The controversy surrounding cancel culture in comedy is going nowhere. The latest example? Netflix has released a comedy special by Ricky Gervais, titled SuperNature, in which the comedian makes a series of transphobic jokes.
In the special, which is currently one of Netflix’s most viewed shows in the UK, Gervais says, “I love the new women. They’re great, aren’t they? The new ones we’ve been seeing lately. The ones with beards and cocks. They’re as good as gold, I love them.”
He adds, “Now the old-fashioned ones say, ‘Oh, they want to use our toilets.’ ‘Why shouldn’t they use your toilets?’ ‘For ladies!’ ‘They are ladies — look at their pronouns! What about this person isn’t a lady?’ ‘Well, his penis’.”
As if anticipating the backlash to these “jokes,” Gervais noted at the end of his set, “I think that’s what comedy is for, really – to get us through stuff, and I deal in taboo subjects because I want to take the audience to a place it hasn’t been before, even for a split second,” he added. “Most offence comes from when people mistake the subject of a joke with the actual target.”
Understandably, many people have expressed their hurt and disappointment with Netflix. One person tweeted, “In honour of Ricky Gervais and his 2-4-1 rant on trans people and cancel culture, I am in fact, cancelling. Thanks @netflix #TransRightsAreHumanRights.”
The idea of cancel culture seems to have a hold on many comedians, with the suggestion that woke millennials can’t take a joke and are over-sensitive, creating concern that we won’t be able to laugh at anything anymore.
After Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, The Closer made a series of jokes at transgender people’s’ expense, the comedian was greeted with rapturous applause at a subsequent sold-out show at L.A.’s iconic Hollywood Bowl, attended by the likes of Brad Pitt, Tiffany Haddish, and Sterling K. Brown. “If this is what being canceled is like, I love it,” noted Chappelle in response to the standing ovation (via The Hollywood Reporter).
Since June 2020, The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen were removed from Netflix for their use of blackface, Shane Dawson was been called out for sexualising Willow Smith (who was then 11 years old), and Jenna Marbles left YouTube after wearing blackface and impersonating Nicki Minaj. We could go on. While many people celebrated these developments, equal numbers were outraged, making the familiar arguments that people make mistakes, PC killjoys are ruining all their fun, and that cancel culture is ruining people’s careers (may we direct you to thee above paragraph about Dave Chappelle).
But, if your comedy is only funny because it offends, then is it really that funny? Comedy is about pushing boundaries, challenging the status quo, and getting people to laugh at themselves – this isn’t mutually exclusive with offending, and for too long it’s been seen as the same thing. There are plenty of talented, hysterically funny comedians who create work that isn’t centred on marginalising the already marginalised, or laughing at anyone they see as ‘other’.