Joe Lycett is so wrong about cancel culture

For every comedian who is publicly cancelled, a hundred more are quietly censoring themselves.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Topics Culture Free Speech UK

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In an interview last week with the disingenuously named LADbible, stand-up comic Joe Lycett answered a series of questions sent in by viewers. One of them concerned cancel culture, and whether it has had an effect on comedy.

‘I think that people are more thoughtful about what they write jokes about’, he said, carefully. ‘There are jokes I’ve done in the past I wouldn’t do now, and I think that’s a good thing’, he added. ‘It has probably made life difficult for people who just want to do lazy material, but I think really it’s made it a better industry and a more inclusive and interesting industry.’

The off-screen interviewer then asked whether audiences were on board with this. ‘Some audiences probably feel like they’ve been left behind’, Lycett admitted.

‘They used to enjoy the sort of stuff that might have happened in the past, and nobody’s really doing that anymore and their views aren’t represented. But I do think you can find that stuff… You just have to look around a bit more… If you’re looking for racist stuff you can find it, don’t you worry!’

Putting aside for one moment the bizarre notion that this interview, hosted as it was by a simpering giggling journalist laughing at Joe’s highly camp vacillations, has any place in a supposed bible for ‘lads’, I want to start by steel-manning this argument as much as possible.

Cancel culture has never been a very exact term and, for what it’s worth, I think it is more applicable, and more concerning, in fields such as academia, where your career prospects should have less to do with some casual remark you make at a conference or on X, than comedy, where being judged by what you say is pretty much baked in. The treatment of Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, who was hounded out of his university over a clumsy joke almost a decade ago, still has the ability to raise my blood temperature by double digits if I dwell on it too long. It actually annoys me far more than the cancellations of comedians like Jerry Sadowitz or Barry Humphries, who at least knew the power of words to offend.

Despite the periodic outrage over the latest Jimmy Carr Gypsy joke, very few British comedians have been fully cancelled for a bad joke. Andrew Lawrence lost a lot of work after some tweets about the England football side during Euro 2020. Graham Linehan lost virtually all his professional opportunities and connections over his commitment to challenging gender ideology. Daniel O’Reilly (aka Dapper Laughs) was expelled from TV for repeating a heckle about rape from an audience member. I regard these outcomes as deeply regrettable, certainly. But they are merely the tip of a much more troubling, submerged iceberg. What now goes smothered and unsaid on stage as a result of cancel culture is a far bigger worry.

If all that has happened, as Joe seems to be suggesting, is that comics now pause to wonder whether a joke is needlessly cruel towards a vulnerable group, would that necessarily be such a bad thing? Yes, I still think it would be. Although, of course, it is much worse than that.

How precisely cancel culture works to stifle comedy is complex. Yes, paying attention to evolving social norms is required if you want to succeed in stand-up, and always has been. But this needs to be a negotiation between the audience and the comedian. Between those present in the room. Cancel culture introduces a hypothetical offended third party into the equation. It leads to a lot of second-guessing.

Comedy is live ammunition – on that, Joe and I can probably agree – and risks are taken when using it. That’s what makes it fun. Some jokes are purely at one’s own expense, and some at the expense of the powerful and well protected – like the government, Bill Gates, cheese. But there are many good jokes that invite you to generalise a bit for them to work. That can become a bushfire, no doubt. Bill Burr has some fantastic routines about his girlfriend that are specifically about her. But they also invite you to regard all women as irredeemably stupid, all relationships as lies and doomed, and all the dice loaded against men. One hopes that most of his audience are able to detach these propositions from the jokes in due course, but his walking of this tightrope is what makes him, for me, perhaps the most exciting live stand-up of the past 10 years. The licence Burr takes does not come from nowhere. It comes from a tradition that he insists upon, but that is in danger of being lost – that the stage itself is a space licensed for offence.

The term ‘safe space’ is often rightly mocked. But I do think live comedy should be a space where the performer is safe. Not a space where the audience is safe from hearing the inconvenient, abrasive, disobliging truth. It should be a space safe to express oneself honestly, or even dishonestly, without fear of censure. To take a boo or even a bread roll, sure, but not to get home to find that your family is in hiding. A safe space in which to try and fail.

Stand-up comedy should be the opposite of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s struggle sessions. It should not be there to reinforce the views of the regime, Maaate…. It should be the purest snub to what CS Lewis branded the ‘omnipotent moral busybodies’ and the ‘tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims’. It should be the unwanted erection at the funeral, the giggles that get you expelled – not the reassured laugh of affirmation that gets you the pat on the back.

To do this, stand-up needs to be a different kind of safe space. Safe for creative purposes, to try ideas out, to philosophise with a hammer, to discover what one thinks by thinking aloud. And that bit goes for audiences too, before they have had a chance to run it past their own internal Minister for Wrongthink. They should also be able to relish the implicit threat, that we are handling volatile materials. That there might be an actual explosion any minute. Comedy is chemistry, not physics or biology, and the teacher has got his goggles on.

I don’t think many of us are mourning the past that Joe Lycett seems to hint at – of racist jokes, jokes about gay people, jokes that say rude words for effect. He’s right, you can still find them – Sophie Duker is a good place to start – but they are likely all a bit stale now, apart from anything else. What we are really worried about is the possibility that Chris Rock’s most famous routine would now be considered, on balance, a little bit… well, you know, really?

No. Never. I might be on the losing side for now, but the pendulum will swing back again. Until it does, if you want my microphone, you can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Free Speech UK


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