become a target of detractors who rather resent the methods by which the art form exercises its right of free speech. At issue here is just how much leeway comedians are permitted when it comes to saying things that other people might find objectionable or simply intolerable. Especially if said objections are made on behalf of vulnerable demographics in the society, as in when comedians are perceived to be “punching down” at their targets. An obvious question here is whether the attempts to deter or push back at comedians when they punch down can legitimately be seen as a threat to the integrity or even the very survival of the art form itself.

 In contemporary society the pushback against the perceived excesses of comedians is embodied in the phenomenon of political correctness (PC) and its current enforcement tool cancel culture. Among the community of free societies this tension looks to be most stark in contemporary America, not least because of the unique constitutional protection for free speech under the First Amendment.

 Regarding the threat that PC and cancel culture pose to comedy, two schools of thought seem to have emerged over time, namely, those who perceive a threat to comedy and those who think the threat is rather exaggerated. And from all indications, neither side in this debate appear willing to blink anytime soon.  

 The first group is made up mostly of comedians, such as Lewis Black, who genuinely worry about the negative impact of cancel culture on the free speech rights of comedians. In an April 2021 appearance on the NewsNation program Banfield, Black said there was now a sense of Russia-style inquisition against people perceived to hold objectionable views, and he even mentioned the word McCarthyism. Finding it “odd that a lot of these things” nowadays originate from the left as opposed to the 1960s when they came from the right, he explained that the urge to cancel people was due to a “lot of us being alone in our various pods and judging other people in the midst of losing our minds.” Black also queried whether canceling people was so high on our list of priorities compared to other important things we need to do as a society. To demonstrate the extent of the problem, Black and the host Ashley Banfield even pointed out that someone these days could get in trouble not for making the joke but rather for merely laughing at it or not pushing back against a joke perceived to be objectionable.  (On this point, Banfield referenced the backlash in April 2021 against then New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang for merely laughing and not pushing back at a joke about sexual violence in a video he appeared in.)   

The other view of the matter comes from those who do not really consider this situation a problem. People such as comedian/comedy writer Kliph Nesteroff, who in an October 2021 op-ed for the Seattle Times (“’Cancel Culture’ Has Always Been a Problem for Comedy”) acknowledged the cancel culture problem but then took the radically contrary view that “comedians have far more freedom today”, based on his observation that subject matter involving sex, religion, politics and profanity, no longer results in jail time nowadays unlike in the past decades going back to the turn of the last century when Mae West (1927), Lenny Bruce (1960s) and Richard Pryor (1974) got in hot water with the law for what they had said.

 So, which side is right on this important question? As one might have guessed, the answer is not so straightforward after all. For starters, it is obviously tempting to suppose that contemporary comedians have it so good since they no longer risk jail time for freely wandering into formerly prohibited areas where the taboo subjects reside, whether it be religion, sex, or politics.   Yet, staying out of jail does not necessarily resolve the free speech challenge for comedians, especially when viewed from a career perspective. Cancel culture today, it turns out, poses a pretty serious problem to the comedy art form not least because of its career-ending consequences. On a comparative basis, it seems like the occasional arrest for transgressing the lines of what is considered acceptable would be less of a problem for any comedian than the brutal banishment of the comedian from their workspaces, which is often the unfortunate result if not the pernicious goal of cancel culture, whenever it targets an erring comedian.  

 Still, despite the objection of most comedians, the disciplining impact of political correctness has been a net positive for comedy at least inasmuch as comedy can be legitimately perceived as a “product” being sold to contemporary society, a factor that inevitably forces comedians to do their market research.  Especially now that comedy has not only become a big-money enterprise, but people out there seem more willing than ever before to pay for a good laugh. We can certainly think of a scenario where what makes people laugh is the thing that they are willing to “buy” from the comedian merchant. If the consumers’ minds have been so conditioned by PC thinking that they do not find a joke funny and would rather not buy it, then tough luck for the merchant hawking the joke. In a free-market society with consumer autonomy, the comedian has no more right to sell the consumer a joke they consider unacceptable than the neighborhood grocer has the right to sell the same consumer a basket of stale fruits they may find unpalatable. PC thinking may be wrong and perhaps unfair to comedians, yet the customer is still king.  

 In the end, there is one thing both sides seem to agree on: the tension between comedy and free speech won’t be going away any time soon and striking a balance between these two things remains a necessity. Nesteroff says the “tug of war between censorship and free speech has been part of comedy for its entire existence…and will likely continue.” Black for his part says that “this is something that will work itself out as we evolve.”

While we await the striking of that all-important balance and its contours, it does not seem convincing to assert that political correctness and cancel culture will kill off comedy as an art form. What rather seems more likely to happen longer term is that these factors will shape or change how comedy is performed.  And it will be interesting to see how the new practice of comedy will be different from what we know today.     

Editor’s Note: The long-awaited book “Comedy Goes to Court: When People Stop Laughing and Start Fighting” is available now and on sale. Be sure to grab your own copy of this new Amazon bestseller today. Enjoy the read!