Who's laughing now? Cancel culture is killing comedy

17 November 2020

2:17 AM

17 November 2020

2:17 AM

The BBC and Channel 4 are self-censoring their comedy output because they are so terrified of offending people. So says Jimmy Mulville, the producer of Have I Got News For You, who claims ‘cancel culture’ has resulted in a fearful atmosphere in these institutions:

‘People who cause offence now can be cancelled. And the BBC are worried about it. I know that Channel 4 is worried about it, they’re all worried about it. I’m not blaming them, it’s the culture in which we live.’

This is becoming a familiar complaint. Comedian Dawn French recently bemoaned how censoriousness and offence-seeking was suffocating comedy. She said it was increasingly impossible to make risky, naughty or transgressive humour because you ‘have so many haters on your back and I don’t know how we explore it anymore.’

Such ban-happy culture has become a monster this year, with its confined and bored keyboard warriors more active than ever. No wonder French and Mulville feel prompted to speak out. The compulsion to censure and censor is having a tangible effect on comedy. The episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil mentions the Germans was removed from UKTV, before being reinstated with an ‘offensive content and language’ warning. Till Death Do Us Part has been omitted from the list of archive shows on Britbox, with unease about Alf Garnett’s racism and fears that viewers might sympathise with his prejudices.

Mulville says only a ‘half-wit’ would object to racism in Fawlty Towers, yet ‘no network on earth would have the courage’ to commission Till Death Us Do Part today. He’s right, of course. One can imagine the indignant cacophony that would greet Alf Garnett’s opinions were they aired afresh.

This is because woke culture is deadly serious, and extremely literal-minded. While it deplores people deploying offensive language as a means of expressing prejudice, it also decries people even using offensive language to describe or even denounce racism. No wonder Sacha Baron-Cohen has shifted emphasis from expressing mindless misogyny and homophobia through the mouth of his moron character, Ali G. In his place is Borat, whose latest film is effectively a send-up of America’s white working-class.

The big problem shared by those who find offence in comedy is a failure to distinguish between ‘laughing at’ and ‘laughing with’. Most people who have found Sacha Baron-Cohen’s grotesque creations funny are not prejudiced against black people or Asians (one theory is that owing to his first name, ‘Ali G’ was an Asian, not a white person, who imagined himself to be black), or indeed against anyone from Kazakhstan.

The same goes for the Major’s old-fashioned racism in Fawlty Towers, which the viewer in the late-1970s understood to be unacceptable because even the socially inept Basil Fawlty finds it embarrassing. And though some people did indeed agree with Alf Garnett, much to the life-long despair of the actor Warren Mitchell, most people got the joke that he was a terrible racist bigot and political dinosaur. He was the butt of the joke not an object of affection.

We tacitly accept today that being emotionally, potentially hurt by something is a legitimate reason for banning it. Yet this is bizarre logic. As Mulville said:

‘When someone is offended, all they’re telling you is they’re offended. There is no wider truth. It’s a subjective response to something.’

So why are the BBC and Channel 4 running scared now? It’s because those who seek to ban things are often very effective in persuading and coercing people into falling in line. To question whether it’s really right to cancel something offensive is to become part of the problem, a sign of denial, resistance and inherent prejudice. Add to this peer pressure, conformism and an attention-seeking impulse – attributes which tend to afflict young, censorious types – and you have a toxic cocktail. As Mulville concludes:

‘You get these idiots on Twitter who are obviously wanting to be seen and heard in a very inordinate way and want, to use this expression, to ‘cancel’ people. If you think about that, that’s totalitarianism.’ 

Indeed so.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)

Show comments