Updated: Sep 19, 2019
I think I’ve been wrong this whole time.
Well, why do they have to come for comedians? I was under the impression that we had established a social contract with regards to comedy. This person is going to go on stage and say some things. What they say, within that context, should not be taken seriously.
That’s a naive thing to assume when I reflect on it. First of all, probably 25% of people, maybe more, have no sense of humor. That isn’t intended as a personal attack. I have known these people, as I’m sure you have as well. Some of them are the kindest people! Genuinely good human beings. And they just don’t have a sense of humor, it’s fine. They don’t really understand when someone is joking.
The Humorless Ones
Being a comedian, I come across these people more than most simply because I try to engage with people comedically in the world. Wherever I see an opportunity, I will go into ‘comedy mode’ and try to banter with people. It’s rare that I find a good partner, but occasionally I do.
Far more often, people become perplexed. They cannot tell that I am being sarcastic or silly, and so they take what I am saying seriously. It creates discomfort at times. That’s a risk I’m willing to take, and sometimes that generates hilarious stories so it’s usually worth it.
The reason I bring this up is because, from my own research in the field (I use the term ‘research’ loosely), I have found that so frequently people don’t recognize a joke. Sometimes even if it’s obvious! So it goes without saying that people have an even harder time recognizing tongue-in-cheek comments. That’s the area where I operate. Tongue-in-cheek, and usually the offensive type. It’s a dangerous game!
That’s the first important thing to note, though. It is naive to think that people are all going to understand that what you are saying is a joke. There are times I am at comedy shows and people don’t understand. If there are people who go to comedy shows, knowing what they are getting themselves into, and they don’t understand that what they’re hearing isn't serious, how can I expect the general public to be any better? And I’m just creating the distinction because there are plenty of people who wouldn’t ever go to a comedy show. Those people are far less likely to have a sense of humor and are therefore less resilient to cancel culture.
Let me start by saying I really hate that term. However, it describes a particular type of comedian that needs to be mentioned. These people actually legitimize cancel culture to an extent. Or at the very least they certainly don’t do comics any favors.
‘Edgelords’ are comedians who go on stage with the sole intention of saying offensive things. The most offensive things possible. The way that most people use this word, it is synonymous with ‘unfunny’ but that is mistaken. Saying deeply offensive things can be hilarious, if done correctly.
Nonetheless, I’m going to largely concede this point to The Humorless Ones. I am someone who really enjoys offensive humor, but I have seen it go horribly wrong. For one thing, I’ve seen people misread rooms and bring out offensive material for a crowd that wants nothing to do with it. This creates an uncomfortable energy that can really negatively impact a show. (I have been that comic many times.)
That would be one example, where a funny person misreads a room and simply does the wrong material. The other example, which is worse, is when someone who isn’t funny does that same thing. These people are usually more offensive and less funny. Sometimes not funny at all. You generally won’t see them at comedy shows, but go to a few open mics and you’re sure to encounter one. I don’t appreciate these people. I feel that their aim is to upset the crowd, nothing more.
Further, these guys (it’s almost always a man) do themselves no favors in the performance of the material. They are not at all playful. Being playful allows you to get away with so much more. And if you aren’t going to be playful you should have a character that you are embodying. But these guys just say ridiculous things and then accuse the audience of being too sensitive. I say to you, Humorless Ones, this also bothers me. We are on the same page in that regard.
There is no greater disservice to a comedian who toes the line (or crosses it) than to write their words in an article.
This goes back to the performative aspect of offensive humor. If you simply read one of my jokes, you can’t see the big grin on my face that’s present when I perform it. That grin is sometimes the difference between the worst thing you’ve heard and the funniest thing.
In Bill Burr’s new special Paper Tiger he has a really great bit about this, I would recommend you go watch it. He’s talking about women flirting and how they’ll say “no...stop it…” in a playful way. Yet in a court proceeding, the lawyer will read it like “No. Stop it.” you know, in a serious way. Which totally changes the whole perception of what happened. Yes, I’m trying to write a joke out after saying it’s the worst thing to do. I never said I wasn’t a hypocrite!
This gives me an idea, though. I’m going to write out one of my offensive jokes below. A joke that I know will not translate well. I’ll make sure it’s a joke that’s actually funny. A joke that has worked plenty of times. And I’m just going to write it in paragraph form, and it will look really bad trust me. You might think I’m a sociopath. Or some of you will still think it’s funny and you are my favorite people.
“We have all of these weak men in society now. And I’m weak, like I could never win a fight. I used to be at the bottom of the male hierarchy. But at least I control my woman. I mean for Christ’s sake, how can you even call yourself a man? If you don’t have a handle on your woman? And there are men, I see them when I tell this joke. They look at their woman to see if it’s okay...if they can laugh. Well you need to get away from that tyrant. She will rule over you until you die. And you may say, “But Dave, I’m so weak, how could I possibly find a woman who’s weaker than me?” To that I would say: there are Muslim women.”
Alright look, that’s just an excerpt from a really long rant I have about weak men. And I’m telling you, that joke has a very good win-loss ratio. But look at all the potential headlines right there. Dave Namery says men need to “have a handle on their women” and insinuates that weak men should date Muslim women because they are submissive. Oh, here would be a good one: ‘Sexist Comedian Dave Namery Claims Being a Male Ally Makes You Weak in Islamophobic Rant.’
The reason I included that is just to show you how badly comedy can translate from the stage to its written form. I don’t even think the particular joke I told translates that badly, and it still makes me look like a bad person.
All I hope for anyone to take away from this section is if you see an article disparaging a comedian for using hateful language, you should be skeptical. It’s probably going to look a lot worse in that article than it actually was in person.
Very briefly I’ll touch on this topic. It is the most important right as far as I am concerned. Comedy is free speech in action; the comedian says what most people cannot say for one reason or another. People are able to live vicariously through the comedian in a way.
With that being said, I hate when people fear monger. It bothers me when I see headlines about how we only have 10 years before climate change kills us. They’ve said that since the 1970s. Those people are Death Singers and they are trying to profit off of fear since it’s so lucrative.
I think the Free Speech 'crisis' is mostly people overreacting. At least that’s the case in our country. If people start getting arrested over jokes, I will change my stance. Until then I feel that Free Speech is just fine and so I won’t try to claim that The Humorless Ones are infringing on my rights.
We are in the midst of this cancel culture where people and companies are getting backlash over major and minor offenses alike. When I first started seeing them going after comics, I found this very concerning and it really bothered me. I did a podcast (Story time with Dave: episode 101) about the Dave Chappelle fallout from his special. That pretty much explains where I was coming from.
What I realized in the last week or two, especially with the latest cancellation (Shane Gillis), is that the emotional reaction I was having toward all of this wasn’t the right reaction.
What’s bothering me, put broadly, is that comedians are saying things that people don’t like. Then, this small group of people, The Humorless Ones as I call them, react emotionally to the jokes. They are reacting so emotionally, in fact, that they hope these comedians will have their livelihoods taken away. In the most extreme cases, they never want certain comedians to perform again. So why would I take the opposite stance? I was behaving the same way as them, only the inverse. I wasn’t calling for their jobs, but I was criticizing their work and putting them down.
I am a comedian. I don’t want to adapt to the behavior of the mob. I want to maintain my individuality above all else. If they are viewing this as a culture war, I’m going to find a different way of looking at it.
I did not know who Shane Gillis was two weeks ago. Even when he got hired by SNL, I didn’t care because I don’t watch SNL. It was only after he got ‘canceled’ that I discovered some of his work. He has some hilarious sketches on YouTube and he is a real comedian, you can tell. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DECqrt9p5SA)
When I first started following Shane on Twitter, he had 10,000 followers. He is up to 23,000 now and it’s growing.
Maybe a month or two ago, Dina Hashem made that joke about XXXtentacles. She got ‘canceled’ by X’s fans. Within about a week or two she went from 10,000 instagram followers to 45,000.
Now look, I know that a person’s worth or talent shouldn’t be measured by followers. I’m not trying to do that here. But for comedians, social media following can provide real results. You can use that social media following to bring tons of new listeners to a podcast for example. With those listeners, you can approach advertisers and potentially monetize your podcast and make it a legitimate source of income.
The bottom line is, if you get canceled people know you. Your name will be trending, and for comedians the phrase “any press is good press” is probably more true than in most other cases since comedians are known to push the boundaries.
The Humorless Ones who lead the cancellation charge are not the people who go to comedy shows. Tickets will still sell. In fact, I bet they'll sell better. I never knew who Shane Gillis was. Now, I will gladly pay for a ticket to watch him perform comedy. I am sure there are many others who feel the same way.
I know that I left out a lot of potential arguments. These points in particular interested me. I am still sort of agnostic on whether or not cancel culture is good or bad for comedy. There are those who would say that it’s good because it makes comedy ‘evolve’ to become more ‘accepting’ and ‘inclusive’ and whatever other buzzwords you would like. I find that perspective laughable and so I didn’t want to write a bunch of really sarcastic paragraphs aimed at that stance. Perhaps another time.
It’s sad to see these comedians losing a lot of opportunities that they probably wanted for a long time. It's even worse to see comics, some of whom I really look up to, not being able to perform at all.
And then it’s also great to see some comics who are able to capitalize off of the outrage and make a career for themselves. What could be better than if we use this to our advantage? That seems like the comedian thing to do.
I would say I lean toward this being a good thing. If the Humorless Ones take it too far, the whole trend becomes absurd and their cause is ruined. As in, they will keep lowering the bar for what is offensive until the whole thing implodes. That’s what I think will happen in the end.
If they don’t take it further than this, and these cancellations still occur frequently, I think it’s a great opportunity for comedy. It’s a challenge to take the audience ‘there’, to that place The Humorless Ones want us to stay away from, and make it funny. That requires more creativity and a willingness to take risks, but the payoff is huge. And comedy is supposed to be about crossing the line. I think so at least...
I feel that, for comedians, the best thing we can do is to view cancellations as a badge of honor. The outrage mob is not a mob. It’s 27 journalists on twitter. There is no mob. There are no torches, no pitch forks. It’s all made up. People still love comedy, they understand comedy, and true fans of comedy will allow comedians to play around in those difficult areas. There are enough true fans of comedy to sustain the art form, so we will be okay.