The Free Speech Conundrum: The Comedy Industry Contends With Cancel Culture

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The Maestro: Richard Pryor, widely considered one of the greatest comics of all time, frequently pushed the boundaries of comedy. (Getty Images)

Pollstar just published its first issue devoted entirely to the business of live comedy, which is thriving. Looking at Boxoffice data, Pollstar has quantified why we are currently amid something of a comedy “Golden Age” with record-setting grosses and ticket sales. Yes, there’s room for an academic debate on whether today’s comics transcend previous generations’ talents and ability to make us all laugh, but what can’t be argued is that the live comedy business is skyrocketing.

What also can’t be argued is that the medium has surely changed, the most drastic difference being the way comics communicate with their audiences, with direct lines via social media, podcasts and video streaming platforms.

Previously, “You needed a third party to validate your existence, whether it was Carson or a radio show or something, no one would know you unless somebody else, some other entity put you on,” says Brian Dorfman of Outback Presents, which produces tours and shows for many of the most popular comedians today. “Now with podcasts, TikTok, all these things, comedians can get their own platform. Comedians are doing it themselves. I think it’s just absolutely a fantastic time for comedy.”

In addition to streaming, many comedians have cultivated devoted followings largely via social media and podcast platforms and are able to reach fans directly – and have the type of experience and skills to successfully create content and market themselves already. This has helped lead to seemingly overnight touring success for comics who have been writing and performing comedy for 20 years and are now at the top of their game.

With that exposure and reach has also come the ability for fans – or critics, or an angry Twitter mob – to respond in a similarly instant and unfiltered way. “Cancel culture” has led to high-profile firings or ridicule of public figures who may be caught saying or doing something embarrassing or offensive in their personal lives, or choosing to share opinions some may deem sexist, racist or otherwise offensive.

In the case of comedy, however, cancel culture at worst can be an attempt to arbitrate what an audience should find funny, and places judgment on a comic’s personal character based on their material. While complaints of political correctness and censorship are nothing new to the live entertainment business, those operating in today’s comedy business note a challenging dynamic.

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Seven Dirty Words: George Carlin after being arrested for obscenity following his 1972 Summerfest performance in Milwaukee. In a profession where speech
is everything, Carlin is considered a pioneer. Photo by Mark Goff / Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Looking back to the ‘90s versus now, “It’s definitely night and day,” Gabriel Iglesias told Pollstar during an interview for the cover story. “If you said something that was a little off color, it wasn’t taken seriously unless you said something that was blatantly hateful or came across as very, ‘Whoa,’ you know?” Acknowledging that he’s fortunate to have developed a supportive fanbase and isn’t still trying to find his comedic voice, Iglesias says the impact of cancel culture is clear in today’s comedy scene.

“I see other comics struggling with society and the rules, because things are changing too quickly. People don’t have time to adjust,” he said. Iglesias tells a story of wanting to buy a meal for a family outside a McDonald’s parking lot, when the manager corrects him. “He says, ‘You know, you can’t say ‘homeless’ anymore.’ It caught me off guard – who complained? ‘The proper term is unhoused.’ I’m like, you know what? Just stop it.”

The story can be an example of navigating the current free speech landscape. “If you’re coming from a good place, even if you make a mistake, if it’s not something that’s intentional, you’re not trying to be hurtful, you’re not trying to be disrespectful, you get a little leeway. Don’t get me wrong, there are some people that are totally going for it and that’s their gamble. That’s their choice to be that way and do what they do, but yeah, so much has changed.

”In finding a particular comic offensive or not funny, “You might just have a different taste,” Outback’s Dorfman adds. “Some are dirty, some are clean, some are really bold, some are political, some are all sorts of goofy. It’s niched out. But just because they say something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“A comedian’s job is to find the line,” Dorfman adds. “As long as there’s an attempt at humor, he’s doing his job. You can say whatever you want about cancel culture, but I say it’s absolute bullshit, because these guys have never sold more tickets. So you tell me, what’s more important, the trolls on the internet or your fans?”

Those on the talent side of the live comedy space feel passionately about the issue and stand behind their clients, which is part of any representation process.

“You know what you’re getting yourself into as an agent or manager when you start representing any type of client,” says 33 & West agent and co-founder JJ Cassiere, who has quickly grown a sizable comedy division at the independent agency that has roots in rock and metal bands. He says that when representing talent of any kind, an agent or manager needs to believe in a client’s material – or be able to separate business from personal opinion.

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Kings of Comedy: Eddie Griffin, George Lopez, Cedric The Entertainer and D.L. Hughley perform during the long-running Nashville Comedy Festival in 2018. The event is produced by Outback Presents, whose top execs say that despite any prevalence of “cancel culture,” the comedy business
has never been stronger. Photo by Rick Diamond / Getty Images / Outback Concerts

“You know what they’re about, what their views are and you should be able to vet them. If you’re not doing your due diligence, that’s on you,” said Cassiere, whose clients include Eddie Griffin, Tony Hinchcliffe, Eric D’Alessandro, Eric Neumann and Steve Hofstetter.

The trend of cell phone lockers being used during comedy sets, while initially to keep new material from going public, can also be a way to prevent comedians from being vilified for material they are still working on and from audiences that otherwise wouldn’t be interested in attending a particular set.

“Adding that requirement to a show is worth it to the comics sometimes,” said Cassiere, who noted that well-known comedians with strong fanbases have been dropped by talent agencies for fear of being canceled. “It’s good to have new fans and new people to check you out, but it’s become people recording comics because they’re offended by it and then bitching about it.”

He says the proof is often in the pudding, with ticket sales and happy audiences attending comedy of all types.

“Our acts do full weekends at the top clubs in the country, they can do high-profile casinos, PACs and theaters,” Cassiere said. “Comedy is on fire right now and it’s not going to slow down.”

With comics already in a vulnerable position to be on stage with just a microphone and spoken word to carry them through a whole set, extreme opinions can lead to fans acting aggressively or violently at a show, such as at a recent Dave Chappelle performance when an audience member rushed the stage with a weapon before being apprehended.

“We must protect an artist’s right to full freedom of expression, period,” said Gersh’s Rick Greenstein, longtime agent for Chappelle, in a response to a list of survey questions from Pollstar. The comedian, widely regarded as one of the best of his era, has been in hot water for sharing opinions and making jokes related to transgendered people. While many defended the material as thought-provoking, many also felt it was in bad taste and potentially harmful. A recent gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis was moved to another venue in town in response to the outcry.

“There must be dialogue and there will be discourse but freedom of expression cannot be silenced, especially in the arts,” Greenstein added. “In regards to security, all appropriate protocols are available to be taken into account and when and where appropriate will be utilized accordingly. Can’t take anything for granted these days, but it is a fine balance as these are comedy shows and you don’t want to have a ‘police state’ per se, but the artist and their content must be protected.”

Noting the difficulty of being a performing comedian, Outback Presents President Mike Smardark, Brian Dorfman and brother/partner Andrew Dorfman are setting up an organization to assist comics with living expenses, health insurance and mental health resources.

While still putting together the actual funding vehicle, Dorfman says there’s ample support for the performers.

“The easy part once we get it done is to raise the money,” Dorfman says. “Most of the important voices you hear on a daily basis are comedians. It 100% is a noble profession, and it’s a hard gig til you get there. It takes a long time to make it big, or also not to make it.”

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated)