03 Oct, Tuesday
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OPINION | Are Audiences Too “Woke”?

Recent shifts in pop culture have led many to assert that audiences today are too “woke.” Jennifer Aniston said in a recent interview that she didn’t believe Friends – the show that launched her into superstardom- would survive as most of the characters would be “cancelled,” along with criticisms about its lack of diversity. Aniston also stated that comedians had their work cut out for them in the present day.

Many comedians have faced scrutiny based on comments, performances, and even ill-fated tweets. In 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress was riffing on a joke and stated that he didn’t like Bill Cosby’s condescending comments about black youth when it was an open industry secret that Bill Cosby had sexually assaulted dozens of women. Buress had used the bit before, but this time an audience member recorded and uploaded a video of the performance. The result was renewed interest in the accounts, which resulted in a conviction for Cosby. After a few years in prison, Cosby is planning a comeback tour.

In Bill Cosby’s case, another comedian’s joke landed him in the hot seat. It can’t really be argued that Cosby was cancelled for the content of his craft – although his prior statements were enough to inspire Buress to publicly make his observations that toppled America’s Dad.

Even more swift was the response to a tweet by disgraced comedian Roseanne Barr who tweeted in 2018, “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” About Valerie Jarrett, who was an aide to President Obama. The comment was made by a tweet that Barr deleted. She apologized – but the outcry was enough to have her eponymous character written out of the recent reboot of her classic sitcom, with the network changing the show’s title from Roseanne to The Connors. While some saw the statement as a stupid joke, others saw it as racist. The comedian, whose show represented blue-collar middle America combining themes such as job loss, drug addiction, and raising an imperfect family, gambled big on a joke and lost.

Other comedians are taking steps to prevent their stage work from making it to social media. Bill Burr has been known to utilize the YONDR phone pouch at performances. The system requires audiences to relinquish their phones, which eliminates light pollution but also works to prevent any public outcry from what should be a night of dumb joke-telling. This allows the audience to be fully present in the moment and gives the performer the freedom to perform without wondering if they will walk offstage to face a firestorm over a wise crack.

Screenshot from Twitter | Photo credit: @WhitneyCummings

As cultural shifts continue to occur, the public will continue to have its opinions. They won’t all agree on the same things – and that’s okay. No two comedians have the same position in the profession, with Whitney Cummings tweeting in February 2022: “Comedians did not sign up to be your hero. It’s our job to be irreverent and dangerous, to question authority and take you through a spooky mental haunted house so you can arrive at your own conclusions. Stay focused on the people we pay taxes to to be moral leaders.

To which Marc Maron, long-time comedian, and podcaster, responded with, “Maybe add ‘to be funny’ to the list.”


  • Bill W.

    The same discussion could be had of any employment: at what stage does your filter not meet expectations? We have clients, employers, colleagues, and numerous stakeholders who have had to respond to changing social conditions, so that comments once acceptable in the workplace may now result in termination or required training. I think those changes have been correct, and I'm not certain what puts comedy or entertainment beyond a similar scope of judgement. Audiences get to decide, as the financial supporters of these workers, whether they want to invest in them or not. Largely, the difference is a shift in our expectations of what is considered "funny"...diminishing people may have simply become more off-putting than in the past. "Don't they look weird" may not get the yucks it used to? In the meantime, if society is changing so that people are more aware of the potential damage that cruel language, including casual derogatory humor, may have on long-marginalized groups, then performers might consider redesigning their product so that it is something people will continue to buy. Otherwise , they're stuck shaking their heads at the rest of the world and wondering why everyone thinks they're the jerk.

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