Comedians can’t experiment because of ‘sensitivities’ of younger people, says Stephen Merchant

STEPHEN MERCHANT in The Outlaws series 2
The 49-year-old said he noticed the change after recently returning to doing stand-up comedy gigs in pubs and other small venues - Natalie Seery

Comedians are no longer able to experiment in their work because of the “sensitivities” of younger people, Stephen Merchant has said.

Addressing how cancel culture has impacted his industry, he described comedians’ fear of offending people as a “straitjacket” that has suppressed creativity.

The 49-year-old said he noticed the change after recently returning to doing stand-up comedy gigs in pubs and other small venues.

“I’ve noticed it in standup, how you’re more cautious because you don’t want to spend weeks on Twitter trying to justify a joke you were just experimenting with. Because putting out the fires is exhausting,” he told the Observer Magazine.

Ricky Gervais, who created The Office with Merchant, has been outspoken for several years in condemning cancel culture, sparking outrage with jokes about the trans debate.

Ricky Gervais (L) and Stephen Merchant of "The Ricky Gervais Show" speak during the HBO portion of the 2010 Television Critics Association Press Tour
Merchant created BBC sitcom The Office with Ricky Gervais - Frederick M. Brown

Merchant added that he has “no objection to the sands shifting” and that people are “allowed to criticise and query things”.

“But you do feel like there’s a sensitivity to the words before they’ve even heard the joke or the context. And that is inevitably a straitjacket of sorts – it quashes experimentation.”

He said he feels as though there is now a “prescriptive list” of things comedians can joke about.

“Everything else is off limits, which is a hard thing to navigate when you’re trying to be creative,” he said.

Jerry Seinfeld, the writer/director/star of "Unfrosted
Jerry Seinfeld has also spoken out about cancel culture - Chris Pizzello

His comments come after Jerry Seinfeld last month joined comedians like Gervais and John Cleese in condemning cancel culture, blaming the death of on-screen comedy on “the extreme Left and PC crap and people worrying so much about offending other people”.

Merchant also believes it is the “Left” who are “policing comedy” now, adding that it has “allowed the Right to become the arbiters of free speech”.

Gervais has previously joked that if he and Merchant made The Office now it would be cancelled.

“I mean now it would be cancelled. I’m looking forward to when they pick out one thing and try to cancel it,” he told the BBC in 2021.

“Someone said they might try to cancel it one day, and I say, ‘Good let them cancel it. I’ve been paid!’”

He later clarified on Twitter that his comments about the show being cancelled were “clearly a joke”.