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‘Canceled’ Comedians Are Still Sucking the Air Out of the Room

Have a handful of men really had their lives ‘destroyed’? On the contrary: ‘Cancel culture’ has given them a new way to band together

On September 12, Saturday Night Live announced three new cast members. There was Chloe Fineman, a gifted impressionist; Bowen Yang, a staff writer who will become the first Chinese-American regular in the series’ 45 seasons; and Shane Gillis, a podcaster and standup comedian who cut his teeth in the Philadelphia scene. How much any of this mattered to you is likely a function of what importance you assign to SNL. To get my own baggage out of the way: Although I rarely watch it, I have friends who earn (or earned) a living there, for which I am happy, and I know the show has value as an institution. Apart from that, I consider executive producer Lorne Michaels a greasy dipshit who would rather normalize someone like Trump for ratings than protect his own employees, and I figure he’s well overdue for a #MeToo reckoning.

But before we can touch that nightmare, I guess we have to deal with Gillis, whose SNL career lasted barely a weekend, thanks to a number of racist and homophobic remarks he uttered on somewhat recent podcast recordings. Some 36 hours after an official non-apology, he was fired.

This whirlwind blew Yang’s landmark achievement out of the headlines, while the buzz for Fineman (whose Twitter page currently features just three retweets of other comedians, including Jenny Slate, who was memorably canned after one season at SNL for once accidentally swearing on the air) all but dried up. Soon as we’d revved the motor on another “cancel culture” debate, we got a parade of industry loudmouths howling their indignation, and the actual story — that a long-running TV show hadn’t vetted a new hire — was toast.

SNL alum Rob Schneider, who has his own history of racist material, decried “this era of cultural unforgiveness where comedic misfires are subject to the intolerable inquisition of those who never risked bombing on stage themselves,” which I’m sure he thought sounded very smart. Bill Burr and Jim Jeffries appeared on former SNL cast member David Spade’s talk show to whine about the state of comedy, with Jeffries asking, “We’re gonna go through everyone’s history?” and Burr taking aim at a whole generation. “You millennials, you’re a bunch of rats, all of you,” he said. “None of them care. All they want to do is get people in trouble.”

These comments echoed the sentiment of an online faction of Gillis defenders who had likely not heard of him before the controversy but rose to champion the cause of free (and offensive!) speech. It is this rhetoric that led many to predict Gillis’ success in the right-wing grievance machine.

Journalist and critic Seth Simons, who first found and shared examples of Gillis’ hate speech, says that it is very much the comedian’s norm, not the exception. Moreover, he convincingly argues that this norm is shared by SNL itself. “TV’s oldest and biggest sketch comedy show does not make basic diversity strides 45 seasons in by chance,” he wrote in a column this week. “It does not cater to the reactionary right by chance. It does not spout transphobia and run interference for Aziz Ansari and nix jokes about Harvey Weinstein’s downfall by chance. These values reflect the people running the show; they are the show’s values.”

Again, this is the story that vanishes behind the fog of outrage at the “PC police.” It’s telling that Burr, Jeffries, Schneider and fellow comedians, including Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld, target an amorphous mob of millennial scolds with zero say over who books a coveted showbiz gig. To attack the executives at NBC and elsewhere who are making those decisions would be biting the hand that feeds them. These comics also do serious heavy lifting to suggest that what Chappelle calls “celebrity hunting season” is unprecedented, as if stars didn’t rise and fall on the vicissitudes of public opinion before the internet. SNL was well aware of Gillis’ schtick; they axed him because he was immediately and hugely unpopular. If we’re going to condemn mass media that caters to the audience’s taste, we may as well not have any.

But the curious, frustrating byproduct of comics deciding to fight the times rather than engage with them, as they’ve traditionally done, is an entire burgeoning ecosystem of “comedy” that’s little more than complaining that you can’t say anything shitty anymore, and then, in some cases, saying it anyway. Burr and Chappelle fall into the latter camp, bemoaning the consequences of their provocations while suffering exactly none. You can almost respect those troll-jobs in comparison with someone like Seinfeld, whose style has typically been clean to the point of innocence; what off-brand risqué joke, I wonder, is he now afraid to tell in front of a college crowd?

His gripe and others of that ilk give away the game: The older and more established a comedian is, the harder they have to work to discover what resonates with ordinary (and younger) folks. When Seinfeld insists that we’re too politically correct nowadays, what he’s really saying is that he’s begun to doubt his ongoing ability to make Americans laugh, at least absent a considerable degree of control in setting the terms of his performances. Amazingly, the moaning also eats up many of his best opportunities to — how do I put it — be funny.

Theoretically “canceled” comedians Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari have, along with Chappelle, taken restrictive measures to ensure they can mount comebacks with minimal response from those hostile to that rehabilitation. The confiscation of phones and scary copyright disclaimers are presented as signaling integrity and seriousness (reminder: This is art you’re witnessing), yet they’re also a method of locking ticketholders into complicity. Attendees have agreed to enter a toxic safe space, an underground where no holds are barred for the entertainer while the observer is expected to obey an ironclad code of ethics.

Audiences willing to strike that bargain are the only kind C.K. and Ansari are prepared to face, as they’ve submitted to the fragile power and ego of the embattled performer, who can no longer pass the essential test of speaking in public, i.e., standing by your words. It’s a great irony of this moment in comedy that Louis C.K., after years of mocking the oversensitive, is so thin-skinned as to be threatened by a person merely repeating what he’s said on stage.

He of all people must be aware that if there’s genuine humor in the punchline — and had there been verifiable humor buried in the trash of Gillis’ edgelord podcasts — there’s hardly a limit to what may be forgiven. C.K. was riffing on how much he enjoys the word “faggot” back in 2008, without any safety net, trusting in his talent for winning back a room after sending an ugly shock through it. Now he’s marshaling all the sympathetic ears he can find to listen to his takedown of the Parkland survivors, in theaters that have far more protections than the high school where their friends and classmates were gunned down.

Up-and-coming women and non-white standup comics don’t have those protections, and they certainly don’t get second chances when they push into risky territory with bad results. They have only themselves to fall back on. And when they do cross a line, there is no coalition of self-styled First Amendment experts to condemn the backlash as censorship on behalf of triggered snowflakes, or an army of repellent fanboys to suddenly adopt ideals of compassion and forgiveness that they haven’t exercised for anyone else. For the crime of labeling a presidential candidate with a vile slur a few months ago, Gillis will have the honor of a high-profile meeting with that very candidate.

His fame is undoubtedly wider than it would have been as an SNL newbie. His sour-grapes post-firing statement — “I was always a mad tv guy anyway” — is pathetic and bitter, but it’s loaded with the smugness of a man for whom other doors have already opened. It’s a voice that knows it won’t have to change, since there’s a home for it, and that home grows bigger every day. This is the true price of cancel culture. It’s not that a handful of men have had their lives “destroyed.” On the contrary, it’s given them a way to band together. They could launch their exclusive streaming service tomorrow and rake in millions overnight.

The best defense is a good offense. Nobody likes a heckler, but we don’t want to see him quietly dragged out; we want whoever’s holding the mic to roast him alive, to watch a humiliating, but voluntary, exit. That latent aggression in selling yourself as a standup — you either bomb or you kill, and you have to annihilate the source of dissent — has morphed into contempt for the overall business model. Club-goers aren’t obliged to snicker through your lazy, bigoted takes, nor to keep quiet about them afterward, and TV gatekeepers have no duty to pay or promote the vendors of same.

But a few of the brightest names on the marquee, the least vulnerable of this profession, seem to prefer it were otherwise. They no longer trust the patrons of their craft, so they speak of that distrust and little else, trying to goad us by ranting that we’re a soft bunch of stupid babies. It’s a rigid, sour pose to strike in a role built for playful elasticity, and it backs the performer into the kind of dogmatism they’re projecting. On many past evenings, I’m sure, these comics had a rough go in the spotlight and sat down to think: How do I improve?

That, I’m sure, is how they did. I want to tell them that it’s not too late to ask again.