Cancel culture in comedy is no laughing matter


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.

I’m struggling to find a concrete example of a comedian being ‘cancelled’ for the work they’ve produced

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.

Like any medieval mob, people tend to get tired, bored, and basically forget what they were angry about

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

3 thoughts on “Cancel culture in comedy is no laughing matter

  • Louis never locked any doors and his acts were consensual. Those were rumors probably started by people who never fully read the article or were just trying to make it sound worse. He always asked, and if they said no he dropped it. The trouble is doing this once you become a person of power an influence. Whether Louis was oblivious that they might be saying yes because they want to advance their careers or he was taking advantage of his status we can never know. But please stop saying he locked people in a room and didn’t ask for permission

  • The fact that you find Hannah Gadsby and London Hughes funny says a lot. Seriously though, do you not think if we’re to live in a world where people are treated equally, we should be able to joke about the stereotypes of people from all walks of life, not just the “unoppressed” straight, white man? It’s not “laughing at” people if they understand it’s all just supposed to be a joke. It becomes laughing WITH them. I can take a joke about being white, being gay and being a man. Learning to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously is important. So why can’t we joke about others too? Those double standards will not lead to equality, only resentment. Comedy is sometimes about creating caricatures out of people to exaggerate a situation because it’s funnier than acknowledging the obvious fact that we’re more than just stereotypes. If people really get offended by that, that doesn’t mean they have a right to silence the people telling those jokes, because the fact of the matter is the majority of people still find it funny. It also depends on the specific context of the joke, it’s not always at the expense of the person the joke is about, sometimes you’re laughing at the comedian, because they’re the one in the wrong and what they’re saying is a reflection on their own insecurities around certain people or issues. A good example of this is Bill Burr’s joke about walking around Harlem late at night.

  • This article is fundamentally contradictory. You can’t say fewer people find something funny and then also say cancel culture doesn’t exist because these comedians are being given awards and selling out shows. How can both things be true?

    Also it was a little odd how you mention Dave Chappelle, the most famous opponent of cancel culture, but don’t actually discuss him at length.

    Comedy normalizes. What you see as hating people who are different, most of the people in those groups see as making them more accepted. I want comedians to make jokes about me. Of course there are exceptions but most good comedians do more to increase acceptance than they ever do to hurt others. You don’t really understand comedy if you don’t get that. Cancel culture hurts because the media makes it hurt. People like you writing out of touch articles. Regular folks, black, white, gay, trans, men, women, we want to see Louis CK, Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais. Sorry.


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