Will comedy become the latest victim of 'cancel culture'? Dame Maureen Lipman fears as much.
'Cancel culture, this cancelling, this punishment, it's everywhere,' she told the BBC yesterday. She says that the world of comedy is in danger of being 'wiped out' because comedians are scared that audiences will take offence, and that they self-censor their material as a precaution. 'It’s in the balance, whether we’re ever going to be funny again,' she said.
It would be an ironic tragedy if this were true, because in no other field of entertainment as comedy has 'cancel culture' been at its most insidious, relentless and blatant. Lipman's warning is therefore unfounded, superficially at least. Most comedy – especially on BBC television and radio – is so painfully politically correct and conformist that it is far from imperilled.
Anyone who has subjected themselves to the likes of The Now Show, Have I Got News for You or Mock The Week in the past ten years, with their remorseless stream of gags about Brexit or one-liners ending with the punchline 'it would be like a headline in the Daily Mail' knows exactly what I'm talking about. People with unfashionable politics have been a unending source of seething contempt and spite, long before the adjective 'woke' became mainstream.
Contemporary comedy has been complicit in creating cancel culture. It has nourished a mood of censure in which people feel afraid to say the wrong thing, for fear of being scorned or shamed. No wonder people fear to make public their opinions: a YouGov poll now finds that 57 per cent of those asked said they censor themselves on issues including immigration and trans rights.
Lipman knows what it's like to voice unpopular opinions and suffer the consequences, being unusual in the acting and comedy circles in her support of Israel. And she is right in the specifics of the matter, in that the culture of self-censorship is spreading to the world of comedy itself, and that stand-ups who make jokes against today's new morals are a vanishing species.
The only conservative comedian of note in Britain today is Geoff Norcott. But even when he appears on screen, he often has to justify his politics by mentioning his working-class background. Yet the results can still be painful, such as when he appeared on Mock The Week in 2018, nervously defending his pro-Brexit views on a show in which saying the opposite had become mandatory. More recently, on Comedians Giving Lectures on the Dave channel, Norcott was introduced almost as a freakshow, interrogated with giggling unease by the host Sara Pascoe. The fact that he is treated as an oddity because of his politics tells us much about the state of popular comedy.
Other conservative stand-ups have mostly moved away from stand-up and the stage, such as Andrew Doyle (the creator of the grotesque caricature Titania McGrath) and Simon Evans, both of whom can be found making straight, serious – if still pungent – points on GB News or in comment articles.
Then there are right-wing comedians of note who don't appear on television much or at all these days, such as Lee Hurst – a familiar face on-screen in the 1990s – and Andrew Lawrence. Indeed, in responding to Lipman's foreboding, Lawrence replied.
'It's already happened. The club circuit is awash with trite left-wing patter and consequently absolutely on its arse, and most TV comedy is so unwatchably woke that it's been relegated to Dave,' he said.
This is true. Contrast repeats today on Dave of Mock The Week and QI from five or ten years ago, you will detect the way the wind has been blowing. You will never see today productions of those shows featuring five white male panellists. That's probably a good thing. Now this demographic is manifestly the minority. But is that really progress?
If you don't care about, or care for, conservative comics, so be it. But be warned: as with every form of culture creep and popular delusion, they will be coming for you next. Witness the fate of the mostly apolitical former Python and director Terry Gilliam, 'cancelled' by the Old Vic after he expressed his views on trans rights; or the Obama-voting black comedian Dave Chappelle or the liberal-left comedy writer Graham Linehan, both of whom have also made trans heresy and paid the price for it.
Earlier this month, both Jack Whitehall and David Baddiel warned about the perils of 'cancel culture'. One comedian has made his name on the back of deprecating his own privileged background; the other made his in the 1990s as a right-on, anti-racist favourite among us teens and students – when students were funny. Now a northern actress of Jewish heritage also warns us that comedy is under threat by this new orthodoxy. This is no joke.