Would ‘The Office’ Really Be “Cancelled” Today?

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“How can I hate women? My mum’s one,” asks David Brent, chief schadenfreude magnet of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s classic comedy The Office. Played by Gervais, Brent is a masterclass in character building in that he is so vigorously pathetic. Desperate to be liked, his every attempt to prove a sense of empathy and understanding only serve to expose his lack of it, and his painful ignorance of the social issues he touts himself as an expert on earns him scorn and pity from his colleagues. Brent is the kind of person we should never want to be – this is abundantly obvious. Though, apparently, Gervais doesn’t think so.

“Now it would be cancelled” he recently claimed regarding the show, demonstrating a lack of faith in his audience’s ability to discern between bigotry like Brent’s – the butt of a joke – and bigotry being actively encouraged. He’s not the only comedian to feel this way; James Buckley, better known as the foul-mouthed Jay Cartwright, believes The Inbetweeners wouldn’t get made now. Jerry Seinfeld has been vocal about his view that ‘cancel culture’ is killing comedy.

Is this fear the result of ‘cancel culture’ inspiring overreaction to the very presence of bigotry, even when it’s being ridiculed? Well, probably not. Mocking bigots is just as popular now as it ever was; Bojack Horseman, Community, Borat 2, and Brooklyn 99 are just a some of the many modern comedies who regularly scrutinise all kinds of -isms and -phobias, and have deftly avoided cancellation thus far. The comedians fretting over old works have made a concerning miscalculation. Inadvertently or not, Gervais’ comments encourage an interpretation of comedy and satire favoured by conservatives – and it’s every bit as joyless as the ‘cancel culture’ he imagines is coming for him.

In 2017, a video went viral on Twitter in which user Lyle Rath watches a few seconds of alleged comedy The Big Bang Theory, then shares his opinion in aggravated tones:

Howard: So it’s settled. The fate of Doctor Who’s TARDIS will be decided by a Game of Thrones inspired deathmatch on the battlefield of Thundercats versus Transformers!

Rath: Fuck you! Where was the joke?! He just fucking named a bunch of shit! How is this comedy??

This might seem like a non-sequitur, but I bring it up for a reason – what conservative satire ultimately boils down to is this formula, ad nauseum.

Conservative comedians make out that the backlash against them only exists because the modern Left are sour, tyrannical buzzkills. This, I would posit, is wrong. By and large, the Left don’t find conservative comedy funny not because it only contains bad jokes – it doesn’t actually contain jokes at all. The truth is that conservative comedy, literally, does not actually have any jokes.

Take, for example, 2020’s Spitting Image reboot. Lacking the venom of its predecessor, some of the jokes were still serviceable, while others, er, weren’t. The skits regarding Greta Thunberg fall firmly into the latter category and go something like this: Greta tries to convince Lazy Friend to come with her to a protest. Instead, Friend persuades her to join him in what he’s doing – going to the football, watching Fast and Furious, whatever. Greta obliges, then becomes obsessed, and eventually will eventually come out with something like this:

Greta: The referee has stolen my childhood … the manager has lied to us with his empty promises!

As the eagle-eyed will have noticed, this line is a cut-and-paste job from Thunberg’s perpetually-memed 2019 speech to the UN climate action summit. But a joke? I’m sceptical.

To get a laugh, Spitting Image has assumed Thunberg’s words are inherently funny. To some, they might happen to be, but that doesn’t make them a joke. Toddlers are driven to hysterics by the word “fart,” but that hardly makes the concept Commedia dell’arte. Satire means meaningfully demonstrating why a point of view is wrong – not just parroting quotes from people you don’t like and hoping enough of the audience already thinks like you do to laugh reflexively. To paraphrase Rath: “She just fucking named a bunch of shit! How is this comedy??”

But this formula stretches beyond Spitting Image. In 2019, anti-woke satirist Andrew Doyle wrote a live comedy performance starring fictional activist Titania McGrath (played by Alice Marshall). Here’s an example of something therein Doyle presumably thinks is a zinger:

Titania: I organised my own slutwalk to raise awareness about Islamophobia.

Though met with a barrage of laughter from the audience, it’s not really a joke. Imagine the reverse – a left-winger writing a conservative character who remarks “I privatised the NHS because I hate asylum seekers.” It’s an assemblage of words plucked from a pile marked ‘things people I don’t like say sometimes.’ Once again, there’s no substantial argument or opinion to speak of. Though Doyle claimed in an interview that his aim is to mock “paternalistic” left-wing attitudes, I feel it’s no fault of your own if his contextless regurgitation of things-that-sound-feministy left you unable to grasp those subtleties; he’s preaching to the converted, and that means he doesn’t have to make any meaningful arguments about why his ideological opponents are wrong at all.

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.” (Good) satire operates along similar lines. It is the art of advocating a position in such a way as to expose the gulf between the target’s intentions, and the way those intentions actually manifest in reality. And it’s not impossible to treat left-wing views like this – it’s just a shame for conservatives that they seem incapable of it themselves.

Satire against the Left seems to be funniest when it comes from the Left. Take Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2018 show, Who Is America?; largely mocking the Trump regime, Cohen found time to punch the Left with his character Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a white professor who considers himself a far greater expert on injustice than anyone who experiences it first-hand. In response to a Black man referring to himself as Black, Cohen quickly corrects him – “that’s slightly offensive. Isn’t it ‘afro-marginalised?’”

As a satirical interrogation of an ideological flaw, a white man policing a Black man on his language surrounding race with confusing academia is a far funnier and more instructive way of knocking the Left’s occasional paternalism than whatever Doyle thinks he’s doing. Doyle and Spitting Image, conversely, give us terrible satire because they’re not giving us an argument at all. There is no interrogation, there are no jokes, because conservative satire assumes that their audience is only there to reinforce their biases.

Aside from being deeply unfunny, this immediately shuts down discussion – it’s a way to end a conversation, not start one. Conservative satire is every bit as repressive as the ‘cancel culture’ bogeyman that worries Gervais – and he’s doing terrible things for comedy by concluding that this is how all audiences think now – it isn’t. Context matters: most audiences understand this. Shouting half-understood buzzwords into a room full of people already primed to agree with your every word makes for a semi-effective propaganda campaign. But it also makes for extremely boring comedy.

Words by Ed Brown

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