Todd Phillips Is Wrong About Comedy and Cancel Culture

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Todd Phillips Is Wrong About Comedy and Cancel Culture

Film director Todd Phillips, who made his fortune on movies where white guys call each other faggots, has turned his back on comedy, and it’s your fault.

In a new Vanity Fair cover profile of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips explains why he left comedy to direct his new dark comic book drama Joker: “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” And then, having said those words out loud in a room where other people could hear him, I swear to God he kept talking: “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right?”

Complaints about “woke culture” are coming fast right now, and they’re generally lodged by people who are furious you’re not laughing at their jokes. The world’s Todd Phillipses can’t do what they used to do, or else they’d be cancelled, because, as they argue, we’re living in “cancel culture.” Never mind that we haven’t defined what cancellation actually looks like, we haven’t lost anybody to it either. How are we living in “cancel culture” if everyone’s still here?

I am aware that Twitter is not the best barometer, but out of curiosity, I recently put it out there: who has actually been cancelled as the result of a tasteless joke? Who was working, but now isn’t, all because they dared to offend a minority group? I heard a lot of “you must be kidding,” and “are you living under a rock,” as though the names were legion.

And so I pushed back: Who? Name one!

Will it surprise you to hear that I heard Bill Cosby more than once? Harvey Weinstein? Kevin Spacey?

When you roll your eyes and bemoan the state of the world, where someone can lose a job for offending our culture’s delicate sensibilities, and then offer Matt Lauer as your example, you’re telling me something loud and clear. You’re saying you’re not only uncomfortable with people facing repercussions for their words, you might not be on board with them facing consequences for their actions either.

We’re still living in a culture so patriarchal we can’t even get ourselves fully behind the idea that guys shouldn’t misbehave. We claim that an out of control cancel culture has claimed the careers of beloved comics Louis CK (admitted sexual harasser, touring), TJ Miller (facing federal charges for calling in a fake bomb threat on a train, touring) and somehow Jeremy Piven (accused of sexual misconduct, and somehow touring).

People are indeed sensitive, and the reason for that is that they are people. There have always been words and topics that have been off-limits, and while the borders around the things you cannot say are ever-shifting, the area within has always been there. Here’s one of the ways I know that’s true: In 1981, Nickelodeon began airing a children’s sketch-comedy show called You Can’t Do That On Television. That’s how ingrained the idea of social mores, standards and practices are; a fledgling cable network made a bet that the media-illiterate, pre-pre-internet children of the very early ‘80s, in the midwestern areas where cable television first took hold, would be familiar with the concept. Nowadays, you can say fuck on television, but the audience might not fall all over themselves laughing at Zach Galifianakis having to stay 200 feet away from a school. You win some, you lose some.

Here’s an example of how comedy changes over time: If you are Todd Phillips, or anyone who has recently made the argument that our culture is too sensitive, I would like you to do something for me. I would like you to go to the nearest open mic, tonight, and do your very best Jimmy Carter impression. There’s a lot of material there—he’s a peanut farmer, he’s got a crazy brother who makes his own beer, he has confessed to “lusting in [his] heart”—so I’m sure you’ll do great. Go do that right now and then keep reading.

Welcome back. Audience was a little cold, right? Does this reflect a merciless cultural shift against Jimmy Carter? Against humor itself? Or is it just not 1979 anymore?

It’s not 2009 anymore either. Tastes change. Comedy does too.

In 2019—a year when I watched Fleabag, I Think You Should Leave, Derry Girls, Big Mouth, A Black Lady Sketch Show, and This Time with Alan Partridge, to name a handful of things that made me laugh so hard I had to hit pause—it is fascinating to learn that comedies don’t work anymore. I am sorry to hear that all the fucking funny guys are so afraid of offending us, they’ve taken themselves out of the game, guys like Dave Chappelle (new Netflix special just out, Mark Twain Prize for American Comedy coming later this month) and Bill Burr (new Netflix special just out, season 4 of F Is For Family coming next year). I hope they’re okay!

That you cannot argue with 30 million people on Twitter I will grant you, which is why nobody is asking anybody to do that. But do you know what you can do with 30 million people on Twitter? You can wait one afternoon. People can be ruthless on social media, but they also have the long-term memory of goldfish. The whole cycle—the controversy, the apology, the rash of takes about the apology, the rash of takes about the takes about the apology, and the redemption—lives its lifespan so quickly you could miss one completely if you flew from New York to LA and didn’t spring for the Gogo in-flight WiFi. If you make a piece of art, and Twitter registers its displeasure with it, you can either stomp your feet and quit the game forever, or—I promise you this is true—go to the gym for a couple hours.

People are no more sensitive now than they were before.

Now, true: Shane Gillis’ racist podcast chatter did end his SNL career before it started, which was a surprise because usually Lorne Michaels only prematurely cans people for saying fuggin’ after midnight, or suggesting that OJ Simpson is a murderer. Roseanne Barr has definitely been banished from her ABC sitcom for Ambien-tweeting. I’m trying to obey comedy’s rule of threes here and name a third person who offended the liberal elites and got pushed out on a cultural ice floe, but I can’t. (I can however name Kathy Griffin, left utterly without support after a tasteless photograph, and SNL writer Katie Rich, suspended and undefended by NBC after a misguided Barron Trump joke.)

People are no more sensitive now than they were before, they can just get their criticisms right to you now. People are no less able to laugh at themselves than they were a decade ago, you just might have to work a little harder than “paging Dr. Faggot.” If you can’t take those criticisms or make these adjustments, it is possible that the person who is being too sensitive is you.

Anyway, Todd Phillips’ Joker—a movie about an angry white guy who’s so offended that the world won’t laugh at his jokes that he transforms into a murderous clown, a movie that has major American cities increasing police visibility in theaters just in case another angry white guy actually starts shooting—opens Friday.

Writer-at-Large
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.

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