CANCEL CULTURE KILLS COMEDY
It's Healthy to Be Able to Laugh at Ourselves
It has become a trend for comedians to get into serious trouble for making jokes. These jokes often turn out to be funny but somehow manage to generate controversy because a very tiny minority of a minority find them offensive. Consequently, some comedians have been pressured into retracting their jokes and making formal apologies for perceived harm and grievance done to a “marginalized group.”
Other comedians have had their dreams stolen by marauding wokesters who have nothing better to do with their time but to sift through social media to find jokes done in the past—which were acceptable and relevant when they were made—and impose today’s intolerant and unrealistic moralizing and virtue signalling upon them.
Concluding that these jokes are offensive, the erring comedian is punished by being cancelled, harassed on social media, and vilified. Comedian Kevin Hart is an example that readily comes to mind—he was forced to apologise and let go of his lifelong dream of hosting the Oscars in order to pacify the internet mob.
Comedy used to be, in part, an outlet for saying the unpalatable in a socially acceptable manner. It was a way of delivering a bitter medicine masked in a sweetened capsule. It served not only to evoke laughter but also to tell inconvenient truths or voice controversial opinions, and there was a social understanding that these things could be said in the context of a joke.
However, the ultimate goal of comedy has long been—or used to be—not so much to be truthful, factual, or considerate as to be funny. And no joke is ever guaranteed to work until it’s out there. The response of the audience is the measure of how well the joke performed. That is why comedy is usually done with extreme exaggeration, which makes it all the more hilarious because we are recognizing a dissonance between the premise and the punchline of the joke.
The purpose of comedy is not to motivate action or to evoke approving applause but to generate laughter. Comedy often comes from a dark place, because the reality of the human experience is often marred by dark moments and comedy allows us an outlet to be able to deal with and process this darkness and, often, pain.
Comedy’s reception, like the reception of all artistic expression, is subjective. Some people might find a particular joke funny while others might find it unfunny, but that some people find it unfunny doesn’t invalidate it as a joke. As the great Patrice O’Neal said, “The attempt is what I’m trying to fight for. Funny jokes and unfunny jokes come out of the same birth. You should attempt to be able to make anything funny.”
Comedy should be treated like a painting; there is no unanimity that the Mona Lisa is the pinnacle of art, yet it is regarded as such by many because a critical mass of people subjectively evaluated it thus.
Comedy is an act whose true meaning is revealed in the combination of the words said, the tonality, mannerisms, and delivery of the performer, as well as the context in which it is performed. Most jokes would fall flat if reduced to the words alone, but combined with these other factors, the words may result in a synthesis that produces a very funny and relatable moment.
Comedy, which I believe to be the last bastion of true free speech, is currently under attack. It’s not clear what would replace it: a comedy of “good feelings”? Comedians run the risk of becoming motivational speakers when the crowd responds with approving applause instead of laughter.
Professor Jordan Peterson in his famous interview with Cathy Newman said, “…in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.” This is even more true for comedy; to be funny, you have to run the risk of being offensive.
Comedy is now anathema on many college campuses where comedians intending to perform on these campuses have been given a list of rules guaranteed to ensure that the comedian does not make any funny jokes. Comedian Constantin Kisin details the experience he had on a college campus: he was asked to sign a “behavioural agreement form,” which specified that he had to be “respectful and kind” with regard to any topic related to “racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.”
Are students so brittle that the performance of an offensive joke would shatter them to the core and leave them traumatised? Do they need to be shielded, coddled and sheltered from what might otherwise (and quite naturally) make them laugh?
Can comedy go too far? Of course it can. But even when comedy goes too far, it is very rarely the case that it was intended to cause harm. Humour that fails to meet its intended goal is an indictment of the delivery and possibly the skill of the comedian. I have heard abortion jokes that made me laugh very hard, despite the fact that I am pro-life. I have laughed heartily at jokes that made fun of my religion because they were genuinely funny. Those jokes could very easily have been offensive to me, had I not recognized them for what they were, jokes.
The intolerance to comedy stems from the current culture of not wanting to say anything critical about a group perceived to be oppressed. It is a travesty in my opinion, that people living in the western world—the most egalitarian, safe, prosperous, just, and fair society that’s ever existed in the history of humanity—would cry wolf at a joke and take it as a form of oppression.
Often, it is not members of the group that is the subject of the joke that take the most offense. Rather, it is others taking offense on the group’s behalf. I once made a joke in a conversation with some African Americans and Black Brits who were proposing the imposition of Pan-Africanism on the continent of Africa irrespective of the inclination of Africans towards such a project. Being African myself, I joked that if they tried such a thing, “we’ll beat your ass back to slavery.” The African Americans found it funny and chuckled at the joke, but it was the Black Brits who had no history of slavery that took offense.
Most times, groups who are the butt of a joke find such jokes incredibly funny, as they can relate to it on a personal level. The recently deceased comedian Norm Macdonald once said, “if you do an impression of someone, you have to like that person, because you're playing the person and people like themselves. You can't play someone and have contempt for them at the same time.” Oftentimes, the people and groups that are the butt of a joke appreciate that the comedian has made an effort to know enough about them to make a joke that works. They reward the comedian by laughing, not by getting offended.
This visceral reaction to any form of criticism, genuine or otherwise, is probably rooted in basic human nature and psyche. It used to be that those who didn’t conform to social norms were ostracized and banished from society, and the same holds today, only that the banning is now being done by a minority of very vocal self-appointed social activists that are holding the silent, much more tolerant majority hostage.
Their position is a non-negotiable pledge of allegiance and fealty to their “woke” ideals. These behaviours are reminiscent of the Salem Witch trials, or the suppression of dissenting scientific thought by the Catholic Church. This is history repeating itself.
What seems to be at play here is, as it has always been, power—the power to control narratives and shape reality. And it’s very weird that a person who is a darling one moment may become a villain the next for breaking the rules of these arbiters of social relations.
Last year when Dave Chappelle did “8:46,” a sort of eulogy to George Floyd, he was the darling of these same people now seeking to cancel him. In that act, there was maybe one truly funny moment. Chappelle paid lip service to comedy but engaged in social commentary more than anything else. True to the nature of his act, he got more claps than laughs.
What has changed since last year? Has Dave Chappelle become suddenly transphobic? Certainly not. His only crime: he dared to do his job by making a protected social class the butt of his jokes.
If we cannot laugh at ourselves, if we cannot take a joke at our expense, then perhaps there is something else going on underneath. Perhaps the real reasons for the backlash are not the jokes themselves, but our feelings of deep insecurity about our place in the world. If that is true, such insecurities should be remedied, perhaps with counseling. They should not be allowed to ruin comedy for the vast majority of us who still retain our sense of humour.
Charles Ekokotu (Pharm. D.) works in his native Nigeria in the pharmaceutical industry and is a bibliophile, prose fiction writer, poet, and playwright. His first self-published novel, Hotel Shendam—a crime fiction novel featuring a debate on race and colonialism—is available on Amazon. He hosts a podcast on YouTube called “Critical African Thinkers” where he engages in open dialogue, discourse, and debate on issues of race, politics, philosophy, religion, science, and popular culture, which examines every topic without flinching. Charles writes regularly on Substack and is currently working on a series of novels that explores African myths and legends, using them as building blocks to create captivating fictional stories. You can also follow Charles on his personal Twitter and on his “Critical African Thinkers” Twitter.