Cancel culture vs free speech? It's nothing new | Archives show just how long comedy has been at the centre of this battle © Bermix Studio/Unsplash

Cancel culture vs free speech? It's nothing new

Archives show just how long comedy has been at the centre of this battle

The tension between ‘cancel culture’ and freedom of speech seems like a very modern issue.

But comedians have longed complained about topics being deemed off-limits… while audience have for just as long taken issue with the content of jokes.

American entertainment historian Kliph Kesteroff – author of the definitive tome The Comedians – has recently been chronicling scores of examples examples on both sides of the debate through the decades on his Twitter feed

To modern ears, much of what was deemed offensive at the time would now be considered tame - such as mocking preachers or George Washington

But equally many of the topics that prompted comedians to grumble ‘you can’t joke about anything any more’, are at best dated and at worst horribly racist.

Press cuttings he has unearthed include:

  • A 1903 newspaper editorial warning that if racial and ethnic stereotypes were no longer acceptable on the stage - you could say ‘good-bye to comedy.’
  • A 1968 article asking whether ‘comedians [are] too bold or people too thin-skinned?’
  • An article by comedian George Gobel from 1957 complaining that ‘a TV comedian needs the soul of seismograph to know where the next rumble of public wrath is coming from. We have to be verbal tightrope walkers’
  • A comedian in 1954 lamenting the loss of blackface, complaining that minority groups were making ‘life rough for the comedian.’
  • A fictional story published in Variety in 1972 in which a comedy writer laments Women’s Lib activists will ‘boycott anyone who buys my next joke’ while his colleague complains he can’t do racial humour any more
  • An editorial from the same magazine from as long ago as 1945 that slated comedians for ‘being among the worst offenders against racial minorities… because so many are thoughtless of consequences’
  • Details of a 1950 TV debate in which Steve Allen and Mort Sahl - who died last week at the age of 94 - discussed ‘should there be any taboos for comedians?’
  • A 1958 article in which comedian Danny Thomas says audiences are ‘over-sensitive’ about his ‘dialect humour’, mocking the accents of non-white groups, and promising to double down on it
  • A 1952 editorial saying it’s not pressure groups that are to blame for comedy's problems...but hack comedians.

Kesteroff even unearthed a classified ad from 1952 in which a Hollywood writer offered comedians a collection of bad-taste jokes that would ‘get you canceled’.

Inspired by Kesteroff’s research, Chortle has uncovered an article from the UK from 1936 expressing very modern concerns.

The Guardian, then The Manchester Guardian, reported on protests to the BBC to end jokes about ‘commercial travellers’, which were usually heavy on innuendo.

Writer Ivor Brown said: ‘Whatever, for example, is mentioned by the speakers or the comedians of the BBC, somebody is certain to complain about its one and tendency and to demand that a heavy official foot be placed on such opinions or such levity.

‘That thousands or even millions should disagree with the… matter of BBC drollery is inevitable. But is there to be no tolerance for the talker, no licence for the clown, no freedom for the fool?’

He invented the pressure group Amalgamated Mother-in-Law, who he suggested could shut down music halls that caused offensce and added: ‘The fact of the matter is that it will soon be impossible to say anything about anybody in this country.

‘I am not saying that the clown is always correct or the comedian always comic… But this same jester is an embodiment of Free Speech, or what is left of it.’

Here are just some of Kesteroff’s original tweets:

Published: 1 Nov 2021

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