When the Joke Goes Too Far: The Role of Cancel Culture in Comedy

Amelia Coleman, Staff Writer

Comedians have always used humor to bring up controversial subject matters. While it’s acceptable for them to make jokes about these matters when they’re drawing from their personal experiences, every so often a comedian will say something blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, or ableist, and try to pass it off as “dark comedy.” There is a clear line that divides being humorous and being inconsiderate. Being “funny” doesn’t make comedians exempt from the judgment of the masses; it just makes them insensitive to the very real struggles of minority communities.

For example, comedian Dave Chappelle’s most recent Netflix special, “The Closer,” has received backlash from critics and the LGBT+ community for including transphobic rhetoric. In the special, Chappelle stated that “gender is a fact” and that LGBT+ people are “too sensitive.” This resulted in internet backlash and even a protest outside of Netflix’s headquarters.

Comedians—and films in general—have been censoring certain topics for decades. For example, actors in the 1952 show “I Love Lucy” couldn’t say the word “pregnant” so they had to substitute words like “expecting” or other euphemisms. In 1963, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for using sexually explicit dialogue during performances that were labeled obscene and blasphemous. In contrast, modern-day comedians have more freedom to speak their minds than they ever had before. Some comedy shows nowadays have comedians discussing sex, drugs, mental health, and other topics that would have been considered taboo back in the ‘60s. 

The problem today is not that comedians are being censored, but that comedians believe their social commentary to be unbeholden to the standards we place on the rest of society. Comedians should refrain from making comments on stage that essentially diminish a specific marginalized group and make fun of them and their situations. Additionally, there’s a comedic axiom of punching up versus punching down. Comedians can “punch up,” or make fun of those with more influence or power, but should never “punch down,” or insult those with less privilege or authority. Acknowledging that your own power affects the delivery of the joke is crucial to creating a healthy and positive culture in comedy. These are basic guiding principles a comedian can take into account in order not to get “canceled” by social media.  

Comedians have a platform to speak their minds, and that platform can be used to talk about issues from people in marginalized groups and shed light on topics that are often difficult to discuss. Comedians can even make people who relate to them realize that there are people out there who share similar experiences to them. On the flip side, there are comedians who take advantage of their platform and use it to bully others. If comedians want to make the world of comedy more healthy towards people who don’t always get positively represented in the media in the first place, they should not make fun of them for simply being there, and let them have the spotlight to talk about their own issues.