They can’t stop you reading this article, whoever they are | Cancel culture is what happens when people who think they have a sense of humour discover they don’t when the joke is at their expense, says Dave Cohen

They can’t stop you reading this article, whoever they are

Cancel culture is what happens when people who think they have a sense of humour discover they don’t when the joke is at their expense, says Dave Cohen

Exactly 40 years ago, in October 1983, I moved to London and began writing topical jokes and sketches for BBC radio.

I was having some success and after a few weeks wrote a sketch for a Radio 4 comedy show about an item in the news regarding the Archbishop of Canterbury. I handed it to the producer.

‘Nice sketch,’ she said, ‘but I’m afraid we can’t use it.’

She explained why. Anytime a comedy show features a joke about the Church of England, hundreds of people write angry letters to the producer complaining about it.

‘And because we’re the BBC I have to reply to every one of them.’

Therefore in 1983, you were not allowed to make jokes on the BBC about the Church of England. This was not some red-faced pundit whining on GB News about some ethnic minority he felt he was being barred from mocking: it was a factual statement from a specific producer who wouldn’t have enough hours in the day to deal with the fall-out.

There is never a shadowy elite pulling the strings behind the BBC puppets. Just a bunch of angry devotees who refuse to accept that a single penny of their licence fee should be used to make jokes about their deeply held beliefs.

Things have always been cancelled and they always will be. I’ve continued to write comedy in all that time and there’s never been an era where it hasn’t been the case.

Sometimes you weren’t even allowed to not make jokes about Christianity. There was a famous occasion in the early 2000s when a BBC sketch show featured an American General shouting ‘Jesus H. Christ’ that garnered 16 telephone calls to the BBC Complaints Desk. On the same night, for the first time in the history of BBC radio, the ‘c’ word was broadcast.

This was from an Ian McEwan work featured on Book at Bedtime. Number of complaints received for that? Zero.

I’d venture that nowadays you’re almost certainly ‘not allowed to say the "c" word on BBC radio in the current climate’ and I’d be surprised to find anyone who could put forward a convincing argument to explain why you could.

Which illustrates the main point about cancel culture: it moves on.

These days you can be as critical about the Church of England in your comedy as you like. Why? Because there are no longer enough angry, committed Christian letter writers to deluge some overworked young BBC producer with their complaints.

In the 1990s there was an unwritten rule that ‘you’re not allowed to make jokes about Muslims. Even Ben Elton complained about it.

This was because in 1989 one of the world’s most influential Muslim clerics declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Two years later one of Rushdie’s translators was murdered. While his literary pal McEwan was free to say the ultimate taboo word on BBC radio, Rushdie’s gentle satire of the faith of his upbringing earned him a religiously sanctioned death threat.

This, and the subsequent horrific murder of French cartoonists – yes, you could be murdered for making jokes about Islam - meant that while no one was explicitly saying ‘you’re not allowed to make jokes about Muslims,’ few in comedy felt terribly encouraged to do so.

In 2022 Rushdie was attacked and lost sight in one eye. 33 years on there are some who still believe that he should not be allowed to live.

You can, however, now make jokes about Muslims. One of the myriad Prime Ministers we’ve had this decade whose name currently escapes me made a joke about Muslim women and their burqas. Apart from one MP asking for an apology (and not getting one), the incident passed almost unnoticed.

Ten years ago a new group emerged who you could no longer joke about.

In 2013, a BBC radio comedy show I co-wrote about the rise of Ukip received, to my astonishment, 33 complaints. Getting over my initial surprise that at least 33 people had listened to the show, it sent a message to those BBC producers, already doing the jobs of two people thanks to government cuts, that a new bout of responding to angry listeners was set to make their office hours stretch even longer.

Once again there was no instruction from on high, no mighty faceless corporation instructing the minions to do the work of a shadowy elite. Just a bunch of overworked producers having to decide every week how much more hassle they had time to deal with over the usual stresses of making a topical show.

Incidentally a show from the same series we’d written five years earlier about Ukip in the Robert Kilroy Silk era passed with very few complaints. Another example of culture wars reflecting the times.

This isn't to deny the existence of powerful forces working to bring influence on the media. The Daily Mail is paying good money to a number of journalists whose job is to be across every area of BBC production in search of the everyday mistake or corporate slip of the tongue. You can't be a BBC producer of anything without being aware of the constant glare of the Rothermere Gaze.

It's never been a secret that the Israeli government has people listening out for criticisms of them on TV and radio. More recently a healthy fraction of the gazillions that Saudi Arabia is spending on Western sporting events is being used to purchase positive airtime that they're hoping will drown out the less favourable media coverage of their policies.

But again, there's no directive. As far as I can see at the BBC, the final decision rests with the producer. And judging by the enormous amount of coverage on BBC News earlier this year of the nightly Israeli protests against their government, Israel's hostile media policy isn't working right now.

The latest issue ‘you’re not allowed to make jokes about’ is the rights of trans people. The rules have changed though, thanks to social media. Every time Ricky Gervais has a new TV show to promote, the Netflix marketing department pick out his current joke about trans culture and run it in a loop on Twitter, Tik Tok and Instagram.

Instead of writing angry letters to Netflix like their Christian forefathers, his opponents show the clip themselves to illustrate what a bad person he is. This tells the algorithms – who are free to broadcast jokes about anything – to show it more.

The reason you are allowed to make jokes about trans people is because the people who would rather you didn’t are bringing them to the attention of loads more people, some of whom may find them funny.

Cancel culture is what happens when people who think they have a sense of humour discover they don’t when the joke is at their expense.

It wasn’t always like that. Throughout the 1980s and 90s we were allowed to make jokes about Tories at will, and I was lucky to make a decent living doing just that for Spitting Image. The more savage the better.

Despite our best intentions, and believe me we really hated that government, there were few complaints from the targets. I met enough Tories at the time whose attitude was "sure, joke about us as much as you like. At the end of the day, we’re still the ones in charge."

In the 2020s, jokes about the current government on the BBC are portrayed as elitist propaganda, and no reflection of the fact that this is the least popular government since records began.

Nobody likes to think of themselves as lacking a sense of humour. The aforementioned Prime Minister, the one before the one before the current one (at time of writing) built his career on an image of buffoonery.

His shtick was always ‘if you don’t find me funny you have no sense of humour’. This attitude changed as soon as he became the joke. He stamped his feet like an angry toddler.

The people who had loved him for his buffoonery deserted him. The ones who never found him funny (yes Dave, humourless pricks like me) were relieved he no longer had the power and our sense of humour returned.

Cancel culture exists. It’s cruel, because comedy is frequently cruel. Morecambe and Wise? You loved it when Eric slapped Ernie’s cheeks and joked about his short fat hairy legs. Monty Python dressing in women’s clothing – how funny do you find that now?

Don’t worry, six months from now there’ll be something new you can’t joke about and we’ll be free to laugh again at the things we’re currently keeping quiet about.

• Barry Goldman: The Wilderness Years, the new novel by David J Cohen about an aspiring stand-up comedian, is out on  November 23.

• He has also written The Gospel According to Barry:True Tales From the Comedy Coal Face, which is available free if you sign up to his mailing list as

Published: 16 Oct 2023

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.