The Pantheon of female comedians runs from the indomitable Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller to the banal but foul Samantha Bee. It used to include Sarah Silverman, but her name can no longer be mentioned. And then there’s Maeve Higgins. “Who,” you ask? You don’t know her name because she’s been canceled, but she would have to matter before anyone would bother to cancel her. And she doesn’t matter, except to the New York Times.
I’ve been doing standup comedy for 14 years, and at some point, I came to despise it. It made me feel bad about myself, mostly. The thing I find hardest is the bullying nature, the punching down. I’ve heard comics onstage mock women and gay people and black people in a variety of ways that still manage to say nothing new. I’ve sat in grimy green rooms and witnessed the ego bloat that comes with applause and money, the rewards that come from maintaining the status quo. It’s gross. But I stay for the rare and magic flashes of connection.
Aside from the advice that after 14 years she might consider getting a barista job, she’s entitled to like and dislike any comedy she wants. As are we all. And she’s entitled to perform any comedy she likes, and if others thought she was funny, someone might recognize her name. But just as other comics don’t write op-eds about how she’s just not much of a comic (although it would be pointless to do so), who is she to damn comics whom people actually find funny because she finds their humor “bullying.” I wonder if Dave Chappelle knows about this?
Sometimes, the funniest thing about comedy is how seriously people take it. I try to avoid the teacup storms that sometimes spill and stain the table around us, but this past week has been messier than usual. A comic named Shane Gillis was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” then fired shortly afterward when footage circulated of him being racist on his podcast, calling Chinese people a racial slur, and when Variety reported that he’d also made anti-gay comments and stereotyped Muslims on his show.
Shane Gillis finally caught the big break and got an SNL gig. Saturday Night Live may not be what it once was, but it’s still a lot better than Maeve performing in her mother’s living room. And then he lost it because of his saying “vile racist” things. Don’t know if he did, or where his words fell on the “vile” scale, although it’s hard to imagine he was up to Lenny Bruce or George Carlin level, and forget about Richard Prior.
Maeve isn’t wrong to dislike whatever the hell she finds dislikable. If she prefers chocolate ice cream to vanilla, she can eat all the vanilla she pleases. But that’s not enough for the Maeves of this world. It’s not just about her enjoying whatever pedestrian flavor of ice cream she prefers (maple walnut is the best flavor), but about making sure you can’t enjoy the flavor she doesn’t like.
Many of my comedy colleagues are up in arms, at least digitally. They are calling Mr. Gillis’s firing “cancel culture” and worrying about what it means for freedom of speech. I’m laughing.
At least someone is finally laughing in Maeve’s vicinity.
These anxious comedians are worrying about the wrong problem. Here’s where the real silencing happens in the comedy world:So many would-be comics — women, people of color, other marginalized groups — are silenced from the beginnings of their careers. Despite their talent and work ethic, they leave the industry and take their brilliance elsewhere, or perhaps nowhere. Reaching a level in their career where they could even get canceled remains a dream for most.
The qualification for being a successful comedian isn’t one’s skin color or genitalia. The qualification is people finding the comedian funny. No one silenced Eddie Murphy, who leaped from SNL to stardom, because he was funny, and that made people want to see him. Wanda Sykes is funny, as is Amy Cho. Joan Rivers was funny, but she was Jewish so it doesn’t count.
What they all had in common wasn’t that they met with the approval of some prissy social justice comedian, who laughs not because she said anything funny but at the harm inflicted on another person. Every one of them told whatever joke they chose to tell, and an audience would either laugh or not.
The problem is when Mr. Gillis — and the others like him — frame their words as bold and boundary pushing and brave. What would really be shocking, what would really be exciting and edgy to watch, would be a person climbing down from their safe height and fighting the powerful in a situation where there’s a chance they will lose more than a role on a show.
Was Gillis on top of the mountain, looking down on the little people like Maeve? If social justice comedy was “really” exciting and edgy to watch, Maeve would be on top of the mountain and people would watch her. Then she could fight the powerful and feel so very good about herself.
When anyone disagrees with something a comic says, or there are repercussions for their behavior, the comic too often seems genuinely shocked. Your words have consequences. Imagine! What these men need to learn is that just because you want a job on “Saturday Night Live” doesn’t mean you deserve one.
Gilllis got the SNL gig because they decided he deserved it, not because his comedy met with the approval of the scolds but because somebody decided he was funny. He lost the job because they wanted to hire a comic, not a controversy. There are plenty of comics who need a big break, and it’s easier to cancel Gillis and skirt the snarling mob so the show can go on.
You know who didn’t deserve the gig? Someone nobody thought was funny enough to make the cut, Maeve. Hey, Chelsea Handler’s got a special coming on Netflix, “Hello, privilege. It’s me, Chelsea.” Maybe you can snag a spot getting Chelsea coffee while she explains how privilege has benefited her career. No doubt it will be a hoot.