Comedy and political correctness: Canadian comics on the impact of ‘woke culture’


TORONTO — In a social media age, more voices than ever are critiquing comedy projects through a socially conscious lens, but “Corner Gas” creator Brent Butt embraces such feedback.

Butt says “comedy should be challenging” and face pushback — and that’s why he disagrees with Todd Phillips, director of raunchy 2009 film “The Hangover” who recently told Vanity Fair magazine that “woke culture” is making it hard for “funny guys” and that’s why he turned to drama with “Joker.”

Comics shouldn’t expect an easy career where they don’t have to give a second thought to their material, says Butt.

“I think it’s a real tough time for people who are kind of one-trick ponies, or who want to just be myopic and just do one kind of thing,” says the Vancouver-based standup star and writer, whose “Corner Gas” franchise is available on Bell Media platforms in Canada and IMDb TV in the U.S.

“There’s hilarious comedy being done all the time, there are more standup specials available on TV now than there has ever been. So if the notion is you just want to be able to kick people in the teeth and not have anybody say to you, ‘Hey, don’t kick that person in the teeth’ — yeah, it’s going to be hard days. But if you’re somebody who’s not punching down, it’s not going to be a huge challenge.”

Phillips isn’t alone in deriding so-called politically correct “woke culture” or “cancel culture” and its impact on comedy.

In his controversial new Netflix standup special “Sticks & Stones,” comedian Dave Chappelle laments how performers’ past words and actions are coming back to haunt them. Such was the case with comedian Shane Gillis, who was recently fired from “Saturday Night Live” after clips surfaced of him making racist and homophobic jokes on his podcast last year.

Toronto-based comedian, actor and writer Nelu Handa says comedy is ever-evolving and now has more divergent and marginalized voices entering the fray. That’s resulting in progressive perspectives reflecting the world we live in and making a certain type of humour seem distasteful, she says.

“You can only have so many (penis) jokes before the audience will demand something different of you,” says Handa, who works on shows including “Baroness Von Sketch Show,” “The Beaverton” and “Workin’ Moms.”

“A lot of people who are threatened by that, it’s because they don’t ride that wave of progress…. Hurtful comedy that punches down to marginalized people or shakes their fists against feminism and equality, there’s always going to be an audience for that, which is unfortunate for society I think.”

Handa says the writers’ rooms she’s been in lately want to make sure they’re not giving a platform to hateful things.

“I think comedy these days is punching more in the way of being progressive and not holding society hostage with its ignorant point of views that have always been, and allowing for more opportunity to let us be critical thinkers and let us move beyond things that are hateful or small-minded,” says Handa.

Calgary-bred standup performer Brittany Lyseng, who releases her debut comedy album “Going Up” through 604 Records on Thursday, says the comics who are struggling these days seem to be those who haven’t evolved and continue to perform offensive material that doesn’t resonate anymore.

“I think that’s typically who I hear is having a problem, is, ‘Well these woke kids, they don’t laugh at my material,’ and it’s like, ‘Well yeah, nobody thinks homophobia is funny anymore,'” says Lyseng.

“I hope that making jokes about your wife making you take out the trash isn’t something we all think is hysterical,” Lyseng adds. “I think our thinking has evolved. So when people … say, ‘Well nothing is funny anymore,’ we’re like, ‘Well no, THAT’S not funny, and making fun of somebody that potentially can’t defend themselves is not overly hysterical to me. So maybe it’s time for that kind of funny to die anyways.”

The shock-comic brand of humour that used to draw uncomfortable laughs also doesn’t seem to work as much, says Lyseng.

“It’s odd to me that people call being nice to each other ‘woke culture’; that we’ve slapped a label — and a negative one, at that — on just being nice to people,” Lyseng says.

“Woke culture to me seems to be not attacking marginalized groups. I don’t know if that’s comedy so much as it is bullying. So perhaps we’ve just evolved past bullying one another for laughs.”

Author and humorist Andrew Clark, director of the Humber College comedy program in Toronto, says he doesn’t support comic censoring and doesn’t feel it’s fair to critique a comedian’s material when it’s still a work in progress, such as at an open-mic night.

But comics who perform provocative material should do so with technique and the conscious intent of making a satiric point or truth, and they should be willing to accept the consequences if people feel offended, Clark adds.

“Essentially I just think do what you’ve got to do but understand that people may not like it,” says Clark.

“Basically something that’s just offensive for the sake of being offensive is generally not funny.”

Clark says he sees a lot of “really great comedy” these days and doesn’t agree with Phillips that “woke culture” is killing the craft. He notes his young comedy students have come of age with social media and are more adroit at handling the current climate in their acts.

“I think the younger people we have are savvy because they’ve grown up being scrutinized,” says Clark.

“They don’t have the same concept of a throwaway joke. They’ve grown up in a social environment where if they make some kind of a faux pas, maybe they air a video in which they don’t look very good, they can suffer for it. So they’re much more savvy about it. So I’m not worried about the future of comedy because I think they know what they’re doing.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press