Comedians have always played a unique role in western society. Armed with humor and wit, it is their job to push the envelope, holding a mirror up to society and speaking truth to power.
Before the days of open mics and Netflix specials, the comedian was in the king’s court as a jester. Sometimes called a “fool” for his clownlike appearance and slapstick delivery, the jester was the world’s first comedian. He was not born into privilege, like the king and his court, but he was given elevated status to stand before them and make them laugh.
Entertainment may have been his primary responsibility, but he also had the very rare privilege of criticizing the king without fear of retribution.
In these medieval times, chastising a king could bring punishment, or even death, upon the offender, which is why the jester played such a vital role.
There is an old adage that says “only a jester can speak truth to a king.” Unlike others, the jester was afforded what was called “comic dispensation” and “freedom from restraint” which gave him what is perhaps the first form of freedom of speech. This allowed him to roast the king, humorously exposing his poor policy decisions and pointing out what many already recognized but were forbidden from saying.
Oddly enough, even though our country has an explicit right to free speech, it wasn’t so long ago when comedians had less freedom to insult those in power than the jester had.
In the 1950s and 1960s, comedian Lenny Bruce became a hero of free speech and paved the way for future comedians with his on scene demeanor and hot takes on both society and government.
Unlike the jesters, Bruce’s profane chastisement of the system frequently landed him in jail and the courtroom. In The People of the State of Illinois v. Lenny Bruce, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled his comedy social commentary, overturning charges of profanity.
Whereas Bruce had to fear the actual police dragging him off stage during his incendiary sets, today’s comedians are dealing with the PC police and finding themselves defending their comedy in the court of public opinion.
Dave Chappelle is considered the greatest comedian of his time by many. But over the last few years his comedy has been met with calls to cancel the comedian for his jokes made at the expense of marginalized groups.
His latest special, “The Closer,” has dominated the news cycle over the past couple of weeks causing outrage among those who have accused him of hate speech, some going so far as to say his words will incite violence among those who were the butt of his joke.
There are now calls for Netflix to remove the special, with some Netflix employees calling for a walkout until their demands are met.
It could be argued that comedians are the most inclusive group in existence because as a rule of thumb, no one is excluded from criticism and mockery. True comedy fans tend to love a comedian who pushes the limits of what is deemed acceptable and decent. George Carlin and Bill Hicks built their entire careers on this foundation.
But woke culture has created a hostile environment where comedians are expected to bind themselves with the chains of political correctness.
To be sure, Chappelle made no calls to violence. He didn’t even express hatred. Instead, he did what all comedians do: make observations at the expense of others. Unfortunately in this day and age, many have lost their ability to take a joke.
This is not the first comedian to have the mob of wokeness call for his demise.
In 2018, an old joke tweeted by Kevin Hart years ago forced him to step down from hosting the Academy Awards.
The late legendary comedian Norm Macdonald was allegedly fired from Saturday Night Live for making jokes about O.J. Simpson. When he made jokes about Hilary Clinton’s character during an appearance on “The View,” the hosts shouted over him, not allowing him to speak.
To be sure, First Amendment protections only restrict the government from shutting down speech. But that doesn’t mean cancel culture can’t destroy a person’s life. People have been fired, had their social media accounts taken down, and lost job opportunities because the cancel culture mob has demanded their proverbial heads on a platter.
Psychologist Johnathan Haidt likened cancel culture to a modern-day witch hunt where the mob is out for blood, eager to find offense when someone says something that goes against what they deem acceptable opinions.
With comedians making a habit of destroying society’s sacred cows, they have found themselves the target of cancel culture far too often.
The problem has gotten so bad, especially among young adults, Jerry Seinfeld now refuses to perform on college campuses.
Ricky Gervais commented on this cancellation phenomenon, saying:
“If it is choosing not to watch a comedian because you don’t like them, that’s everyone’s right. But when people are trying to get someone fired because they don’t like their opinion about something that’s nothing to do with their job, that’s what I call cancel culture and that’s not cool.”
Whether they are speaking truth to power or pushing back against the cult of wokeness, the best comedians touch the untouchable. They offer a critique of society others are too scared to give or to admit.
Unlike other comedians, Chappelle has doubled down on his words, refusing to be bullied into capitulating to the mob. And in a time when no one seems immune to cancelation, he is, in some ways, a modern-day Bruce leading the charge against censorship.
And for those who can’t handle him … well, they don’t have to watch.
Brittany E. Hunter is the social media manger and editorial writer at Pacific Legal Foundation and former senior writer at the Foundation for Economic Education. She is also a contributing author to the book, “Skip College: Launch Your Career Without Debt, Distractions, Or a Degree” and co-host of the podcast, “The Way the World Works.” Republished from AmericasFuture.org.