For Male Comedians, Getting ‘Cancelled’ Is A Calculated Career Move
Worse than offensive, it's simply lazy comedy.
Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix show, Sticks & Stones, centres on one idea: he’s not afraid to say something ‘politically incorrect’, even if it means he’ll be raked over the coals for it.
— Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault and abuse. —
The un-spoken secret is that he and his ilk — a series of ageing male comedians who rally around ‘speaking their mind’ — want you (and websites like Junkee) to take the bait. At this stage, it’s a guaranteed recipe for relevancy, one which by-passes all criticism: if you don’t find it funny, you’re just a triggered snowflake.
When Sticks & Stones popped up late August, it immediately made headlines for several off-colour jokes defending Louis C.K. and Michael Jackson from accusations of sexual assault. The Jackson section was particularly incendiary, with Chappelle outright saying he doesn’t believe his accusers Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck — who in the four-hour docuseries Finding Neverland allege they were sexually abused and groomed as children by the singer during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
He says that as kids, they would have told everyone if it really happened — the idea being that it’s Michael Freaking Jackson, and they’d be lucky to touched by him. Besides, they should’ve been expected to cough something up for his attention. “I know it seems harsh, but somebody’s gotta teach these kids,” he says. “No such thing as a free trip to Hawaii. He’s going to want to look at your butthole or something.”
Of course, the comments were lifted out of the special and straight into headlines, rightfully criticised and condemned. At one point, Chappelle pre-empts his cancellation, calling the current era “celebrity hunting season”. “That’s why I don’t be coming out doing comedy all the time,” he says at one point, despite literally filming an internationally screened special. “I’m goddamn sick of it. This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity. You’re gonna be finished. Everyone’s doomed.”
Chappelle is far from finished: Sticks & Stones is his third Netflix special. His previous two made headlines for homophobic and transphobic remarks, and this one evidently leans into his status as a provocateur for the left. He’s not merely unafraid to offend, but actively eager to; the name Sticks & Stones practically asks people to hurl insults at him. And he has a point — names like ‘transphobe’ or ‘abuse supporter’ won’t hurt him.
Being ‘cancelled’, for the most part, does very little in the long-run, no matter the gravity of it: for proof, we point to Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, and, in much more severe examples, Louis CK and Roman Polanski. Chappelle knows this.
“Doesn’t matter what I say,” he says at one point. “And if you at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember bitch, you clicked on my face…. Like look, I don’t think I did anything wrong, but we’ll see.”
Robson and Safechuck responded with a short statement to Chapelle’s jokes: “He can say whatever he wants. It reveals him, not us.” But what do these comments reveal, exactly? It’s not just an opinion — a belief in Jackson’s innocence, which many hold — but a willingness to hurt people to gain clout, a readiness for relevancy at the sake of being a decent person.
Chappelle is stomping down rather than punching up, believing he’s fighting back against a liberal elite. If there really was such a thing, he wouldn’t be on his third Netflix special.
Comedy is a powerful tool for social commentary — but Chappelle is stomping down rather than punching up, in the belief he’s fighting against a liberal elite. If there really was such a thing, he wouldn’t be on his third Netflix special.
But increasingly, male comedians have worked out how to harness rage and resentment over the rising voices of the marginalised to create or prolong a career, mixing ‘silent majority’ conservatism with edge-lord humour. Worse than offensive (which isn’t necessarily a bad word for a comedian, or an artist) it’s simply bad comedy, a poor cross-stitch of topical issues tied together with predictable punchlines, where the joke is a perceived audience’s pearl-clutching.
He Says What We’re All Too Afraid To Say!
Over the past few years, Ricky Gervais, Bill Burr, Joe Rogan, and Chappelle have paved the way for a specific wave of ‘free speech’ comedians who badger the ‘PC police’ — ie. those of any identity not their own.
It’s evidently a popular selling point. One of Netflix’s comedy section’s biggest tags is ‘politically incorrect stand-up comedy’, though the section lumps in anything deemed ‘controversial’, which is essentially all comedy. Which means that specials from Hannibal Buress, Ali Wong, and Donald Glover sit alongside Rogan’s ‘Triggered’; by the algorithm’s logic, all is ‘politically incorrect’, because it’ll piss off someone.
And comedy should piss off people — it’s an opportunity to punch up, making light of the ridiculous powers that hold us down, whether they be through tiny social expectations (ever seen Seinfeld?) or huge, systemic forces. As a term, ‘politically incorrect’ doesn’t guarantee punches so much as it ensures wild swings; while some land on just targets, others flail in the air, articulating only aimless frustration, ready to hit whatever it can.
As a term, ‘politically incorrect’ doesn’t guarantee punches so much as it ensures wild swings; while some land on just targets, others flail in the air, articulating only aimless frustration, ready to hit whatever it can.
In 2015, Jerry Seinfeld made headlines for saying he wouldn’t tour college campuses anymore, because they’re too concerned with what is and isn’t PC. Seinfeld said comedy is always paramount, explaining his process simply as “I talk about the subjects I talk about because for some reason I can make them funny. The ones I can’t make funny, you don’t hear.”
One man’s humour isn’t everyone’s, of course, and the moment where the offence outweighs humour — what we do and don’t allow — is subjective, and comes down to our own experiences. It’s hard to know whether Seinfeld’s college audiences weren’t laughing or buying tickets because they were offended, or they just didn’t find it funny — given Seinfeld’s dated humour, we’d probably bet the latter. But the silence of an audience isn’t the same as being silenced: yet they’re often equated.
The world listening less isn’t censorship, it just means we’ve found better alternatives. But one way to make us care is to cause outrage, which is why we see comedians like Chappelle — once a contrarian with purpose — become increasingly conservative, forgetting that shock once had a social message, rather than a marketing tool. It’s why Bill Burr’s new special, Paper Tiger, is advertised with a trailer where he mocks the use of the words ‘#MeToo’ and ‘white male privilege’, despite, by Vulture’s account, the actual material being much more nuanced than it lets on.
Rather than up their game, they refuse to apologise or complain of being censored. They dig their heels in until we end up at somewhere like Sticks & Stones, where a comedian taunts an audience more than they make jokes.
If you put "Triggered" over any stock photo of a smug man on a plain background it actually looks like a genuine netflix comedy special thumbnail pic.twitter.com/Zry3Ayq6va
— Jay Baylis (@SamuriFerret) September 13, 2019
I Apologise …For Triggering You!!!
Late last week, SNL announced three new cast members for its upcoming 45th season — Chloe Fineman, Bowen Yang (incidentally, the show’s first Asian descent cast member) and Shane Gillis. Shortly after, a video circulated on Twitter of a recording of Gillis’ podcast where he and co-host Matt McCusker make a series of racist epithets and accents against Chinese people.
The clip is taken from a September 2018 episode. Further clips, reported by Vulture comedy reported Megh Wright, see the pair use homophobic slurs and rank how funny comedians are by race, gender and sexual orientation. It’s unmistakably gross, and there are absolutely no jokes either: the offence is the joke.
After the footage did the rounds, Gillis addressed the comments via a statement shared on social media. “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss. If you go through my 10 years of comedy, most of it bad, you’re going to find a lot of bad misses,” he wrote.
“I’m happy to apologise to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said. My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”
Gillis’ framing is reminiscent of Kevin Hart’s non-apology late last year when several homophobic tweets from 2010 re-surfaced, including one in which he said he’d break a dollhouse over his son’s head if he caught him playing with one.
But if Gillis or Hart missed their mark, you have to wonder what, exactly, they were aiming for: what was the joke?
Both read as, ‘sorry for saying something a [homophobe/racist] would say, but see, when I said it, it was a joke’. It’s true that comedians push boundaries, and it’s true that means they miss, too. But if Gillis or Hart missed their mark, you have to wonder what, exactly, they were aiming for: what was the joke? If they weren’t aiming to cause a spiteful, hateful laugh, then they were trying to land a shocked smile, or a ‘you can’t say that!’ chuckle. The ‘risk’ is simply not worth the reward, except for the comedian themselves.
And sure, you could argue the risk isn’t worth it for them either: four days after he was announced as a cast member, Gillis has been fired. Saturday Night Live offered a statement condemning his comments as ‘hurtful’, and Gillis followed that with his second statement.
“If feels ridiculous for comedians to be making serious public statements but here we are I’m a comedian who was funny enough to get on SNL. That can’t be taken away,” he writes. “Of course I wanted an opportunity to prove myself at SNL, but I understand it would be too much of a distraction. I respect the decision they made. I’m honestly grateful for the opportunity. I was always a Mad TV guy anyway.”
In few words, Gillis paves his new career: he lambasts the need to make ‘serious public statements’, as if comedy couches racist epithets in cushioning quotations; he establishes a brand at the talented comedian too ‘controversial’ to be on SNL; and then disses SNL, a show he applied to work for and endured a famously competitive audition process over. The responses online are predictable: this relatively unknown comedian is already a bastion for free speech and another victim of ‘cancel culture’, aka being held accountable for being a racist.
Yet another disgusting surrender by those who are too spineless to stand up to the PC censors. Shame on SNL. By the same standards, comedy greats like Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin would have never been allowed to even step foot on stage.
— Hayden Daniel (@HaydenWDaniel) September 16, 2019
As Megh Wright wrote on Twitter, “no one really gets cancelled”. They just find a new audience, one catered to by the entertainment elites like Netflix; being cancelled is a circuit, and Gillis has just joined it.
Getting "canceled" leads to a LOT of success and new fans for people. Certain comedians base their entire act on the idea that it exists. Netflix has created multiple comedy categories to it. No one really gets canceled. And if you have any empathy you should know better.
— Megh Wright (@megh_wright) September 13, 2019
‘You Can Say What You Want, You Just Have To Be Funny About It’
In an interview currently circulating on Twitter in wake of Gillis’ jokes, comedians Desus & Mero are asked why they’ve “avoided the problematic police”, despite hosting a weekly late-night show on Viceland and Showtime for three years. Their answer is simple: they self-censor, because they don’t want their jokes to hurt people.
“There are certain things you know you could’ve gotten away with saying in ’09 that you shouldn’t even formulate as a sentence in your head,” says Desus. “And if you watch our comedy, you’ll know that there’s certain jokes that we used to do that we don’t do anymore because as we’ve experienced the world and met different people, we’ve realised the humour hits different people and it hits differently.”
“[Say there’s] a certain joke that you did four years ago, and [then] you meet a person from that group and you go, ‘oh shit, I didn’t even realise that was offensive’….We’re not in the crosshairs of PC culture, because we’re not fighting against it.”
“We’re not out there like, ‘oh PC culture’s ruining comedy, you can’t say what you want anymore!’,” adds Mero, “because you can say what you want, you just have to be funny about it, and smart about it, and approach it the right way.”
For any comedian that is angry about “PC culture,” Desus and Mero are setting an example for y’all.
This is so simple, idk what’s so hard to understand pic.twitter.com/FWdPVmIV8h
— antonio (@ADDelgiacco) February 22, 2019
Like all art, the best comedy is built off a base of compassion: even in its punchlines, there’s an ounce of humanity. Missing the mark is inevitable (though it’s hard to believe using racial epithets in 2018 is an oversight). It’s how we deal with it afterwards that matters: by listening and understanding the hurt, and doing better in the future.
And as time moves on, so does our collective dial for what is and isn’t compassionate. It’s why, arguably, something like Amy Sedaris’ Strangers With Candy is best left in the past: Jerri Blank’s absurd racism/sexism/homophobia/all-in discrimination doesn’t hit the same marks it used to. Repeating what worked in the past isn’t just offensive, it’s lazy and one note, which is why we see the likes of Chappelle up the rhetoric with each special.
Desus has one more point. “You can’t just say [a joke] for shock value,” he says. “Because that’s what a lot of people do, they’re like, ‘oh sorry, you’re triggered’… and there are people who are selling out arenas doing that, but at the end of the day, what’s the expectancy of that? How long can you do that for?”
Right now, you can make a career out of getting cancelled. But that can only last so long: audiences want to laugh, and hearing the same jokes sure isn’t funny.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.