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Vinay Menon: Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. Grammy nominations show standups can laugh off cancellation — if they’re great

Vinay Menon: Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. Grammy nominations show standups can laugh off cancellation — if they’re great
Entertainment
In the Best Comedy Album category, the nominees include Louis C.K., for “Sincerely Louis CK.” This has sincerely triggered some observers, who accuse The Recording Academy of not just ignoring bad behaviour but rewarding it.

To recap: Chappelle has been under fire since his new Netflix special , “The Closer.” Almost immediately, new allegations of transphobia were added to the list from his previous Netflix specials.

Meanwhile, C.K. was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. After a bombshell New York Times story in 2017, which included allegations he masturbated in front of female comics without their consent, his career looked deader than King Tut.

After he admitted and apologized for his behaviour, just about everyone believed C.K. would be banished from Hollywood, forced to live out his pariah days in a remote cabin with a mountain-man beard as he dreamed up dirty limericks while pleasuring himself in front of woodchucks.

But today, it’s as if this scandal is forgotten or forgiven. Louis C.K. is still performing and, if he was so inclined, could sell out Scotiabank Arena in under 10 minutes.

Similarly, Chappelle seems bemused by the fuss he created. I can’t climb into his head to divine what he’s thinking. But my guess is he thinks, “I’m Dave Chappelle.” The C.K. scandal is different, much less about free speech and more about the possibility of redemption for a comedian who acted badly.

Chappelle, like C.K., is among the greatest standup comics ever. I applaud Netflix for not caving to the howls of protest, including from its own employees. Netflix took a stand for free speech and artistic freedom.

This week’s Grammy noms for Chappelle and C.K. have led to something of an existential crisis for their critics. Or as some headlines put it: “Louis C.K.’s Grammy Nom Sparks Debate About Whether Cancel Culture Actually Exists,” “Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K. Defy Cancel Culture,” and “Is Cancel Culture Cancelled?”

The short answer: No. The longer answer: Not for what you say onstage. Comedy has a natural immunity to cancel culture because a standup stage was never supposed to be a safe space. A good comedian makes you laugh. A great comedian makes you laugh and think.

No one has ever bought tickets to The Comedy Store in Los Angeles for a night of sanitized platitudes. That some young comics don’t seem to understand this — “Saturday Night Live” has a woke problem — is depressing and an insult to mic pioneers like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, who waged cultural war, at great personal cost, in the name of free expression.

A comedian is supposed to deconstruct society and make observations, however uncomfortable, that you or I would not utter around the water cooler for fear of getting hauled into HR. The key, though, is the person must be funny. Provocative for the sake of provocative leads to stridency and irrelevance. A bizarre, racist riff devoid of context and humour will get you cancelled — just ask Michael Richards.

Over the last couple of years, there were countless think pieces about how “cancel culture” was killing comedy. Those death warrants were premature. Dave Chappelle could write a new hour exclusively with trans jokes and there would be lineups in every city he tours.

After Chappelle and C.K. received Grammy love this week, many people are now arguing “cancel culture” couldn’t possibly exist. This argument fails to distinguish between an attempted cancellation and cancellation itself. I may get tackled by security before I can hand my note to the teller, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to rob the bank.

Unlike other performing arts — film, television, theatre, music — standup comedy does not have many middlemen, and it’s middlemen who are most susceptible to pressure. All a comic really needs is a promoter and a venue. During the pandemic, even “venue” became elastic as comics performed at drive-in theatres and parks and backyards and parking lots. It’s hard to boycott a backyard.

By stark contrast, if “cancel culture” comes for a comedian who is connected to a network or studio, the odds an outrage mob can draw blood go up exponentially. Just ask Shane Gillis or Roseanne Barr, who said stupid and offensive things but the amount of punishment seems to be determined not by how awful the mistakes but how dependent the artist is on TV executives. Standup comedy, however, is a meritocracy.

Race, age, gender, sexual orientation — it doesn’t matter if the person is funny.

This is all about digging a line between art and artist. Or as Harvey Mason Jr., the Recording Academy’s CEO, told The Wrap in response to the Grammys backlash this week: “We won’t look back at people’s history, we won’t look at their criminal record, we won’t look at anything other than the legality within our rules of, is this recording for this work eligible based on date and other criteria?”

Hallelujah. The Grammys are finally saying art can’t be cancelled just because Twitter hates the artist.
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