The comedy scene has never felt more divided: a vast chasm separates performers who believe comedy should be sensitive to the concerns of minority groups by ‘punching up, not punching down,’ and the more traditional comedians who believe that anything goes.
The debate grew more heated with the arrival of woke culture and cancel culture, both of which have justified criticism of performers for targeting minority groups by creating more platforms for discussions around appropriateness in comedy.
For many, this reality check on the sensitivity of the jokes made by some comedians is a positive thing - but others have seen this movement as an attack on free speech. These conversations have been exacerbated by the fallout from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Films and series like Fawlty Towers, Little Britain and Gone With The Wind were removed from streaming platforms – though some BAME people responded by saying energy should be expended on changing the way we create new comedy now, rather than tinkering with old shows.
The debate has been heightened further by plans for a Scottish Hate Crime Bill, which, if passed, would offer further protections to minority groups from language and actions deemed hateful in the eyes of the law. But again, critics including Rowan Atkinson feel the bill threatens free speech. Others say free speech has nothing to do with hate speech and that comedy shouldn’t be hateful anyway.
Of course, not all comedy will appeal to all audiences. But the cultural revolution going on around the platforming and celebrating of diverse voices means that jokes made years ago at the expense of disadvantaged people now feel seriously misjudged and outdated.
Moreover, these jokes just aren’t that funny, say comedians HuffPost UK spoke with, who shared their thoughts about the future of comedy...
“You have the freedom to say what you want to say, but that doesn’t mean you’re free from consequence.”
Bruce Tang, founder of Comediasians, the comedy-variety night featuring all Asian performers, a BBC Writers’ Room contributor and Do the Right Scene’s Special Delivery performer: “I’m bored of ‘offensive’ comedy - it’s lazy. Any idiot can use hate speech for the sake of shock, there’s no craft in that. When it comes down to it you have to ask - was that joke worth it? Was that contribution meaningful?
“You have the freedom to say what you want to say, but that doesn’t mean you’re free from consequence. As much as you have the right to say something, others have their right to react how they feel. If a well-constructed point is delivered in the right way, then any topic can be funny. What matters is if the audience understands the comedian’s point of view and their intention.
“There’s a misplaced pressure on comedy to be a bastion of free speech and intelligent debate, but comedy can be anything. My aim is to make comedy so intricately constructed and so mind-numbingly stupid that you’ve just got to laugh. Why waste time causing offence when you can be laughing at a frog singing show tunes instead?”
“The thing I love most about comedy is that laughter is self-policing. If it resonates, we laugh.”
Jordan Gray, Transaction, Comedy Central: “When did we start feeling naked without an opinion? Pick any cultural hot potato and the dialogue can be divided into four viewpoints: those who “agree”, “disagree”, “don’t care”… and the grossly underrepresented “don’t know yet”. There’s nothing ignorant about taking your time to gather your own thoughts on a divisive joke, term or turn-of-phrase.
“When in doubt, the thing I love most about comedy is that laughter is self-policing. If it resonates, we laugh. Strangely, some of us have become so detached from our physical squishy bits that we’re prepared to stifle a laugh in service of a stance. That’s like holding in a s*** in case somebody outs you for eating.
“Here comes the spanner. In modern comedy, there’s a phenomenon called “ironic bigotry” (where we’re laughing at the ignorance of the perpetrator over and above the bigotry itself). When utilised masterfully (Alan Partridge, David Brent) it can be incredibly unifying. Problem is, it does look very similar to *actual* bigotry. World-class stand-ups from Dave Chappelle to Al Murray have anecdotally suffered personal crises upon realising that they were sometimes getting the “wrong kind of laughs”.
“Let us never forget that opinions are like assholes: Always worth exploring.”
“If thoughts and opinions lead to the harm of discriminated groups, then something has gone wrong.”
Tai Campbell, BBC Comedy Writer’s Room winner: “All of a sudden I became a drug dealer. The comedian could have asked me about my achievements, failures or even my scruffy shoes like he did the white audience members but for him I was reduced to the thing he saw Black men as; worst of all some of the audience loved it. I imagine the throbbing power he must have felt putting a 6’ 1” Black man in his place, this isn’t new and it’s not old either.
“In an increasingly polarising time I can agree and disagree with both sides. Cancel culture can lead to the demonising of people for something small while anti-liberals gaslight and compound entire groups calling us snowflakes, forcing us to just ‘get over’ the trauma they will never experience.
“Freedom of speech means you can say what you want, it doesn’t mean you can say what you want without facing the consequences. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy candid insights into thoughts and opinions but if those thoughts and opinions lead to the harm of discriminated groups then something has gone wrong. If you can’t relate – congratulations! Now go learn some empathy and the difference between ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’.”
“Being a comedian is exactly to influence the feelings of the people, any people, that hear you. You can choose to use that influence for good – to entertain, to drive change – or for bad – to insult, to incite hate.”
Ginnia Cheng, So You Think You’re Funny semi-finalist, co-founder of sex-positive comedy collective Sex Standing Up: “Being from Hong Kong, where people are literally putting their lives on the line in the fight for free speech, I just roll my eyes at the debate over here as to whether hate speech laws will impede on comedy.
“I do believe people should be able to say what they want. But when it comes to comedy, if your first reaction to a law protecting against inciting hatred and violence is to claim that your rights to free speech as a comedian is at risk, is what you’re doing really comedy?
“You’re essentially arguing that your right to saying hateful rhetoric passed off as a joke is more important than someone’s right to not feel like they are going to get sexually assaulted, or attacked because of their race, or made to feel absolutely worthless, because of something you said.
“Comedians can’t argue that they’re not responsible for the feelings of every single person out there – being a comedian is exactly to influence the feelings of the people, any people, that hear you. You can choose to use that influence for good – to entertain, to drive change – or for bad – to insult, to incite hate. Choose wisely or you’ll probably end up on the wrong side of history!”
“Before the lockdown, the last evening I spent in a comedy club had jokes that ticked the boxes of misogyny, fat-shaming and homophobia.”
Athena Kugblenu, 10 Best Jokes, Edinburgh 2018, BBC Radio Four News Quiz writer: “What can I say about cancel culture in comedy that hasn’t already been said? It’s loud, judgemental people on social media. It’s unfunny comedians who’d rather be contrary than write a proper joke. It’s the death of free speech. Or it’s free speech in action. It doesn’t even exist; cancellation seems to lead to more social media followers, streaming deals and lucrative Patreons.
“Sometimes I think: ‘I wish I could get cancelled, it looks great’. It’s not true that there is a ‘woke brigade’ patrolling comedy. Before the lockdown, the last evening I spent in a comedy club had jokes that ticked the boxes of misogyny, fat-shaming and homophobia.
“Comedians telling these sort of jokes either aren’t listening to the jokes that are being told in comedy clubs, or they aren’t in the clubs in the first place because they are not being booked to perform. I hardly see any of these right wing comics in comedy clubs. They are on Twitter and putting out their podcasts, but I rarely see them on stage.
“It is true that there are audiences who are more demanding from the creatives they enjoy. They don’t want jokes that punch down. They don’t want jokes that further marginalise already marginalised people. They’d rather advocate for the people most harmed by society than laugh at them. That seems like a nice hill to park on. If not for you, fine. We’ve got a big section of the electorate that didn’t care about austerity, Windrush or selling the NHS. A bunch of people don’t care much for refugees either. So I don’t think you’re alone.”
“The real implication of freedom of speech is that you can say what you want without serious legal consequences - but there will still be social consequences.”
Stephanie Laing, Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year Finalist 2015: “Some people seem to think that the existence of woke culture means that freedom of speech is dying. They feel like you can’t say what you want anymore, and this must be dangerous for our freedom. However, the real implication of freedom of speech is just that you can say what you want without there being serious legal consequences. There will still be social consequences. If you use your freedom of speech to say things that are hurtful or victimising, then other people can use their freedom of speech to tell you to shut up and go away.
“If you say shitty things, then yes Twitter (which is a privately owned business) can make it so that you can’t say those shitty things on that website anymore. This isn’t you being ‘no-platformed’. The internet exists, it’s impossible to ‘no platform’ people. You can use another platform, set up a website, shout stuff in the street. You can use your freedom of speech to do all those things. But that doesn’t mean other people have to listen, or agree, or welcome you into their homes or businesses.”
“My rule is to never ‘punch down,’ never make the punch line about the victim of the injustice, instead ‘punch up.’”
Jon Pearson, Glee Club and The Comedy Store performer: “Being a stand-up comedian, free speech is our job. Good comedy can often tread close to the line of what could be deemed as offensive. However a well written routine, with plenty of thought and testing at new material nights, where it can fail and needs to be rewritten, can make the audience think about sensitive subjects in a different way.
“In its greatest form, comedy can change a person’s mind on certain topics. It should never cross over into hate speech; that is just a rally. Being woke will help you write and perform in a more rounded and educated fashion.
‘Woke culture’ as a term has started to be used in a negative way. How can it be wrong to be aware and actively attentive to social injustice or injustices involving race, gender or sexuality, to name a few? Doesn’t that just make you a more educated person? Yes, as comedians we can play on these subjects, poke fun at them - but knowing the subject inside out enables us to make those observations.
“My rule is to never ‘punch down,’ never make the punch line about the victim of the injustice, instead “punch up” and show how those injustices are wrong and how ridiculous they are.”