By George Simms
In a recent interview with the Radio Times, Rowan Atkinson called cancel culture ‘a medieval mob looking for someone to burn’. From a distance, it may look as though he has a point. ‘Cancelling’ celebrities seems to be a fundamental part of modern discourse, with many feeling victimised by the massive backlash for some ‘minor’ sexual harassment, or one slip of the racist tongue.
Mr Bean’s fears have been echoed by many key players across the world of comedy, with John Cleese, Ricky Gervais and Dave Chapelle all very outspoken on the issue. Cleese and Gervais, in particular, have felt victimised for the rather unsympathetic response they’ve had to their wholly unsympathetic view of the transgender community. Having worked my way through a British all-boys school, I am acutely aware of how funny many people still find homophobia, misogyny, sexism and racism. As James Acaster pointed out in his most recent show, ‘most people are still more than happy to laugh at transgender people, not as comfortable laughing at Ricky Gervais’.
This really gets to the heart of the issue around cancel culture in comedy. For the first time, widespread discrimination is being understood and accepted for the scourge it is, and more and more people are tired of lazy stereotypes and offensive tropes by comedians who either can’t be bothered to or aren’t capable of writing genuinely clever comedy. Ricky Gervais is a massive advocate of natural selection until it applies to his comedy sets and income. That’s what this is – natural selection of the comedy world. As more people have learnt to empathise with and understand the plight of minority groups, fewer people have been laughing at them.
There’s a long list of celebrities who could feasibly be ‘cancelled’ if they produced some of their past work now, but that’s the result of changing times and changing tastes. Frankie Boyle’s recent purchase of a homely semi on the moral high ground has been a shock to anyone who’s watched anything he’s ever produced. But seeing him make brilliant work like New World Order without cheap bigotry littered throughout is a demonstration of his maturity and understanding, which is not only well-received but urgently necessary.
Alongside this, I’m struggling to find a concrete example of a comedian being ‘cancelled’ for the work they’ve produced, rather than personal allegations. For someone to be ‘cancelled’, they would have to lose not only their fans and widespread respect, but their platform too. Shane Gillis was hired and fired by SNL almost overnight after racist comments he’d made on a podcast a year earlier resurfaced, but he was still voted Theinterrobang’s ‘Comedian of the Year’ in 2019 and performs with unwavering regularity.
It’s also hard to ignore the elephant vigorously masturbating in the corner. After admitting to multiple counts of sexual harassment in 2017, comedian Louis C.K.’s upcoming film I Love You, Daddy was pulled and it looked as though he may, with good reason, be ‘cancelled’. Less than a year later, he made a surprise return to Manhattan’s Comedy Cellar to a standing ovation. C.K self-released his new special Sincerely, Louis C.K. in April 2020 and appears to have fully re-immersed himself into the US Comedy scene.
This demonstrates one of the biggest flaws in Atkinson’s conception of cancel culture. Like any medieval mob, people tend to get tired, bored, and basically forget what they were angry about. The torches get rained out and your Dad needs his good pitchfork back for work in the morning. Whilst they are bearing down on you, 500 angry Twitter users and another 500 Russian bots may seem like the whole world, but cancel culture is yet to damage, or even really threaten comedy. If Louis C.K can get his platform back, the bottom line for cancelling a comedian is currently set somewhere below locking yourself in a room with a woman and non-consensually masturbating in front of her. Multiple times.
Don’t get me wrong, cancel culture could feasibly hurt comedy if aimed in the wrong direction. The quickly reversed decision to remove ‘The Germans’ episode of Fawlty Towers from UKTV highlighted how damaging a lack of nuance could be in the future of comedy, both on stage and screen.
The genius of many great TV comedies and characters, from Till Death Us Do Part and the infamous Alf Garnett to David Brent in The Office UK, comes from exposing and laughing at bigotry and idiocy. Nuance and context will always be vital. However, for the most part, we are simply witnessing the adaptation of comedy towards the more accepting and understanding views of today. Bigotry is out, and incredible works like (personal favourites of mine) Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas and London Hughes’ To Catch a D*ck are in.
Image: Loco Steve via Flickr