EVERY week there’s some new claim that comedy is being ruined by ‘woke’ mobs out to destroy freedom of speech. Is that really true? To find out, our Writer at Large Neil Mackay heard from 15 hard-working comedians at Edinburgh’s Fringe. Contains strong language.

Last year the Daily Mail wrote about BBC podcasts being puerile and funded by the licence fee. My podcast, Wheel of Misfortune, was included in the article. It’s a comedy about shame and embarrassment. That week the subject was p**s.

I was very thankful to the paper for clutching its pearls over poor pensioners presumably forced to listen to my filth. It was a thrill to ring my Granddad and say: “Hey Gramps, the Daily Mail cancelled me.” It resulted in a boost of listeners. I now see the appeal of marketing oneself on being silenced.

The culture wars wouldn’t be continuing if they weren’t profitable – it’s content for media and distraction for politicians. It’s win-win for the elite.

Freedom of speech is under threat – not in comedy but our everyday lives. This year, the Government brought in the policing bill, which affects our right to protest. But it’s more palatable to argue about what someone says on stage.

See Alison Spittle at the Pleasance

CONRAD KOCH

The problem is that when racists define what free speech is they’re fighting for their right to be racist. The idea that ‘totalitarian woke freedom of speech squashers’ are out to get comedians is just untrue.

The only reason comedy spent centuries appealing to racists is that’s who had the money. If you ask many black people or women if they can say what they actually think about racism or sexism you’ll get laughed at. Now white men are learning what it’s like to be accountable for what we say and suddenly freedom of speech is under attack? Ridiculous.

Yes, there’s times the holier-than-thou cancellation police get it wrong. People will always get offended at something.

See Conrad Koch at the Pleasance

EMMANUEL SONUBI

Is free speech under attack? For me that depends on which side of the line you stand. If it’s the side of popular opinion, then … no.

A person should think before they speak. The motivation behind my comedy is never to cause offence, but it’s so easy for a statement to be taken out of context that there’s a constant feeling of paranoia among many comics. The idea that a person can be ‘cancelled’ or loose their career is a frequent conversation.

Comedy is subjective. What’s funny to one may not be to another, but who’s to say the person offended is right? People should be accountable for their actions, but it shouldn’t be to an ‘angry mob’ – which is where we are now. As soon as the mob screams “guilty” then all other questions disappear – along with the person. We don’t discuss anymore. We don’t even try to understand intent.

Theoretically, we should ‘cancel’ all comedy as every joke has a ‘butt’ and the potential to offend. Who decides what’s funny? When I say, “that’s not funny”, what I’m really saying is “that’s not funny … to me” – but does that mean it should be taken away? I can’t go to an art gallery and demand paintings be removed because I don’t like them.

I’m constantly trying to ‘future proof’ material as who knows what will be deemed funny or offensive in a decade. I try to write material that’s relatable to as many people as possible. If it’s not for you, there’s not much that can be done. There’s no way to please everyone.

See Emmanuel Sonubi at the Underbelly

FINLAY CHRISTIE

Most of my Gen Z generation object to ‘punching down’. The Gen Z in me wants to mind people’s feelings, but the comedian thinks the joke is more important.

While comedy generally polices itself, certain arena-filling comedians aren’t subject to normal comedy club conventions. Their loyal fanbase and enormous venues allow them to push boundaries perhaps even further than needed. Therefore it’s important to question why comedians try to shock. Without shock, comedy has less worth. From Molière to Monty Python, comedy has exposed hypocrisy. By declaring certain things exempt from ridicule, we risk a silo mentality.

I think a certain amount of boundary-pushing is necessary. However, there’s a difference between offensiveness and discrimination. Free speech is a basic right, one that’s arguably more restricted on stage than online. Comedians should be allowed to use theirs to make bad jokes, just as people should be allowed to use theirs to cancel them.

See Finlay Christie at the Gilded Balloon

HAL CRUTTENDEN

The biggest threat to Freedom of Speech is from those using it to spread lies. Trump attempted to bring down US democracy, Britain voted Brexit after a campaign of disinformation, and we’ve a Prime Minister who’s probably the biggest liar to hold office.

Talking about freedom of speech being under threat due to ‘wokeness’ and ‘cancel culture’ is a distraction actively encouraged by the amoral cult in Number 10. They’re aided and abetted by some useful idiots in comedy. It’s simply not true that people’s careers are being destroyed for saying the wrong thing. It’s the audience who decide if Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervais are too offensive. They push the envelope, they upset people – but they rightly don’t disappear for it.

It feels like some of my fellow comedians, who rail against wokeness, are morphing into the 1970s dinosaurs who moaned about alternative comedy being ‘not funny’ because they weren’t allowed to still tell racist or sexist jokes.

In the past, if the term ‘wokeness’ had been used, it would have been applied to suffragettes, anti-slavery campaigners and gay liberation movements. That’s what progress means. Society is changing.

See Hal Cruttenden at the Pleasance

JOHN HASTINGS

It certainly feels like there’s a war on speech in comedy – because, for a long time, comedians could use racist and sexist language in place of punchlines. Some comedians hid behind an argument for free speech when they were just being f**king lazy. Don’t like that I said that? Tough. Free speech. If someone is hurt by a word, be an adult and use a different word. Is that too difficult for you c**ts?

Use whatever words you want. But make it funny. If it isn’t, saying someone is censoring you creates conflict, controversy, attention, and then, sometimes, fame. If that person is a comedian, they might suddenly have sold-out shows. If they’re fortunate, their feigned oppression can get them booked on all the programmes, where they’ll talk about how it’s bulls**t they’re not on other programmes. It’s a trick to get your money.

Break the cycle. Is freedom of speech important? Yes. Is there a war for freedom of speech in comedy? No. Are ‘free speech warriors’ using it to get fame and fortune? Maybe.

See John Hastings at the Monkey Barrel

LILY PHILLIPS

Firstly, comedy is thriving. There’s never been such a rich, diverse mix of voices cracking jokes about their own points of view. Which is so important because audiences are all different, we all find different people and different things funny.

There’s endless things you can talk about on stage and you as a comedian make certain choices. Now my rule generally is, if it’s not your lived experience stay away from the topic, write about what you know – so I just stick to jokes about my dog’s vagina.

See Lily Phillips at the Pleasance

MICHELLE SHAUGHNESSY

Certain phrases have lost meaning – ‘cancel culture’, ‘woke,’ ‘social justice warrior’.

What is ‘cancelled’? Is it getting fired? Suspended from Twitter? Is it stand-ups losing gigs because they said something racist? Sometimes our words anger people. Do I think there’s people who say things just to rile ‘the woke mob’? Absolutely. Just as there’s people who look to find negativity so they can ‘cancel’ them. It goes both ways. We’re all human, we all make mistakes.

Why are we acting like this is the moment in history where freedom of speech is under threat? Most have heard of the Salem witch trials. That’s a much bigger example of cancel culture than a comic losing some work after exposing himself repeatedly. In comparison, is freedom of speech in 2022 really under threat?

What’s under threat is the ability to have an adult discussion. We forget that just like comedy, we evolve too. We grow up, change our beliefs. Things we thought a decade ago may not reflect who we are now. No matter which side of the free speech debate you’re on – remember to be kind.

See Michelle Shaughnessy at the Underbelly

MORGAN REES

“You can’t say anything anymore”. Yes you can. Everyone has the right to freedom of speech but that doesn’t come with the right to be heard. The idea of freedom of speech being ‘under threat’ is only perpetuated by those who were previously left uncontested. Notice how few young people complain about this. Whenever I hear a notable comic bemoan being ‘silenced’, I remember the quote: “Equality can feel like oppression when you’re in a position of power.” If you perceive being corrected as an attack, then maybe reevaluate.

I’m a queer man and I’ve been called out for a joke that was frankly transphobic. Did removing it make my set worse? No. It made me a better comic. Change is healthy for comedy. Nobody’s speech is under attack, and everyone that says otherwise is threatened by greater amounts of accountability.

See Morgan Rees at the Pleasance

SIKISA

My new commandment would be: “Thou shall not judge, because thou has messed up too.” We’ve all said something insensitive or inappropriate.

Whether it’s ignorance or arrogance, when you start attacking a group of people regardless of gender, sexuality, race, or disability, it becomes unfunny.

There’s certain comedians who absolutely should be cancelled and made to pay the consequences of their actions. If you are a rapist, abuser, paedophile, murderer or someone who pees all over the toilet seat and doesn’t clean it up, then you deserve to be cancelled. However, people aren’t perfect. Cancel culture has real-life effects and we forget that we judge an entire person on one moment.

But if cancel culture’s goal is to make more people aware of their harmful behaviours, it’s succeeding. Instead of calling out these people, we should call on these people for a conversation so that person can become accountable for their words.

See Sikisa at the Pleasance

MICHAEL AKADIRI

The debate gets overplayed online, it’s not such an issue in the comedy clubs. I stand by the maxim, ‘freedom of speech is not freedom of consequence’. Comics can say whatever they want and the consequence is hopefully laughter. Essentially, the audience tells you where the line is.

What tends to fuel this freedom of speech debate and rile members of the public are the lazy, hack jokes which reinforce tired stereotypes. Therefore, I wouldn’t say freedom of speech is under threat – those aforementioned jokes are. Comics have the freedom to say them; however, the public has the same freedom to scrutinise them.

Those who scrutinise comedians are branded as ‘woke’, which has been bastardised from a term encouraging primarily African-Americans to be socially aware – ‘stay woke’ – to a derogatory term for liberal lefties. If anything should be cancelled, it’s the abuse of this word.

I don’t buy the argument that cancel culture truly exists. Has there been a comedian who’s been ubiquitously banned from performing solely for jokes they’ve told? That’s true cancellation in my book. The comics’ prerogative to tell any joke surely extends to the promoters’ prerogative to book who they want. No comedian has a divine right to perform; it’s a privilege.

See Michael Akadiri at the Pleasance

HELEN BAUER

In comedy we’ve one job – make you laugh. If your audience leave feeling upset, you didn’t do your job.

Some people discus freedom of speech saying ‘you can’t say anything anymore’ but what is it they want to say that they ‘cant’. If it’s just demeaning words, why would you want to say it? It’s never necessary to a joke and if you feel it is then you really need to write better jokes.

Language is constantly changing and we’ll inevitably fall short and use outdated terms. Whilst preparing for this show I fell short talking about autism in my family. It’s hard for someone to laugh at jokes if they’re upset by the language you use.

This isn’t to say you should troll comedians for misuse of language, just tell us what we did wrong. Nobody likes a justice warrior who uses education to bully, always be kind – allow people mistakes as long as the intention is right.

The freedom of speech debate is being continued by a very small group. Often these groups discuss their perceived lack of ‘freedom of speech’ on podcasts they release to the world where they say whatever they want whenever they want – so it’s all madness.

See Helen Bauer at the Pleasance

KATE BARRON

Freedom of speech isn’t under threat anymore than it’s been at various points in history. There’s always been topics off-limits, and comedians have consistently tried to push boundaries.

I’m in Edinburgh, a city where back in the ‘good old days’ I’d have been burned as a witch for the things I say on stage. This isn’t a new fight. What’s new, is the hyperbole around freedom of speech.

You’re free to say what you want, but there may be consequences. Marginalised communities who had to take it on the chin before are now saying, it’s not acceptable. Not because the content is newly offensive, but because they finally feel safe to do so. That said, just because something offends you, doesn’t mean anyone has to care about your opinion.

‘Wokeness gone wild’ is clickbait, with people saying things they know will offend to get attention and then crying that they’re in fact the victim when they’re called out.

Freedom of speech cannot be used as a shield to spew hate, and some people deserve to be canceled. The problem is punishments aren’t equal – your power and influence determine how much it affects you. I could make the same joke as an A-lister and nobody would think twice about ending my career, but comedians with multi-million dollar Netflix deals are virtually untouchable. Is that fair?

On TV, I suspect risk-averse executives are impacting what we see. I’d be foolish to say it’s not something that influences me. Is it ruining comedy? No. Is it impacting it? Yes.

See Kate Barron at The Tron

GLEN MOORE

You can’t say anything these days. You can’t even say Merry Christmas because apparently it’s considered ‘the summer’. In comedy it’s even stricter. My grandad got sacked over a joke – he used to work at a graveyard and every time elderly people came in, he’d say ‘oh, you’re early’.

The comedy landscape has definitely changed. I’d be very surprised if a new Jimmy Carr or 2009-era Frankie Boyle emerged today, predominantly because audiences are a bit more tense when sensitive topics are brought up. I’d say at worst it’s a bit annoying; personally, it’s not a game-changer.

Things change! For a subjective medium, the arrogance is astonishing when comedians complain audiences don’t enjoy their jokes. If your material isn’t making crowds laugh that’s nobody else’s problem than your own.

See Glenn Moore at the Pleasance

TIFF STEVENSON

Orwell said: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” It’s worth pointing out he hadn’t seen Bernard Manning. Maybe then he would’ve said: “Every joke is a reinforcement of your worst beliefs.”

My personal belief is that comedy should punch up. Perhaps Orwell was referring to the notion that every joke should disrupt, not always in a way we agree with.

Nowadays when free speech in comedy comes up the framing is often ‘woke vs unwoke’. I’m aware much of social media thinks nuance is a band from the 90s, however it’s possible to believe in equality and defend free speech. ‘I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Orwell also posited: “You cannot be memorably funny without at some point raising topics which the rich, the powerful and the complacent would prefer to see left alone.” That’s my preferred brand. Plenty of comics do jokes I don’t enjoy. I won’t campaign to get them removed from a job. I don’t think that’s progressive.

See Tiff Stevenson at the Pleasance


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