Who are these comedians getting cancelled? | ...and what is it they can't say, asks Robin Ince

Who are these comedians getting cancelled?

...and what is it they can't say, asks Robin Ince

One of the great tricks of the powerful is to hold all the power while also playing the part of the oppressed.

I think it was the great political writer Hugo Young who pointed out that Margaret Thatcher had a knack of standing at the despatch box when she was Prime Minister in a manner that made her look like a powerless little battler, as opposed to the most powerful person in the country shutting the pits and creating mass unemployment with wrong-headed economic policies (though not necessarily wrong-headed for a small number of people who grew very wealthy).

When you are making people’s lives worse, it is useful to make up a bogeyman to wage war against. In the latter half of the 20th century, Republicans and Conservatives learned how to successfully distract the public from issues that might really concern them, including poverty, fewer rights, longer hours for less or inaccessible health care, but making them more scared that their child would be taught to be gay or that the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe would be coming to their town with a bullwhip up his bottom.

Oh, and have you heard they’ve banned black bin liners because they are racist?

Journalists used to have to scour through the minutes of every local council so that they could find a single sentence that could be strung out for months of outrage, now they can just scroll through social media.

In his essay, Hit And Myth, Julian Petley chronicled some of the most notorious headlines that might distract you from a government that may well be reducing your living standards and your opportunities.

The most outrageous figures were, unsurprisingly black. People like Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott as well as the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. A piece in The Sun newspaper of 1987 about him was headlined, ‘Would You Let This Man Near Your Daughter?’

Headline from the Sun Would You Let This Man Near Your Daughter

According to the Mail on Sunday in 1986, ‘black bin liners have been banned at Bernie Grant’s let wing Haringey council because they are "racially offensive"’ . Petley traces the whole story back to a joke by a park-keeper that was misunderstood. Most importantly, the bin liners at Haringey remained black. The essay is filled with stories that melt in the air with the slightest investigation but which were robust pieces of anti left propaganda in the late 1980s. It is easier to be outraged than curious.

The cover of the first edition of Culture Wars: The Media And The British Left shows a cartoon where a beleaguered Neil Kinnock has a terrifying  line of leering troops behind him, beaming with evil eyes, hammers and sickles, and sometimes dreadlocks. They are labeled ‘lesbian power’, ‘council power’, ‘gay power’, ‘Aids power’ and ‘anti-racist power.’

For more than 25 years, I have been reading columns by outraged straight white males saying that their life would be better if they were a one-legged, black lesbian despite very little evidence that the dominant force in public life is one legged black lesbians.

If you have a zero hours contract, it was probably all that lesbian power in the 1980s that caused that.If you town no longer has any industry, it was probably anti racist power that took that, and so on.

Terry Sanderson’s Mediawatch is a well-researched and deeply disturbing dissection of homosexuality in the British news media. He quotes Richard Ingrams writing in The Observer about a documentary on euthanasia: ‘If I am right, it looks horribly as if euthanasia has now joined abortion, gay rights, doing away with nuclear energy and saving whales as something we all have to be in favour of.’

You didn’t have to scrutinise much of the media to see that you could still be taking home a healthy salary railing against gay rights, environmentalism and for nuclear energy to see that this societal oppression was an apparition. As we are seeing now, with all those furiously fighting the anti-woke, this battle is actually about saying that any voice of dissension to the status quo is a voice too many. The cry of oppression comes at the first sign of criticism.

I now see comedians helping to elevate the culture wars and cry that they are fearful and silenced

Some comedians who rail against the woke felt it necessary to set up a special safe space comedy club where they could safely rail against safe spaces without fear of the the wrath of the woke. At the first sign of upsetting a teenage vegan, some comics are quick to imagine they are Lenny Bruce.

Firstly, I accept that social media has made things trickier.

Comedy often causes the most outrage when removed from context. I tweeted what I thought was a funny cartoon about herd immunity last week, but I was then told it was fatphobic.

I think cartoonists deal in grotesques and reckoned that was a bit of a nonsensical reaction, but social media is watched by lots of people who don’t know me and people can see with many subjective eyes. I thought about it for a while, then just took it down. It really was no deprivation for me, nor did I think that my god-given right to distribute cartoons on my social media feed had been severely harmed.

It didn’t bother me that much. It made me think. It was not a moment of Stalinist jackboot oppression to me. This is roughly how I feel about jokes in stand-up. If it is a routine that I can comfortably argue with myself is justified and worth the possible collateral damage, I will keep doing it. They are words that mean something and I believe have a point, other jokes don’t feel important enough to fight over so I might as well get off my lazy arse and think of another.

This weekend, I read a piece that said that the ‘woke agenda’ (minutes posted every Tuesday) was destroying comedy. Apparently, comedians are scared to say anything for fear of cancellation.  I don’t know who these comedians are and I don’t know what they are too scared to say.

When talking to people who say they are angry they can’t hear jokes about the old topics nowadays, I will ask what jokes they are missing. I asked one man and, after some time, he said that he was angry that you couldn’t make jokes about ‘the truth or the disabled’. He was unable to tell me which joke about ‘the disabled’ he missed most.

The special club set up for comedians to feel that they can say anything they want seems to be a bit of a distraction that I believe is based on a falsehood.

The only clubs I remember that were prescriptive in terms of content were those in the big Jongleurs chain which would give comics reports on what they had done. This was nothing to do with politics, merely with commerce.

One friend was told off for doing new material, another was advised to stop doing jokes about cancer, they were funny but they might upset people. The clubs I know have never had written rules of what you could talk about though obviously promoters may have a preference for comedians whose material they like. Many promoters just cared about whether the comic got laughs or not, the material was irrelevant unless they had to deal with complaints, and even then they would often side with the comedian, from my experience.

To claim you are being silenced when you are still in full voice seems to be a dangerous game to play.

In one of the conversations I saw this weekend, one comedian said that ‘loads of comedians have been cancelled’. I asked if they could enlarge on this, but nothing more was heard.

In started another strand yesterday and there were a few answers – Michael Richards (15 years ago now), Dapper Laughs and Kevin Hart being pulled from the Oscars. Recently, Hart said: ‘With the whole Oscars thing, there was a big gap between what I thought the problem was versus what the problem really was. I got ten years where I made sure not to joke or play in the way that I did back then because it was a problem. I don’t care if you’re gay or not gay. I’m a people person. I’m going to love you regardless.’

I am not keen on judging people on old social media updates, but Hart now seems to believe he could have handled the whole situation better.

One of the problems is that social media is a very hasty place, we type as if talking but we are read as if published. When we are criticised or attacked, the first reaction is normally to be outraged and to feel misunderstood and hard done by, it is unlikely that our mind kicks in immediately with: ‘Now let’s have a look at where I might have gone wrong.’

Other comments included the idea that if you don’t support Jeremy Corbyn still, you will be drummed out of comedy club. Firstly, look at the comedy you see on television, is it really a seething hot bed of Leninists?

‘Oh no, look at what Michael McIntyre has done on Saturday night, the big prize is handing the means of production to the proletariat!’

This ‘all comics are Commies’ notion is much like the culture secretary complaining the BBC aren’t doing enough to herald British values. You only have to open the Radio Times or even go so far as to switch on your television to see that the BBC is utterly packed with deeply British programmes, it’s like a magic eye picture of Constable’s The Haywain. Like Richard Ingrams’ comment on euthanasia, what it really seems to be is a statement that any representation is too much. One 45 minute documentary about Greta Thunberg at 11pm becomes ‘…and I mean nowadays all the BBC is documentaries about Greta Thunberg’.

My predominant worry is not that I will lose the right to do my waffley bollocks stand-up, but that by jumping on an illusory bandwagon, based on the idea that the most powerful people in the world are all these woke people who, for some reason, aren’t actually in power, we help stoke a very useful concealing conflagration for a regressive and inept government that actually ARE  in power….

I may be talking about such things at The Linda Smith Lecture in November. 

• This article first appeared in Robin’s blog on the Cosmic Shambles website.

Published: 25 May 2021

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