Take a joke: “edgy” comedy and consequences

Caption: Creative Commons

Basilia Weir

Three comedians were added to the cast of the enduring sketch show Saturday Night Live in September. One of them got fired before setting foot inside 30 Rock’s gilded doors.

Shane Gillis’ story is eerily familiar. Promptly after the comic was cast, his past came back to bite him. I say past – podcast episodes from the last year or so surfaced, replete with offensive jokes. In one of the episodes, he referred to Chinese people as “ch*nks” and followed up by later calling his humour “Nice racism. Good racism.” The public did not agree with that sentiment, however, and SNL quickly parted ways with the comic. What followed was outrage at the outrage. “Millennials!” “Cancel culture!” “Back in the 80s!” In essence, the defence of Gillis essentially boiled down to three arguments. Firstly, we all have a skeleton or two in the closet and these shouldn’t be held against us. Secondly, we – millennials – are ruining comedy because it’s about taking risks and pushing boundaries and we are preventing that by censoring people. This is integral to the third point: we’re too sensitive nowadays and this has led to a “cancel culture” run amok.

But, what if I told you that another of the three new SNL recruits is Chinese-American? Bowen Yang is the first Asian-American to ever join the show’s cast, despite going into its 45th season, in fact. Should he have to work long hours beside someone who was openly racist, not just towards the Asian community, but Chinese people in particular? I understand, to an extent, not holding someone’s past against them – especially if they have evidently evolved. However, I question whether the so- called “skeleton” in Gillis’ closet has been there long enough for the flesh of the matter to have completely decomposed.

To call him a “victim of cancel culture” implies it’s abnormal to be fired from your job for publicly spouting hate speech. And that’s what it is: hate speech. You can repackage it as edgy or irreverent humour but, in reality, a white man calling Chinese people “ch*nks” is racist, and it’s only funny if you are racist. Therefore, he wasn’t cancelled. He is facing consequences for his words, the way any person should. He does not fit the dictionary definition of “victim”, either. This controversy is most likely a net positive, for Gillis. Yes, he was fired from SNL, but this has given his name wider exposure, garnering support from those who like what he has to say. This support translates into album, merchandise, and ticket sales and on top of this literal profit, a bigger platform from which he can proliferate this type of insensitive humour.

He is profiting. The people being called racial slurs, on the other hand, are not. Seems rather egregious on the behalf of his defenders, therefore, to label this as cancel culture or call those upset, “too easily offended”. It seems, then, that this heinous cancel culture, supposedly brought on by thin- skinned millennials, is a myth, more or less. Where did this legend of censor-crazy snowflakes come from, though? 

The first clue comes from the people defending Mr Gillis. Or, rather, what they have in common: mostly white, mostly male, typically middle-aged. These same characteristics extend to the comedians whose specials are labelled “edgy” and “irreverent” on Netflix. Now, that’s not to say that this brand of insensitive comedy is limited to white people – have you seen Dave Chappelle’s last few specials? They’ve garnered criticism these other guys could only dream of; (oh, and I should also throw in a #notallwhitemen in order to avoid death threats in my DMs). It makes sense that white guys – Bill Burr, for example – and established comedians, like Chappelle, would perpetuate this idea of overly-sensitive, censor-mad culture.

For the best part of history, these voices have been the loudest in comedy. Now, things are changing. The genre is shifting towards a more diverse future – the homogeneous past but brighter future is seen through Bowen Yang’s unfortunately ground-breaking addition to SNL. This leads to the defensive, insensitive, “get off my lawn” comedy. Perhaps you’re worried that this new era of comedy will exclude you, so you decide to raise your middle finger against it, in advance. A literal and figurative upper hand.

In a 1990 interview, George Carlin summarised this perfectly. Comedians feel threatened because the status-quo is changing, so they push-down, go after the “underdogs”: women, immigrants and homosexuals. Fans unite in anger against these people, applauding the comic’s lack of political correctness. Cancel culture is the catchy, divisive name given to when the underdogs fight back; push-up. This rhetoric allows “edgy” comics to paint themselves as victims and any criticism as unjust. It unites their fans in anger again, inflamed at these supposed “snowflakes”.

These “irreverent” comedians aren’t being silenced. They can still speak. It’s just that people don’t have to listen. And if they do, they don’t have to stay silent when they disagree or feel hurt.


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