Over time it is becoming clear that there is no bigger threat to celebrities’ careers than their own fans. The concept of cancel culture, calling out celebrities on social media, has many public figures scrambling to correct their past mistakes while steering clear of future controversy. Something that one said years or even decades ago can resurface online and mess up their reputation today. Cancel culture has had a substantial impact on stand up comedians in particular. Some of the most recognizable comedians are known for having no filter and saying whatever they feel is necessary to get an audience’s reaction. Will this new wave of criticism change stand up comedy as we know it?
As with everything else in the world, social media has affected how accessible information is and also how people form opinions. In relation to comedy, people don’t have to watch a comedy show live or wait to purchase a DVD to watch. Comedians are able to release specials on streaming platforms or post them on Instagram and on YouTube. Many people would argue that the younger generations are just more sensitive and don’t realize that comedians make jokes purely for entertainment.
But the previous generation of comedians like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce used their shows as an opportunity to bring awareness to the injustices happening in marginalized communities. Pryor talked about drug abuse in the Black community in his 1983 show “Here and Now.” Bruce pushed the boundaries of free speech and was even arrested for his obscene jokes. However, it is also possible that social media has given more people a platform to not only share their own thoughts, but see what others have to say as well. A person can tweet their opinion about anything, use the right hashtags and thousands of people will see it in just a few hours. For example, Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy special “Sticks and Stones” amassed thousands of posts made by people and even other celebrities disappointed about the insensitivity of Chappelle’s jokes. But despite all the backlash, it still received a 99% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Many comedians have spoken up with their thoughts about cancel culture. Comedian Nikki Glaser said in an interview with Bill Maher, “I don’t fear being cancelled anymore because I just know at my core I’m a good person and I’m not racist…I don’t mind apologizing.” She went on to say that even though she makes jokes about sensitive topics, she truly doesn’t like the idea of offending people. Glaser feels that she is still bringing awareness to these issues by making jokes about them.
“The Daily Show” host, Trevor Noah, said in a New York Times interview that, “In America, people will get more angry about a thing a comedian says in a joke about a topic than about the topic itself.” He says he thinks that because people have no control over certain issues, they resort to asserting their power by controlling what others can and can’t say about the issue.
Chris Rock even explained on “The Breakfast Club” that comedians don’t need to be cancelled because at the end of the day their goal is to make the audience laugh. If the audience isn’t laughing, that sends a message and now they know what needs to be adjusted. He said, “When everybody gets safe and nobody tries anything, things get boring.” Rock thinks comedians should be able to push the envelope without getting penalized for it.
Comedian Katt Williams has a different opinion on cancel culture. He thinks this culture is necessary and that comedians shouldn’t have an issue with evolving. He says, “If all that’s going to happen is that we have to be more sensitive in the way that we talk, isn’t that what we want anyway?…Don’t call somebody this word when you know it affects all of these people.” He feels that if entertainers have an issue with being called out for a remark that offends their own audience, they should consider pursuing another career.
At the end of the day, it is impossible to please everyone. Being in the public eye is always going to come with backlash. Many comedians feel that if they are sensitive to everyone’s feelings, then the jokes won’t be as funny. But if they have no filter, their reputation is at risk. Others feel that culture is changing all the time and entertainers need to evolve with it. It is important for celebrities to take responsibility and be held accountable for their mistakes, but at what point does it stop being about accountability and start being overly critical?