Cancel culture is ruining comedy – it’s time to stand-up to it

When those who are not risk takers declare a comic is ‘cancelled’, well, excuse me if I think the noble, raw art of stand-up comedy is something they neither know nor care about

Written by Shaparak Khorsandi in The Independent 12 months ago (Friday, May 21st, 2021)

Cancel culture needs to keep its nose out of stand-up comedy. I mean, what is the point of being a comic if you can’t mess up? Really. If you haven’t felt your insides hollowed out because something you have said has come across so badly that an entire room hates you, then you are not a stand-up comic.

The fear of being “cancelled” is real and it will be the death of stand-up comedy as we know it. Chris Rock spoke up against cancel culture this week, saying “everybody’s too scared to make a move”.

When you are up in front of an audience, you can’t be scared that what you say might lead to your being shamed and cancelled. Right now there is no mercy when someone makes a mistake. If you’re dealing with a heckler, when you are nervous, when you are testing waters, when you are in fight-or-flight mode, God knows what will come out of your mouth.

Sometimes you don’t care if people are offended because you stand by what you said, and sometimes it hurts because that’s not how you wanted to come across. Stand-up comedians are risk takers. If our stuff doesn’t land, if it rubs people up the wrong way, we take the hit then and there. That is how we learn. That is how we find ways to communicate with people from all walks of life when we are on stage.

When those who are not risk takers declare a comic is “cancelled”, well, excuse me if I think the noble, raw art of stand-up comedy is something they neither know nor care about. If, while you watch a comedian or just hear what they have said out of context, you are ready to pounce on the arrangement of their words, on an attitude they’ve displayed that doesn’t chime exactly with yours and leap onto Twitter to tear them down, then I’m thinking the medium of stand-up comedy isn’t for you. Because in our world, anything goes. That’s what makes it exciting to watch and do.

A crucial component of comedy is the audience. Without them you are just someone honking into a void. This has a charm of its own, I can attest, but it’s a lot more fulfilling in front of a crowd. Cancel culture is disrespectful and patronising to the audience. Imagine thinking that it’s down to you to decide what an audience can and can’t watch? What they should and shouldn’t be offended by.

The audience themselves tell you if you cross a line. There is no need for keyboard warriors to pipe up. Audiences tell you how badly you got it wrong by not laughing, not buying tickets to see you again, or booing you off stage – all things which have happened to me and I wear my battle scars with pride.

Years ago, I used to do a routine that was transphobic. I was an ignoramus. I didn’t consider anyone could be hurt by my stupid jokes. Then, some people who saw it, people in my audiences, wrote to me and spoke to me, some angrily, some patiently, explaining why I was being transphobic. After a (quite shamefully long) while, I pulled my head out of my backside, stopped being defensive and understood. I am much less of an ignoramus these days.

Before anyone reading this says, “Oh I see, you want credit for being a decent person do you? REALLY decent people wouldn’t have been transphobic in the first place!”, I admit that’s true; but anyone who is 25 years old today will find, when they are 40, that some of the things they say today, attitudes they have, terms they use and stuff they laugh at, will no longer be palatable. Time will tell what those things are. We are all on our own little journey and don’t keep the pace and direction of everyone else the entire time.

Cancel culture is stopping comedians taking risks, playing around and letting themselves fall. Twitter, that screaming pit of merciless voices, is making comedy monochrome. (That said, there are some who cry “cancel culture!” when actually they weren’t setting the comedy world alight in the first place. It’s important to make the distinction.) When something you have said or done gets swept up into a Twitter storm, you feel as though the world is crashing in on you and the effect it can have on your mental health can be brutal and long-lasting. Who needs that in their lives? No wonder so much comedy toes the same line and amplifies the same voices.

It’s discouraging to the comic souls who carry the punk spirit which made this industry intoxicating. The only censorship that should happen in comedy is by yourself, your own moral boundaries. My personal rule is that I wouldn’t say anything about a group or a person that I wouldn’t say to their face or wouldn’t say if I knew they were in my audience. Jim Davidson famously cancelled a show because people in wheelchairs were sitting in the front row and one woman refused to move. His argument was that a big section of his show was aimed at the front row and having wheelchairs users there would ruin his routine.

If your material relies on your front row not being confined to wheelchairs, then it’s a matter of time before your act will be reduced to you ranting angrily in your dressing gown in some dark corner of Twitter, as has been the case with Davidson.

Alternative comedy happened because audiences decided that suited men with their mothers-in-law and P**i gags had had their day. As our culture moves forward and becomes more inclusive, so does our humour. If you don’t move with it, you’ll get left behind and essentially cancel yourself.

Filed Under: Column, The Independent, Writing