Watch Zayid’s set; then, carefully read and annotate Raz’s interview with her and Nesteroff; put Raz’s interview with Zayid or Nesteroff in conversation with one other course text of your choosing. You may also choose to put both of these course texts in conversation. Raise a controlling question, and find a passage in each text that addresses it. Using these passages, write 1-2 paragraphs that describe how the two writers are in conversation around that controlling question. Be sure to quote, paraphrase, and summarize effectively.
Op-Ed: ‘Cancel culture’ has always been a
problem for comedy
Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special “The Closer” adds to a long history of controversial comedy.
(Mathieu Bitton / Netflix)
BY KLIPH NESTEROFF
Los Angeles Times- OCT. 15, 2021 3:03 AM PT
Is freedom of speech evaporating from the world of comedy? We hear a familiar mantra
whenever someone like Dave Chappelle comes under fire: You can’t joke about anything
anymore. PC police. Cancel culture. People are too sensitive. But does this premise hold up to
scrutiny? Studying history, it seems clear comedians have more freedom of speech today, not
At the start of the 20th century, ethnic minorities objected to the way they were portrayed
onstage. Instead of airing grievances on the yet-to-be-invented internet, many delivered their
objections in person.
Irish and Italian immigrants were vocal at the turn of the century. Vaudeville comic Walter Kelly
received “a letter threatening his life if he did not immediately cut out several Italian stories in
his act,” and an Irish betterment organization called the Clan na Gael pelted comedians with eggs
for perceived slights against the Irish.
A newspaper editorial in Kansas feared this would inspire other groups to do the same: “If the
well-known and almost indispensable Irish policeman is to be abolished from the stage by decree
of the Clan-na-gael, what is to hinder the ‘Afro-American’ societies from following suit and
threatening dire consequences on the heads of players who represent the stage type of negro?”
That’s precisely what happened. African Americans, Native Americans and American Jews all
staged protests in the early 20th century. In 1903, the Topeka Capital predicted the death of
comedy: “The final upshot [of protest is] to strip comedy of its most engaging and popular
features. If the raid should extend to all sorts of people caricatured in the theater and in print,
then good-bye to comedy.”
Indeed, jokes concerning politics, religion and sex were taboo for most of the century. Even the
most casual carnal reference could result in arrest. The legendary Mae West wrote a number of
popular stage comedies, and for her efforts she was convicted of obscenity in 1927 — and
sentenced to 10 days in a prison workhouse.
The debate concerning stereotypes was especially fierce when the television became a household
appliance in the 1950s. TV executive Bob Wood explained why CBS and NBC were purging
stereotypes from programming in 1956: “We deleted any material which we consider derogatory
to any minority group — that’s on a common sense and public relations basis.”
The Wilmington Morning News sounded the death knell: “There isn’t much laughter any more
— because there’s no way to speak in any light fashion about any group of people anywhere.”
Some comedians intentionally provoked their detractors out of spite. “From now on I’m going to
use as much dialect material as possible in my guest appearances,” said comedian Danny
Thomas, claiming he was sick of “over-sensitive groups” that were “too thin-skinned.”
Comedians resented interference — yet if it meant advancing their career, they went along with
it. “The Tonight Show” was created in 1954 and became an important stand-up showcase. For
seven decades, comedians have willingly eliminated the F-word without screaming about
censorship or accusing hosts such as Johnny Carson of tyranny.
The obscenity laws used to prosecute Mae West and Lenny Bruce were deemed unconstitutional
in the late 1960s, chipped away by the courts. Freedom of expression flourished as obscenity
laws were overturned at the start of the ’70s.
But police didn’t always abide by the new standard. “Blazing Saddles,” a Mel Brooks
film released in 1974, was co-written by Richard Pryor. While it was playing in theaters, Pryor
was arrested in Richmond, Va., for using the same language onstage one could hear in the film.
His manager was told a warrant had been issued for “disorderly conduct.” Pryor turned himself
in and was released after posting a $500 bond.
In the same decade, Sears pulled its sponsorship of “Three’s Company” due to religious
pressure, George Carlin was arrested after cussing and “Welcome Back, Kotter” was banned in
Boston over fears it would trigger disorder. In the 1980s, comedy team Bowley and Wilson were
arrested for flatulence humor. In the 1990s, Andrew Dice Clay canceled a show fearing he’d
be arrested on an obscenity charge in Texas. All of this occurred long before the words and
phrases “millennial,” “safe space” or “retweet” came along.
Comedians have far more freedom today. Subject matter involving sex, religion, politics or
profanity does not result in jail time. The tug of war between censorship and free speech has
been part of comedy for its entire existence. It is likely to continue.
Kliph Nesteroff is the author of “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History
of American Comedy.”