May 19, 2022   6 mins

Chris Rock was in London last week with his new show, observing — not inaccurately — that many people are very afraid of offending others these days. Presumably some comedians are even more afraid now, having seeing Will Smith slap Rock at the Oscars in March; the sheer visibility of this event is likely to have dragged the assault of comedians further into the realm of possibility than it was before. As Kathy Griffin tweeted at the time: “now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theatres.” Last week’s attack on Dave Chappelle on stage was perhaps further evidence that the social norm “don’t hit people for making offensive jokes” is in some disrepair.

But even where the po-faced stop short of lamping the smart-arsed, it’s widely noted that there’s a growing societal intolerance towards offensive comedy. Discussion of this in the media tends to assume a predictable form. First, someone well-known for being funny — Maureen Lipman, or John Cleese, or Dawn French — will say that wokeism is stifling comedic impulses by making comedians (and managers, and booking agents) afraid of backlash. Editors will then scramble to find someone authoritative to say there’s no evidence of this.

If anything, though, the resulting defensive responses tend only to increase the sense that there’s a problem here. Take, for instance, comedian Russell Kane’s response to Maureen Lipman: “I don’t think anyone is saying you can’t be offended, nobody is saying that, what we’re saying is you can’t use hate speech that would prompt a gender-related crime, a sex-related crime or a race-related crime.” Phew — that’s a relief! What this answer obviously ignores is that in the feverish imaginations of many, the bar for what’s considered likely to prompt a crime is getting lower every day.

Or take this Guardian op-ed from last year by comedy commentator Rachel Aroesti. With perhaps telling overkill, Aroesti writes off each and every concern about comedy cancel culture as “scaremongering about progressive politics”, “nonsense”, and (of course) “an absurdist joke”. In prosecuting her argument, she points out, accurately, that the careers of some high-profile comedians — Jimmy Carr, say, or Chappelle again — have been boosted from scandals surrounding their routines. Differently rendered, the very same evidence might have been used to provide comfort and reassurance to would-be shock merchants, along the lines of: Dear comedians, there’s no evidence your career will suffer if you are disgustingly obnoxious on stage. So relax, get back out there, and start making no-holds-barred jokes about transmen and Roma people once more!

Probably unsurprisingly, though, that’s not how the piece reads. Even as Aroesti insists that cancel culture doesn’t affect people’s ability to make jokes that refer to minorities, her evident disapproval for the sort of person that would do this undermines her point. An accompanying eyeroll seems to say: no, of course you haven’t been cancelled, idiots — but you probably should be. This eyeroll can be sensed, too, in an exceptionally moralistic review of Catherine Tate’s body of work, written by Aroesti last month, which stops just short of calling Tate’s material “racist and homophobic” — but only just.

The real reason that the careers of comics like Carr, Rock, and Chappelle continue to flourish in spite of, or even because of, their deliberate minority-baiting, is that, in going as far as they gleefully do, they signal that there is little real point in coming after them. Unlike cancellers on the Right, who are mostly interested in targeting the opposition, cancellers on the Left tend to go for those they think are likely to be psychologically susceptible to their criticism.

For the purposes of speech control, a good target is someone who is likely to care about being called a “misogynist”, “racist” or “transphobe” by fellow tribe-members. And it’s even better if the transgression in question has the air of an inadvertent slip-up — because in that case you’re more likely to be able to extract an abject apology from the perpetrator, simply by pointing out that offence has been caused. Comedians who stoke outrage in front of millions don’t exactly scream potential in this respect. There’s nothing that says resilience to progressive guilt trips like deliberately savage jokes on stage about vulnerable groups.

What this suggests is that the comedians most at risk of the effects of cancellation are not the big names building their brands by pushing the limits of taste and decency. Rather, it’s the more strait-laced and less confrontational ones, sticking mainly to whimsical observation but with occasional tentative forays into edginess, who are most in danger — those from whom routines that inadvertently hit a cultural nerve would stand out far more vividly.

It’s a strange world where Catherine Tate is more likely to be criticised for the supposed immorality of her comic choices than, say, Jerry Sadowitz — described with admiration by the Guardian in 2017 as the “twisted granddaddy of abusive comedy”. But I think it’s probably the world we live in. (To be clear — as far as I’m concerned, the answer here is not to level things out by going after Sadowitz, too.)

In effect, the progressive Left has moralised huge swathes of communication, both within comedy and beyond it. Any utterance that involves a reference to a minority tends to be sliced from its surrounding context. The intentions or character of its owner are ignored. The implication is reduced to the version that the most sensitive representative of that particular minority might choose to hear, and then connected in full, psychic technicolour with hideous potential repercussions for that often completely imaginary person.

You can see this in Kane’s response to Maureen Lipman, and you can also see it in Aroesti’s review of Catherine Tate, in which the supposedly “racist and homophobic” material she mentions turns out to have come from the mouth of Tate’s Nan character — surely an important difference. Perversely, the best way for a comedian to circumvent these censorious effects seems to be to boldly march up to statements that might genuinely stoke up bad feeling against a group and then spit them out in your own voice, smirking knowingly as you do it.

Like many other parts of culture then, comedy is polarised. If you’re a comedian, you now have one of two choices: either avoid controversy like the plague or run happily towards it. There’s not much in between, and comedy has lost some of its richness because of it.

But there is another loss here too, and it’s a loss to the political culture of the Left. For as the progressive wing has embraced the ever-evolving permutations of identity politics so enthusiastically, it has also — and probably non-coincidentally — made it impossible for anyone on its own side to laugh at these permutations, or at identity politics generally. In the reductive algebra of progressive offence-seekers, mocking identity politics is equated with mocking minorities. Of course, all politics is tribal, and no political party or movement, Right or Left, can easily tolerate mockery, especially from within its own ranks. But this is not just an understandable dislike of being laughed at by those on the same side as oneself. It is a positive taboo against it, with all the enforcing of speech codes, wilfully reductive misunderstandings, and attempted humiliation of miscreants that this implies.

And yet there is so much to laugh at! Last week alone gave us the Head of Trans Inclusion at Stonewall, on a hefty salary to oversee Stonewall’s many trans-related programmes, asking to be accompanied by a support worker, his mother, and a support dog during cross-questioning at Allison Bailey’s employment tribunal. (The judge instructed him not to discuss the case with his mother during a break; whether he was allowed to discuss it with the dog wasn’t mentioned).

We also were treated to the spectacle of 61 mainly Labour MPs, holding placards at the behest of nameless LGBTQ+ campaigners, and passing on the bonkers message to the general public that confused adolescents shouldn’t be given any therapy in their hasty rush to get rid of various body parts. Brass Eye’s Chris Morris — famous for getting celebrities to unwittingly humiliate themselves on camera in the name of various confected moral panics — couldn’t have done any better if he’d tried.

Lots of people on the Left want to mock events like these — they are, after all, preposterous. But they also know that the pinched-mouthed censors on their own side would reduce any attempts at humour to, at best, unkindness, and, at worst, hatred towards trans people. The same goes with relevant adjustments for any mockery of BLM, or indeed of any activist movement claiming to speak on behalf of a minority. And this needlessly forces those uncomfortable with the simplistic logic of identity politics to pick a side.

Those with enough rebellious spirit will eventually seek to break free from their suffocatingly humourless companions, making the Left less diverse and less robust. Worse than that, freed from exposure to that particularly bracing form of critique that is trenchant piss-taking from people whose opinions you care about, the Left’s representatives are likely to carry on doing ridiculous things in public, to the befuddlement of the voter. Until progressives are better able to take a joke — or even to understand one — I predict that Labour will give us lots more to laugh at in the next few years. And the amusement will all be that of the Tories.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.