I can pinpoint the exact moment where I realized something had gone wrong with modern comedy. I was watching “The Closer,” Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special after it had recently come under fire for transphobic elements. I had been a fan of Chappelle for years, watching every single piece of comedy I could find on the man while still remaining critical in my consumption. Upon rewatching his content due to quarantine boredom, I considered Chappelle on thin ice — which is where he likes to be, toeing the line between acceptable and abhorrent to achieve his brand of comedy.
I had wanted to form an opinion on Chappelle’s new special myself. About 10 minutes into the special, he started the cadence that he was setting up a joke, beginning that rapper DaBaby’s homophobic comments “punched the LBGTQ (sic) community in the …” and some part of my brain, without warning, said he’s going to says AIDS. Lo and behold, Chappelle did. Lo and behold, I felt my connection to his comedy eroding as he aligned himself with transphobes and ended on the weakest callback of his career. That’s right, weakest. Not the most hurtful, or the most bigoted, but the weakest. This was the special that Chappelle was “canceled” for.
Chappelle and many other modern comedians are fascinated with “cancel culture” and have focused their comedy on controversy over creativity. The outcry of the “woke internet mob” and empathetic appeals to avoid dehumanizing vulnerable populations don’t seem to phase these creators, so let’s try a different approach: discussing what cancel culture really is, the psychological reasons why subjective jokes rooted in stereotypes are objectively bigoted and how that harms our most marginalized. Comedians have attempted to elevate themselves above us “sheep” and have been ringing false alarms for too long; the credibility of comics will be shredded but it ultimately will be us thrown to the wolves.
To redefine cancel culture, we can look to its online origins in Black American culture and Tumblr. Etymologically, “cancel” as an interpersonal verb can be seen as early as 1991 in the film “New Jack City” as protagonist Nino Brown remarks “Cancel that bitch.” Lil Wayne, in 2010, referenced the line in his song “I’m Single”: “Cancel that bitch like Nino.” And in 2014, Black Twitter began popularizing the word after it was heard on a 2014 episode of “Love and Hip-Hop: New York” in which cast member Cisco Rosado tells his love interest Diamond Strawberry during a fight, “you’re canceled.” Originally used for personal indictments between users, the term “canceled” began to take on a description of widespread boycotts of individuals and companies for problematic behavior. This evolution came from combining the boycotting practice with call-out culture, which originated around 2010. “Call-out culture” was a mostly online practice documenting problematic aspects of modern celebrity culture, such as the Tumblr blog “your fave is problematic,” and attempted to bring awareness to them, though these practices often led to harassment and political grandstanding rather than concrete changes in behavior.
Moving forward, the practice of bringing awareness to public figures’ problematic actions along with the coordinated boycotting and eventually harming careers that came with it, brought us to cancel culture’s rise in the digital sphere. The case of YouTuber James Charles perhaps epitomizes this tenuous relationship, as his livelihood swung back and forth from failing and flourishing in the wake of countless controversies and concessions. When you cater to an exclusively online audience, your career is contingent on the view of the internet. However, the issue crossed a line from cancellation into criminal investigation, when Charles was later found to have committed acts of sexual misconduct, which put his career across a point of no return. Cases of sexual misconduct like Charles’s entered cancel culture into the mainstream alongside the #MeToo movement, with traditional media and its proponents appropriating the cancel culture buzzword.
There’s a very clear discrepancy between what cancel culture means for online influencers, and how it’s broadly applied today. Internet outrage hardly matters for traditional celebrities that have established support outside of the internet. If anything, it boosts their publicity, their relevance and support from defenders both in and outside the digital sphere. However, cancel culture crusades like the #MeToo movement have still been cited as the cause of death in some celebrity career autopsies: R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. While the former two have been convicted of their crimes, C.K.’s situation was more ambiguous, as charges were never brought against him. Yet, C.K.’s career still suffered consequences from his indecent acts being exposed, even as he apologized and attempted to restart his career. These incidents are less rooted in some temperamental internet mob enacting its own brand of justice, but still display how a culture of highlighting problematic aspects of celebrities has led to genuine justice for the consequences of these people’s actions. Is it wise to put the differing incidents under the same cancel-culture umbrella?
Celebrities like LeVar Burton have pushed for cancel culture as a whole to be renamed “consequence culture,” citing that, on the whole, the movement has created an atmosphere of accountability in modern society. This seems promising, but can the will of the internet really be trusted to enact true justice in every case? Is the tempestuous nature of an online influencer subject to the Web’s will, and are traditional celebrities compared less when facing the long-deserved consequences of actual crimes?
When cancel culture is used as a broad term, it can both downplay and dramatize “cancellable” events — C.K. is defended by fellow celebrities while Will Smith slapping Chris Rock is treated as a brutal assault and evidence of national disunity. The term “canceled” has become so nebulous it encompasses everything from decades-old offensive Tweets to heinous crimes. While these acts’ consequences range from losing Twitter followers to imprisonment, cancel culture has simultaneously become a scapegoat, a beacon of justice, a threat to freedom of speech and a huge joke.
Funnily enough (or not), cancellable jokes have become the crux of many comedians’s concern. While there’s much to analyze about the inner workings of cancel culture movements, it’s more pertinent to hear the voices society has deemed important enough to make fun of everything. These views are as expansive as the cancel culture we’ve just discussed — ranging from the destruction of comedy to being ultimately inconsequential. Jokes that flirt with taboo topics — the prime opportunity for cancellation — are what elevate comedians to a place in society where they can give their thoughts freely, with the extra bit of humor that makes such topics approachable, at least according to academics. However, the jokes that result in “cancellation” are often rooted in stereotypes and a lack of understanding of the communities they comment on. This may fall at odds with the basic purpose of comedy — to get a laugh. Humor is subjective, making stereotypical jokes and their offense subjective as well. Can we even objectively analyze a joke’s humor?
Psychologically, people laugh at jokes from the subversion of expectation, and remember them if the subversion still fulfills an expectation. One particular subversion of expectation is shock comedy, where laughs are derived from the fact that offensive material is being touched on in the first place. However, offensive humor has become the norm and oversaturated in the age of the internet, so that the line is crossed often into absurdity — where a punchline defies expectation to the wildest extent. Modern comedy has been heavily analyzed for its absurdist trends. But the absurd has always existed in certain brands of humor, because certain people find aspects of marginalized existence absurd.
For example, it is absurd to some that BIPOC assert the existence of institutionalized forms of racism when laws are no longer constructed around race. It is absurd to them that disabled people deserve systemic obstacles removed in their everyday life when abled people can navigate those obstacles just fine. It is absurd to them that Queer people, in their widely-varied spectrum, can even exist. This absurdity is not only rooted in a lack of empathy for other conditions but instead a lack of nuance, as they reduce the world to simple systems that are designed to marginalize. This is bigoted humor, a brand that often seems to be so repetitive — it relies on the same never-changing stereotypes, so much so that internet communities have amassed plenty of variations on the “one joke.” However, for modern stand-up comedians to avoid examining their reliance on stereotypes, they lower their comedic qualities and end up blaming cancel culture. We have to touch on the consequences of that comedy — not on the comedians, but those joked about — because humor rooted in stereotypes isn’t just unfunny from an analytical standpoint, it isn’t just derogatory, it’s dehumanizing.
Cancel culture and its most vicious proponents feed on attention, so referring back to it in every instance — especially in a negative light — only worsens the issue and draws it to the news again and again. In addition, conflating cancel culture with legitimate criticism has become a circumventing tactic for comedians. When marginalized groups react negatively to jokes that dehumanize them, it is never about something as inconsequential as their feelings, rather the material effects on their place in society. Comedians have a social responsibility, in standup legend George Carlin’s own words — to “punch up” — to direct their mockery to those higher in power: the government, the rich and other societally privileged members. This is the answer to Chappelle’s question halfway through “The Closer”: “Punching down — the fuck does that mean?”It’s the opposite of what Carlin wanted. While homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism and transphobia all exist at different points on the social ladder, the fact is that directing mockery towards them just worsens already negative conditions. The world is so much more nuanced, interconnected and beautiful than stereotype-based jokes simplify it to be, and it’s a shame that that humor has taken over like so.
Comedians like Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher and, again, Dave Chappelle have been coming under fire recently for their transphobic comedy. To those who would object that seeing another comedian is always an option, John Mulaney has also come under fire by his vast audience of Queer fans for including Chappelle’s unannounced Queerphobic opener with his show. Bigoted comics have become such loud and omnipresent figures in our society at this point that the threat they pose to marginalized groups cannot be ignored. Chappelle is especially frustrating because I can see his empathy, research and drive to change in almost every other area he covers, like his powerful special on George Floyd. Despite this, he ended “The Closer” by making an obviously false claim that cancel culture somehow poses a threat to the livelihoods of millionaires like DaBaby and Kevin Hart. His final callback was a plea to “stop punching down on my people,” which is so illogical it’s almost funny. Almost. The mob that threatens us isn’t hordes of Twitter users or victims of sexual misconduct speaking out. It’s white supremacist terrorists growing, it’s eugenics returning in the pandemic era and it’s Queerphobic hate crimes and legislation on the rise, all of which objectively unfunny bigoted jokes lay a societal basis for. Comics are shredding their credibility by constantly crying cancel culture and are neglecting their societal duty to the flock below them. Us “sheep” are their livelihoods, and the wolves are preparing to pounce.
Statement Correspondent Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.