Comedians must never apologize if comedy is to survive in the age of cancel culture
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
As America and the UK have devolved to become little more than a diabolically sensitive human resources department devoted to cancel culture, comedy has become a decidedly tricky proposition.
It is within this stifling comedy climate that the question has often been raised: Should a comedian ever apologize for offending someone?
None of the greats, such as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, have ever apologized.Also on rt.com ‘Star Wars’ actor who joined protests doesn’t care if it DESTROYS his career. But he forgot Hollywood only punishes the OTHER side
It would seem to me that if a comedian isn’t offending somebody, they probably aren’t doing it right, and being unapologetic about that is a basic requirement to achieve comedy greatness.
For instance, in a recent interview on the BBC, legendary Scottish comedian Billy Connolly weighed in on this topic with regards to his allegedly controversial anti-religious routines back in the 1970s. Connolly declared, “I refused to apologise, and I refuse to this day to apologise.”
In contrast, this week English comedian Leigh Francis and ‘Tonight Show’ host Jimmy Fallon both bent the knee and tearfully apologized for offending with past comedy bits.
Francis said sorry for having worn latex face masks to portray black celebrities like Michael Jackson, Craig David and Trisha Goddard back in 2002, while Fallon apologized for having worn blackface while imitating fellow comedian Chris Rock in a short skit on ‘Saturday Night Live’… TWENTY YEARS AGO.
One can think blackface is a bad idea while also being repulsed by Francis’ and Fallon’s performative groveling in order to desperately avoid being canceled by time-traveling PC police retroactively enforcing the woke doctrine of today on comedy routines of yesteryear.
Fallon’s apologizing is like a dog neutering itself, leaving it sans testicles and, although it still has teeth, consistently lacking the instinct to bite.
He has long been a comedy lapdog though, so it was no shock he put his tail between his legs and whimpered out a mea culpa for having made a mess on the comedy carpet twenty years ago.
Unlike the greats, who are fueled by a need to be respected, Fallon is desperate to be liked – a poison pill for any comedian. This overwhelming need to be liked is what compelled him not only to apologize, but to don blackface in the first place.
Another albatross around Fallon’s and other vulnerable comedians’ necks are the big corporate dollars to which they have become addicted.
In recent years TV hosts Bill Maher and Samantha Bee have also genuflected in apology to the cancel culture clan in the hope of avoiding financial decapitation at the hands of their corporate overlords.
Fallon, Maher and Bee kept their cushy jobs, but apologizing never guarantees that you avoid cancel culture’s axe.
For example, arguably the most successful comedian in the world right now, Kevin Hart, lost his gig hosting the 2018 Oscars even after he apologized for homophobic tweets he wrote back in 2009.
D-list hack Kathy Griffin apologized for the photo of her holding a bloody, decapitated Donald Trump head in 2017, but she still lost her job hosting CNN’s New Year’s Eve celebration.
Loss of integrity
For any comedian, apologizing is like committing seppuku; it may seem like an honorable thing to do, but it only ends with their integrity in a pool of blood and a knife sticking in the belly of their artistry.
The biggest reason not to apologize is that the apology strips the comedian of their edge, defiant power and artistic bravado, and only reinforces the conventions, norms, boundaries and limitations that comedians are supposed to be pushing back against.
The admission of error is a submission to the constrictions created by the perpetually indignant captains of cancel culture, and will inevitably lead to self-censorship and a stifling of the comedian’s creative impulse.Also on rt.com Libs celebrate K-pop fans for #WhiteLivesMatter trolling, but empty activism will not end racism
All is not lost, though. Just as the suffocating self-righteousness of cancel culture may snuff out the less hearty of comedic talent, it also makes for the perfect foil for those with the courage and skill to navigate the minefield.
For example, last year the PC police came for the scalp of Dave Chappelle after his controversial stand-up special ‘Sticks and Stones’ hit Netflix.
In the special, Chappelle insightfully eviscerates all sorts of woke dogma… and socially conscious critics loathed him for it, sticking the show with a 35 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences couldn’t get enough, though, and rated the show a blistering 99 percent.
Comedy unafraid to offend
Chappelle’s success is proof that intelligent and unapologetically cutting comedy that isn’t afraid to push, probe and offend is something audiences appreciate – even when the hypersensitive scolds don’t.
As evidenced by Chappelle’s and also Bill Burr’s recent successes at hysterically breaching the woke barricades in their Netflix specials, the more rigid the boundaries and delicate the sensibilities of a society, the more target-rich an environment it becomes for comedians with the talent and testicular fortitude to exploit it.
Unlike Chappelle, Burr and their great comedy forefathers, the apologetic comedian, like Fallon, is the comedian who gives audiences what they want instead of giving them all that they have, who gives rote answers instead of raising unruly questions, and who spoon-feeds audiences instead of challenging them.
The apologetic comedian is the worst thing any comedian can ever be: safe. And safe comedy is bad comedy.
As Ricky Gervais explained last year, “As a comedian you can’t please everyone. If you try you’ll end up pleasing no one and saying nothing.” Sounds like an apt description of the feckless Jimmy Fallon.
The bottom line is this: apologizing may make a comedian a good person, but it will also make them a very bad comedian.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.