Could the comedy world be changed forever by cancel culture? Dame Maureen Lipman has suggested that this could be the case because comedians are now scared of offending anyone and finding their careers ended.
Lipman told the BBC that “a revolution” was happening and “it’s in the balance whether we will ever be funny again.”
The veteran performer added: “Cancel culture, this cancelling, this punishment, it’s everywhere. Punishment. An eye for an eye. ‘You said that, therefore you must never work again.’ Sooner or later the cancellers will win.”
Cancel culture has become the defining debate in the comedy world. In October the Old Vic announced it would not be staging a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods directed by Monty Python star Terry Gilliam.
The Old Vic said in a statement that this was “mutually agreed”. Gilliam claimed it was because he encouraged his social media followers to watch comedian Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix show, The Closer. Chappelle has been criticised for his comments about transgender rights in his show.
Gilliam wrote: “Freedom of Speech is often attacked, but I never imagined that Freedom of Recommendation would be under threat as well.”
But do comedians, who are often famously outspoken, truly feel they are under threat? Gilliam’s production was soon picked up by the Theatre Royal Bath, to be staged in August next year. Is cancel culture a reality for the comedy industry? Chappelle still appears to be as busy. Ricky Gervais has often been criticised, but has just finished a tour playing to packed arenas.
Kate Smurthwaite is a successful comic who talks about sex and politics onstage. She is sceptical about the existence of cancel culture: “I don’t even really think cancel culture is a thing. People have every right to have an opinion and share it.”
And it has recently been revealed that the BBC is making a radio pilot called Unsafe Space, featuring comedians who often perform at the Comedy Unleashed comedy night at Hackney’s Backyard Club, where free speech is championed.
The idea of cancel culture is not new. In the 1980s the rise of politically aware alternative comedy, led by Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, highlighted the outdated attitudes of 1970s comedians who told racist and sexist jokes. Benny Hill, famous for featuring scantily women in his sketches, fell out of fashion and his television contract was not renewed.
The difference is that back then mainstream television was the only major outlet for a comedian. Now, apart from umpteen global streaming companies, there are podcasts, Youtube channels and numerous other ways a comedian can get exposure. Louis CK, who was involved in a sexual misconduct scandal, has just independently released a new live show. He might not be as popular as he was but he still earns his living as a comedian.
There is no denying that comedy is changing though. Jimmy Carr, who has previously made jokes about dwarfism, Gypsies and lesbians, has said that there is a joke he once told that if it emerged now it could get him cancelled. “The joke that cancels me is out there already. It is on YouTube somewhere and it is perfectly acceptable until one day it isn’t.”
Jack Whitehall has said that he has previously told jokes that “would be worthy of cancellation”. Whitehall is now juggling stand-up with acting, recently starring in Clifford The Big Red Dog. His edgier jokes from his early days might not sit easily alongside his new family-friendly image.
In a new interview with Times Radio Armando Iannucci, who created political satire The Thick of It, accepted that his old shows contain material he would not write today but also spoke out against the idea of cancel culture restraining him: “I spent most of my career trying to work out where the line is, where do you feel you’re stepping over the mark and every now and then do it anyway, just to see what happens.”
Smurthwaite says there is self-censorship though: “We can’t all go round saying out loud every word that pops into our head. I don’t swear when I’m on the telly. That’s why I still get to go on the telly. If that’s too much for people maybe they shouldn’t stand so near a microphone. I choose what I say and I mean it. I base it on truth and justice and I’m proud to say it, whatever the reaction.”
Comics might deny cancel culture exists but that does not stop them worrying that something from their past might pop up to bite them. Russell Kane told the BBC he subscribes to the website TweetDelete which erases posts older than six months. Whatever Maureen Lipman says, comedy is not about to be wiped out, but maybe sometimes comedians choose to play safe. Call it caution culture.