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28 September 2023

The tedious world of anti-woke comedy

From Jimmy Carr to Ricky Gervais, “edgy” comics are making jokes about 9/11 and Michael Jackson in an attempt to offend. But we’ve heard it all before.

By Sarah Manavis

We are living in the age of anti-woke comedy. You’ll have seen it before: taking aim at younger generations and their values. It’s a type of humour that sticks to a familiar rhythm and nearly identical punchlines: snowflakes, quiet quitters, virtue signallers, cancellers, trans people. From Dave Chappelle to Ricky Gervais, anti-woke comedians are dedicating entire stand-up sets to “skewering” identity politics and its practitioners. These comedians tell audiences they are going against the grain, defying the mainstream, and participating in a new form of socially transgressive, counter-cultural comedy.

It’s easy to find examples of this kind of humour – you need only scroll through the “comedy originals” on Netflix. Last Friday (22 September), the British comedian Jimmy Carr posted such a clip on social media, which quickly went viral. The video was of a short stand-up set Carr performed as a part of a Netflix variety special, Bill Burr Presents: Friends Who Kill, first released in June 2022. Carr claims the set features his “darkest jokes”, warning the audience that “what I’m saying onstage tonight is barely acceptable now” and describing it as a “last-chance saloon” – soon to be beyond the realm of what is deemed acceptable by mainstream culture.

With such a billing, and with a reputation like Carr’s, what an audience might reasonably expect is to then be treated to a series of “edgy”, shocking jokes – material so offensive, surprising and raw it would stun them into embarrassed, guilty laughter. What follows instead, however, is five minutes of comedy that isn’t just tired and uninspiring, but incredibly dated, including jokes about Michael Jackson, One Direction and 9/11 (a subject that hasn’t been taboo to joke about for nearly 20 years). No punchline is one you haven’t heard some version of before: there are one-liners about paying for sex, condoms, not being able to joke about anything these days and, of course, gender (for example, suggesting kids in ten years will describe their grandparents as “non-binary elders”).

The video went viral in large part because it was such an obvious dud. It appealed to seemingly no one, with some calling it flat and dull and others noting it was far from “dark”. You can even hear this reaction in the live audience’s lukewarm response – a rarity in these self-congratulatory comedy specials, in which audiences are primed to laugh uproariously at even the most basic jokes. Though some might want to suggest Carr’s set was a one-off bomb, it is a sign of the limits of this shtick: while “anti-woke” comedy might sell itself as transgressive, biting and original, in reality it rarely moves beyond being boring, repetitive and clichéd, failing to do the one thing it sets out to: make us laugh.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t an appetite for this kind of comedy – there is undoubtedly a sizeable audience eager for reactionary humour. But in its current form, anti-woke comedy is utterly devoid of innovation or daring criticism. Instead, it offers derivative, repetitive jokes where the punchline is often as juvenile as “imagine that: a woman with a penis!” When Dave Chappelle spoke about the reaction to his stand-up special, The Closer, in which he made jokes about transgender women, the comedian complained critics “didn’t say anything about art”. Ricky Gervais’s 2022 Netflix stand-up special, Super Nature, starts with him flagging that when he says something offensive he is practising the art of “irony”. While the audience response to some of these sets isn’t as tepid as it was for Carr, you can’t help but feel that comedians such as these are succeeding based on their pre-existing fame – drawing crowds because of their legacy rather than because of their current material. What may be even worse for them is that, much like what they often accuse of the left, some of their recent success may be down to support for the free-speech ideology they are promoting, not for the quality of the jokes they are performing.

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Of course, there are political arguments that could be made here: most of this anti-woke material upholds, rather than subverts, the political norm (just as “anti-PC” comedy did before it). But these comedians have insulated themselves from such critiques – to condemn it on moral grounds would be to suggest that they’re right to believe their work is “unsayable” or “offensive”, rather than simply boring and humourless. Both Gervais and Chappelle claim in their sets that they support trans rights; much of Chappelle’s material on the issue circles around a now deceased trans friend who, Chappelle argues, would have loved his latest material.

However, despite claiming they succeed on craft as well as commentary, these sets fail the fundamental test of providing viewers with something funny. Good comedy is innovative, surprising and clever in its construction. The best comedy makes us see the world around us in a new way. Instead, anti-woke comedy brands itself as transgressive, honest and bold, while recycling tired, forgettable and unfunny jokes.

Carr claims his “barely acceptable” set will be deemed impossible to perform in less than a decade: “In ten year’s time, f***ing forget about it.” The real challenge for these comedians is to create work that anyone is going to remember.

[See also: The power of policy-posting]

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