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Cancel culture is no laughing matter: Comedy on the edge

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Global podcasting icon Joe Rogan’s new anti-cancel culture comedy club is creating a major buzz in the comedy world and far beyond. Since it opened in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, Comedy Mothership is already selling out shows, demonstrating that the venue’s dedication to feature previously canceled performers is attracting an audience of fans eager to embrace free expression.

But the fact that comics even have to worry about seeing their careers quashed by those who hold opposing views or take offense to their jokes is a worrisome development in America. From coast to coast and everywhere in between, legions of keyboard warriors are quick to anger, seeming to forget that comedy is about risk-taking and poking fun at others and ourselves.

Rogan — a stand-up comedian, actor, TV host, UFC commentator and one of the most popular podcasters on the planet — opened the fledgling club to provide “canceled” comedians a place to perform without fear of offending. So far, business is booming, with the club’s first show on March 7 selling out in mere minutes.

The club’s early talent roster includes comedians including Roseanne Barr, David Lucas, Ron White, Tim Dillon and Tony Hinchcliffe, who have sparked the ire of critics. 

Notably, Rogan himself is no stranger to cancel culture. He came under heavy fire in 2022 for a multitude of controversial takes, but weathered the movement to cancel his Spotify podcast. After addressing the controversy head-on and refusing to be canceled, his subscribership increased by over 2 million listeners.

Comedy has traditionally been a safe space for free expression. While comedians in generations past, from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor, sparked controversy with their outrageous antics and inflammatory language, today’s environment is markedly different, with humorists having to worry that an off-color jibe could prove career-ending. One of the things that has always set America apart is our willingness to entertain a range of opinions, perspectives, and views. The First Amendment has provided iron-clad protection for citizens, who possess the freedom not only to hold unpopular views, but to express them openly.

Comedian Chris Rock’s recent Netflix special “Selective Outrage” highlighted the fickle nature of audiences today, who are selectively angered by some perceived injustices, while turning a blind eye to others. Rock recently opined that fear of being criticized has led to a rash of “unfunny” comedians and “unfunny” content across TV and film.

“Everybody’s scared to make a move,” Rock said during an appearance on The Breakfast Club radio show.

Other comics — including Roseanne Barr, who was canceled in 2018 after she posted a tweet considered virulently racist — have attempted to cast off their pariah status after being de-platformed. Barr stepped back into the spotlight in February with a brash comedy special “Roseanne Barr: Cancel This!” and has been going strong ever since.

Comic Dave Chappelle is another example of a controversial comedian who has fought back in the face of scorching criticism. Netflix stood behind him despite his being labeled transphobic and facing efforts to have his comedy series yanked from the popular streaming service.

Comedians are in a different situation than most other celebrities when it comes to provoking anger and cancel culture attempts. The art of comedy often relies heavily on being edgy. In fact, controversy has been the bread and butter of comedy for decades. And that outrageousness and exposure of society’s foibles is a big part of what makes comedy funny. As Rock warned, remove controversy and fearlessness from comedy and the acts will fall flat.

Picking and choosing what to be angry about and whom to silence because you disagree with their variety of humor is a slippery slope.

Free speech and artistic expression have, for generations, produced creative content that has placed America at the center of global culture. While the cancel culture crowd has created fear in recent years, it may prove to be Rogan and his comedic counterparts who have the last laugh.

Evan Nierman is CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan and author of the forthcoming book: The Cancel Culture Curse: From Rage to Redemption in a World Gone Mad.

Tags Cancel culture Chris Rock Comedy Dave Chappelle Freedom of speech Humor Joe Rogan political comedy Political correctness Roseanne Barr Stand-up comedy

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