Comedians are not scared of anything. We’re already doing the most frightening thing of all – and once you’ve disobeyed your Asian mother, anything is possible. I’ve withstood appalling reviews, complaints from customers, dying on stage and my parents refusing to speak to me for doing jokes about them. When I performed a comedy show about Islamic State called The Kardashians Made Me Do It, the tabloids accused me of recruiting young people to the terrorist group.
I’ve been called mad, bad and dangerous. Someone once threw a trifle in my face. None of this deterred me from getting up on stage and doing the same material night after night. As a comedian it is my right to offend you, and it is your right to be offended. Trust me, nothing can shut a comedian up; try getting a word in edgeways on a panel show.
The idea that cancel culture is “on the cusp of wiping out comedy”, as Maureen Lipman told the BBC this week, is self-righteous hysteria. The same YouGov poll that brought this apparently terminal threat back to the front pages also revealed that two-thirds of British people don’t know what “cancel culture” is, including 38% who have literally never heard of it. The notion that professional comedians are scared of offending for fear of their careers ending is as outrageous as having a Christmas party in the middle of a lockdown.
I heard some comedians talking backstage at a gig recently about Dave Chappelle. They were saying, “He’s been cancelled.” I thought, “Cancelled? Is he a train? The 12.50 at Aintree? A credit card?” How can a person be cancelled? My peers told me Chappelle had done some offensive jokes about transgender people in his latest TV special, and he’d consequently had his new documentary pulled from some film festivals.
I bought a ticket to see him at the Hammersmith Apollo. It quickly sold out. Surely if 5,000 people turn up to see you, you’re not really cancelled.
Chappelle is famous for doing uneasy material. Race, drugs, sex and defending Michael Jackson. It’s groundbreaking and challenging, it’s difficult to do and sometimes difficult to watch. When that’s the nature of your comedy, it’s going to be divisive, and there’s going to be a tsunami of people on Twitter who are upset. Chappelle knows this, but it hasn’t stopped him. Everyone’s voice has the right to be heard – and his is being heard.
It’s also true that over generations, people’s sense of humour changes. While a white man making jokes about his Pakistani neighbour may have been considered funny in 1975, they are not found funny today because the world has evolved. This has made a lot of people angry: mainly old white men crawling over our screens like reptiles, whining, “You can’t say anything these days.”
There is a difference between being cancelled and being unemployed. Chappelle may have been “cancelled” by a few film festivals, but he is definitely not unemployed. If you’re a comedian and you are unemployed, maybe it’s because your material is as dated as you are, and it’s more convenient to blame all the petition-signing woke vegans for the fact you can’t get on Blankety Blank any more. This is all fine. I respect and revere Lenny Bruce, but I don’t laugh today at material he did in the 1950s.
If you’re a comedian, you are outspoken. That’s the job. No one wants to be a secret, quiet, anonymous comedian. This furore over “cancel culture killing comedy” is entirely a media invention. In real life people have real problems: my friend Maureen, who works in a corner shop, isn’t getting “cancelled” for the jokes she tells her friends. And the biggest threat to professional comedy in the UK right now is venues closing down, tours being postponed, and my show going out of date quicker than the spinach in my fridge.
People who want to say racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic things also want a licence to say them – but then they get upset when people respond, “That’s racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic.” That’s right. If you say bigoted things, that makes you a bigot. That’s how it goes. Just like breaking into a bank and stealing money makes you a bank robber. That’s what the words mean. Cancel culture is just a term used by people to put a cloak of respectability over the fact they want to be able to say offensive things without consequences.
When I first started standup, I got a death threat and it was considered shocking and dangerous. Now comedians get death threats on Twitter all the time. It’s the same with so-called cancel culture, it’s water off a duck’s back. In the future maybe every comedian will be cancelled for 15 minutes; it can be worn as a badge of honour, and none of us will ever shut up about it.
Shazia Mirza is a comedian. Her latest show, Coconut, is on tour now