Cancel culture has comedy in its crosshairs. Where does it go from here?
One Friday afternoon in my junior year of high school, we were informed over the loudspeaker that every member of the junior class would be staying after the final bell to take a writing test.
Undeterred by the groundswell of groans ringing round me, I felt that inimitable, slightly embarrassing sense of exhilaration that accompanied any opportunity to write. This was going to be fun.
We assembled in various classrooms according, I think, to our last names. Then, we were handed a sheet of paper with two prompts. Pick one and have at it.
I remember looking at the first prompt, feeling a rush of excitement with regard to my ability to expound upon it … until a little voice in my head gave me pause. The prompt reminded me of a line from a movie. Faint at first, it soon became deafening. Oh…Spiderman.
The prompt took such a ham-handed approach to the question of power and responsibility, I quickly changed tack. The second option, it would be.
I experienced an even greater shock when I turned my paper in. The proctor had left for a moment, and I was one of the last students remaining in the classroom—I wouldn’t put it past myself to have waited until everyone was gone, actually—so I did what I always did when this opportunity presented itself.
Like Harry Potter unable to keep out of trouble, I chanced another glance at the door (all clear) and started sifting through the various papers stacked upon the desk. I used to love doing this with graded papers in English class, to see if anyone had received a higher mark than me.
I soon found myself sifting faster and faster, risk of papercut be damned, until my face contorted into a sort of Munch-ian scream. Each essay began with the same thought, expressed in an eerily similar way.
With great power comes great responsibility.
Once I’d calmed down, I realized there was a lesson to be learned here. Most of my classmates probably didn’t care that much about writing—I wrote enough papers for friends to have that sense hammered home—and that would mean that they certainly weren’t thrilled about writing extracurricularly. Overtime on a Friday afternoon, no less. Within that context, it wasn’t all that surprising that so many had snatched at the lowest-hanging fruit. Power? Responsibility? Didn’t Uncle Ben have a line about that in a Spiderman movie? Cool. Bing bang boom. Done and dusted, off to have some fun.
I’ve found myself thinking about this memory more often, of late. Eliminate Spiderman from the cultural conversation, and that quote effectively disappears as a rhetorical option. Of course it’s not as if the power/responsibility question has never been debated before, but had it not been carefully packaged in a blockbuster film, would so many teenagers have been able to reference it at the drop of a hat on that fateful afternoon?
It is of vital importance, what is allowed to exist within the cultural sphere. That should go without saying.
It could well be a reason for the steady drip of drivel seeping into theaters these days. To find anything meaningful, you have to strike off the well-trodden mainstream path and wade amongst the weeds.
This is the conundrum of “free speech”; at least in America. You’re allowed to say what you want, even if it’s something that cuts against the grain. The problem arises when you hit a certain threshold in terms of popular appeal.
In that particular case, you receive what could be called the Jordan Peterson treatment, whereupon a respectable organ of information—say, the New York Times—fires a surgical strike at you, creating such a cloud of reputation-muddling filth about you that polite society gets the message and steers clear. Job done: a threat has been once more reduced to the margins.
If you control the culture, you decide which lessons the masses are allowed to imbibe. You put forth the heroes they are allowed to worship. The ideals to adhere to, and on, and on.
I remember reading somewhere on Twitter that the most trustworthy accounts tend to have less than 10,000 followers. This accords with a long-held tenet in human history—that we are at our best in the come-up, when we’re hungry and working toward a goal.
Once we reach our destination, we have a habit of falling into the torpor of attention-soaked mother’s milk, obsessed with applause and praise. What we should realize is that, like Jack London’s protagonist Martin Eden, “celebrity” is nothing more than a glow cast about a person. It has nothing to do with him or her, really.
Or, it does, but not in the way you think. People are attracted to the aura; remove the person, through death or manufactured scandal and subsequent insignificance, and they’ll quickly latch onto the next source of the Glow.
Into this push and pull we find comedy, which has long served one of the most essential purposes in society—to serve as a release valve for stress, and impart important lessons through the memory adhesive of laughter.
Strangely, this never comes up in the current “discussion” we’re “having” about comedy’s purpose. Instead, we are treated to variations upon the (limited) themes of punching up, punching down, SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER, et. al.
Nothing compares to the unexpected moment during a comedy show when a joke lands and, taken completely by surprise, you laugh in spite of yourself. This is perhaps part of the problem. Nothing is more threatening than an art form which by its nature defies restriction.
A few weeks ago, Katt Williams was trotted out to perform a mea culpa about previous insensitive jokes he’d made, whereupon he heartily promised to never ever do it again. It was of a line with what Eddie Murphy has said, too, about past jokes. You might have expected the Twitter hordes, armed with snark, to bring those two up when Kevin Hart said during an interview with the Sunday Times that he’s “had it” with cancel culture.
WHY DON’T YOU JUST DO WHAT WE TELL YOU TO DO!!! WHY WON’T YOU ADHERE TO THE SOCIETAL STANDARDS WE SET JUST FIVE MINUTES AGO???
Chris Rock spoke to The Independent about cancel culture’s deadening aspect, noting “We should have the right to fail, because failure is a part of art.” Dave Chappelle might have delivered the ultimate refutation of it when, while hosting SNL in the aftermath of the last presidential election, he helmed a skit about Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Count Chocula (you have to watch) and hte All State guy, who had been taken to task by the wokerati for their alleged insensitiveness.
“It’s not what you did. It’s how you make us feel about what we did.”
Not only are there subjects you aren’t allowed to talk about; you might get cancelled if you don’t apologize for jokes you made years and years ago. It is all for the greater good, we’re assured.
Sure, society was different when you were making your jokes now under fire, or when these brands created their troublesome logos, but that’s of no matter. We’re programmed to respond to the now now now. If you don’t apologize…wait, why did we want you to apologize? Oh no matter. You’re in trouble, that’s what Twitter told me in its headlines, and the key word there is trouble. You obviously have to apologize, neutering yourself along the way.
I can’t quite come to grips with the idea that comedians should serve truth to power. It puts me in mind of one of the great takes on this modern malaise of madness, delivered by Colin Quinn.
“That’s actually why I got into comedy—so I could march in lockstep with society’s contemporary convention.”
One of the disturbing truths you quickly learn, in reading any kind of history, is that the prophets were reviled in their time. One would think this would make us think twice before we kick someone to the curb.
The argument against offensive speech is a simple one: we cannot allow dangerous elements any kind of platform. We might get another Trump!!
Never mind that there is a very, very select group of people who have taken it upon themselves to inform us of what is and is not acceptable, speech-wise. Never mind that these rules are infuriatingly arbitrary, and strangely seem to consolidate certain people in their vaulted positions of power, while the lower rungs of society go at each other’s throats—often, of course, from the relative safety of their computer screen.
Faced with this uncertainty, when reputations are scythed like chaff in an autumn harvest, comedians are taking their fates into their own hands. Watching the success Joe Rogan has enjoyed with his podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience—Spotify, cha-ching—nearly every major comedic voice has launched his or her own show.
The idea is to effectively become un-cancellable by curating a loyal fan base that is willing to fend off any attempts at reputation destruction. Though most podcasts are broadcast through YouTube, revenue streams exist elsewhere, say, through a subscription model like Patreon.
But wait! Just when podcasting seemed safe, the Times swoops in and informs the well-heeled masses that it’s actually dangerous to have these “unfettered conversations.” Here was a tweet during the heyday of Clubhouse:
Power structures will always attempt to control what is acceptable in terms of speech. You must reject that notion at every turn. Comedians serve a vital function, in their ability to look at the absurdity around them and duly inform us through jokes. The more of them there are doing this, the better.
Maybe they’ll say something important that will end up on a junior’s writing exam.