Comedians aren't constrained by cancel culture; they are freer today than ever

Originally published at: Comedians aren't constrained by cancel culture; they are freer today than ever | Boing Boing


For most of the 20th century, politics were taboo, religion was taboo, sexuality was taboo, and certainly on television, swear words were taboo.

Last night, I watched the 1968 pilot for “All in the Family” [FB link], which was originally called “Justice for All”. Norman Lear made sure to break every single one of those taboos for primetime TV with extended riffs (the swear word was “god damn”, and it is strangely jarring to hear it in the context of a pre-1990s sitcom).

I’m sure the Birchers immediately expressed their outrage, just as other Koch-funded groups would today.


Regarding the video, Burt Lancaster seems to have been a solid person; a regular voice of reason. This is made so much clearer when he is presented in juxtaposition to the Immoral Majority.


And that’s true- If you made it today, people would watch it and say “Hey, you’ve ripped us off, this is Blazing Saddles- I’ve seen this”.


Many people don’t realize that all contemporary stand-up comedy can trace its roots to minstrel shows.

Whenever I hear a comedian complain about not being able to tell certain jokes anymore I picture Krusty the Clown doing the “me so solly!” bit to an audience that has been shocked and appalled into silence.


If you were to make Blazing Saddles today, or more to the point, something that tonally and thematically feels like Blazing Saddles but focuses on the concerns and experiences of people today, you’d get something very much like Sorry to Bother You.

But to the main topic: society always exists in tension with its own norms. Comedy, by its very nature, will explore the boundaries of those norms, frequently by transgressing them.

Even simple, seemingly uncontroversial comedy will do this- look at Mr. Bean. The entire joke of Mr. Bean is that when a social norm is an obstacle to his desire, Mr. Bean will betray that norm to get what he wants (and frequently is punished for his defection, but not always). Or go back to the Simpsons, which was controversial when it launched (though that seems absurd now), but was built on the same core idea: there are norms of behavior we’ve been trained to expect from family sitcoms and animated television, and the Simpsons violated those norms. (See also: South Park, Married With Children).

But the problem with violating norms is that society maintains stability by enforcing norms. Hence Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor getting arrested for telling jokes that violate those norms. Hence so-called “cancel culture”.

There are social benefits to violating norms, though there’s no inherent good in violating norms. The benefits are that they demonstrate where the norms are, validate the norms against expected behavior. But many norms exist for a reason, and transgressing them may be entertaining but also harmful.

On the flip side, there’s also no inherent good in enforcing social norms. Many social norms are toxic or harmful, traditions maintained without examination. At one point, making racist and sexist jokes was itself an expression of social norms- a minstrel show was establishing what the norm of race relations was envisioned to be by a privileged class.

Which means that any conversation like this is going to be a negotiation. So-called “cancel culture” is part of that negotiation- at its core, “cancel culture” is attempting to set a norm of mutual respect among all parties. Making transphobic jokes or misogynist jokes results in a backlash because we want there to be a social norm where people aren’t disrespected based on gender identity. As a general rule, I think that’s a pretty good social norm. See also homophobic and racist jokes getting backlash.

On the flip side, people getting arrested for using “fuck” seems like a pretty bad social norm to enforce.

In any case, the real core behind this isn’t that “you can’t say anything anymore,” it’s that “you can’t say anything without other people also saying things, because we live in a world where everyone has a megaphone”.


And of course the boundaries of social norms shift over time which means that a joke which cleverly skewered the social norms of a generation ago may feel hopelessly dated and cringey today.

That’s why comedy tends to have a pretty short half-life compared to other forms of expression. It’s an adapt-or-die kind of game.


Stan Freberg’s take on network censors is still relevant today… I hereby present his take on “Old Man River” aka “Elderly Man River”


The weird part of this to me is you couldn’t make “Blazing Saddles” then either. Admittedly, the reason was different then (farting v. language) but it still shouldn’t have been made.

Mel Brooks has this weird super power where he can get films made that nobody else could – silent films in the 70s, black and white films, etc.

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That video is an amazing historic relic, by the way. It shows the real beginning for Falwell and Roberts and the other smarmy televangelists who have dominated our culture wars for a good part of the last fifty years, only succumbing in the last decade to the internet false-faith warriors turned politicians. But the base they created remains active and just as gullible as ever.

EDIT: and watching it is like watching our current environment playing out, with all the same book bannings and attacks on teachers and public schools. It’s ridiculous seeing we’ve made so little progress in stopping these radicals.


And many of today’s comedians seem totally unable to adapt, so they get all pissy and start complaining how ‘unfair’ the difficult profession they chose is.


I’ve done standup in character as Poggio Bracciolini. He was a real historical figure, worked in the secular government of the Catholic Church in the 15th century. He wrote one of the first joke books printed in Europe.

There are a lot of jokes that feel somewhat familiar- like there are a lot of redneck jokes (translated as “rurals” in the translation I found). There are a lot of jokes that pick on Naples or Venice. A huge number of jokes about the hypocrisy and stupidity of people working in the Church. Very much a “my co-workers are so dumb. ‘how dumb are they?’” type routine.

There’s an interesting specific class of joke, though, that’s worth noting. There’s a whole genre of “women are horny” jokes. In the 15th century, this was a misogynist trope, rooted in a mix of religion (women are more prone to sin, see: Eve), and the theory of the humors (women are naturally “colder”, they crave the heat from men, giving them your semen will raise their temperature and lower yours, eventually turning you feminine if you fuck too much- seriously batshit philosophy, but there we are).

But what’s interesting about those jokes is that, in 2023, they feel surprisingly modern. Almost more a bit of naughty fun, clever stories about women playing tricks to get what they want in bed. The context shift has, weirdly, redeemed these jokes.

(There’s also a bunch of more rape-y ones about clerics playing tricks on women to bed them, which are a lot less fun and don’t age well)


Oh, and just a few examples, because hey, I’ve done so much research I should share some jokes.

A priest was giving a sermon to his congregation, warning them of carnality and giving into lust. “There are some towns,” he said, “where they are so depraved that they place a pillow under the woman’s buttocks to increase the pleasure from sex!” “That’s horrible,” the congregation agreed. “How big a pillow?”

Late at night, a young woman was in labor with her first child. The midwife hastened to her bedside, and quickly grabbed a candle to see the progress of the birth. “Don’t forget to check the other side,” the young woman told her, “for my husband sometimes goes by that passage.”

A nobleman decided to take a tour of his holdings, and interview the rustics that worked his fields. “You there,” he asked one. “What would you say the busiest time of year for a farmer is?” “Oh, the summer, certainly!” “The summer!? But the planting is done, the harvest is a long way off, what could possibly keep you so busy?” “Yes, well, that’s the season where we must not only attend to the needs of our wives, but yours as well.”


Kliph Nesteroff! I haven’t heard of him in years! He used to do the most amazing (and long) obscure comedy history posts on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog. I think that blog has been defunct for about ten years.


Made me think of this from Mel Brooks:

“I’d learned one very simple trick: say yes. Simply say yes. Like Joseph E. Levine, on ‘The Producers,’ said, ‘The curly-haired guy—he’s funny looking. Fire him.’ He wanted me to fire Gene Wilder. And I said, ‘Yes, he’s gone. I’m firing him.’ I never did. But he forgot.”


Well now, this is awkward…

:eyes: that last one :fire:

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To add to this, how many white male comedians were getting arrested even then, as opposed to Black and Jewish (which at the time was very much not considered white)?


Do you have any footage of these performances? Sounds amazing.

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