Woke comedy is nothing to laugh at

trans pride
trans pride

In a long interview in the Guardian, Stephen Merchant has addressed concerns about cancel culture in comedy, targeting “the extreme left and PC crap and people worrying so much about offending other people.”

He spoke, says the interviewer, “cautiously, as if walking barefoot on stones”.

“Well,” he says, “it seems to me that there’s always been policing of comedy... I think the difference is that it used to feel like it was the Right that was policing it. It feels like it’s the Left that’s doing it now, and it’s allowed the Right to become the arbiters of free speech. Which does feel like quite a significant shift.”

As a long-term resident of Brighton and Hove, where the beach is notoriously more… coarse-grained, shall we say, than those near Stephen’s present home in the Hollywood Hills, I certainly know what it’s like to walk barefoot on stones. But I have long learned to strap my size 11s on and wade in when it comes to cancel culture.

Stephen is right that the naggers and the scolds now come from the Left, but it’s been a whole generation since this shift occurred. The last time the Right was policing comedy, it was in the form of Constance Mary Whitehouse CBE, and she died in 2001. Her school ma’amish – if arguably prescient – views on moral decline and the slippery slope were already quaint enough for the mockery to land when Cambridge graduates Newman, Baddiel, Punt and Dennis called themselves the Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1989.

There was a brief eruption of Christian outrage in 2005 at Jerry Springer the Opera, which did seem calculated to provoke. But its creator Stewart Lee still managed to remain personally uncancelled, so that was very much the Culloden of those hopes for “silent majority” revival. Nothing of consequence has been heard of since.

Cambridge or indeed any university was one thing that grammar school girl Mary herself had sadly not experienced, of course, hence her regrettably naïve pre-Enlightenment views. In fact, both the new “alternative” comedy and the excision of the old bowtie guard could as easily be framed as the “Revolt of the Elites” as much as a clash of Right and Left.

Understanding the aspirations of these elites can throw new light onto cancel culture, I think. Because one element that has changed, as significantly as the move in political alignment, is that much of the critique and policing of comedians now comes from within comedy itself.

I am often reminded of a piece a few years ago in Foreign Policy about what Peter Turchin called “elite overproduction” – the situation a society finds itself in when it produces too many potential members of the elite for its power structure to absorb.

In the article, Paul Musgrave warned that the same forces which ultimately led to the Taiping Rebellion and the loss of thirty million Chinese lives are now prevalent in American society, leading to unsustainable tensions among a debt burdened generation unable to leverage their qualifications to earn a decent living, let alone gain the status their diplomas seemed to promise.

There’s an analogy to be drawn here. Very few people try to get into comedy by earning an Ivy League degree. But there are certainly vastly more people now who regard comedy as a viable career, rather than an extreme sport or a neurological compulsion, and who expect that a perfunctory few months on the circuit should prepare them for the lucrative TV panel games. Once they begin to realise how much of a slog is involved, it becomes tempting to wonder if they might not clear a bit more room at the top, and suddenly the culture war becomes a weaponised tool for advance, for clearing out the “dead” wood that blocks one’s path. Consequently, a great many comedians who have achieved “tenure” find they prefer to opt for safety.

There are a few culture warriors who strain against the leash, or feel consciously silenced, or suffocated. But there are vastly more comedy equivalents of Havel’s greengrocer, who toe the line and display in their set or their script the equivalent of the “Workers of the world, unite!” sign that the greengrocer puts in his window in his pursuit of a quiet life. As Damian Counsell has noted, this desire – along with peer pressure – forms part of the two most powerful forces known to contemporary humankind.

So, it is hard to say quite what might be getting lost. For every Jerry Sadowitz or Andrew Lawrence snuffed out, there will be dozens who will just trim their wick a little lower, who will step a little further away from the edge, and take one or two fewer risks. And one or two multi-millionaires, who walk rather more gingerly over the pebbles than they might.