I was going to write a few thoughts about this Whitney Cummings interview. Then I realized I already wrote those thoughts a few months ago about Neal Brennan: to wit, that a certain class of comedian has a tendency of playing dumb when faced with sexual abuse allegations against their friends. We can still glean a few other insights from the Daily Beast piece, though. Here are the money paragraphs:
No, I don’t think so. It’s interesting, because you were dealing with someone in Roseanne who’d been radicalized online. I almost feel like boomers just shouldn’t be that online—constantly tweeting, or constantly on Facebook—because they seem pretty susceptible to bad information.
Also, why the fuck are you listening to them? When people are like, “Roseanne’s so toxic,” then why do you follow her? You’re the one listening, responding, and just retweeted it. Just ignore her. This whole cancel culture thing, when people freak out, well you’re the ones amplifying it and legitimizing it by being outraged. I don’t even think Roseanne believes what she says half the time. She’s a contrarian by nature. We’re comedians—it’s our job to rile you up—and to me, a lot of the points she had made a lot of sense, and the other stuff sounded like someone who was out of touch, sequestered, does not have accurate data. I mean, the tweet that went out, that’s not what I’m talking about and unacceptable, but all the lead-up to it. I don’t forgive her, we’re not friends, and I quit the show, so I think it’s very clear what happened—I’m not giving her a pass. But if we’re not trying to understand why people are vulnerable to these conspiracy theories, we’re never going to be able to dismantle or understand.
You mentioned “cancel culture,” and I wanted to discuss that a little bit. Because it seems pretty overblown to me. I don’t think someone getting shit on Twitter for a couple days is getting “canceled.” Has anyone actually been “canceled” who didn’t deserve it? Are people really being “canceled” if Louis C.K. is still able to headline comedy clubs?
My publicist’s claw just pulls me off. [Laughs] No, I don’t have a publicist. Something that fascinates me about Twitter and cancel culture is, I was at the Twitter offices for some reason and reading statistics about it, and 22 percent of people are on Twitter—of that, 2 percent generate 80 percent of the comments. So there’s that. But I think humans are very consistent. We’ve done this with the town’s square hangings, or the Roman Colosseum. Humans used to watch hangings as entertainment. We’re a very dark species. I have this theory I’m working on—tell me if it’s stupid—but we have a very basic need to root for or against things, and then we didn’t have sports, and it got so much worse. All of a sudden it was, “He wore bronzer ten years ago!” And I think the pandemic amplified it, because we’re all so scared and freaked out. People don’t realize what they’re doing when they cancel comedians is: we’re funny because things are taboo, and the more you make it taboo, the funnier we get.
I know you need to find where the line is to be a comedian—to push up against it and even cross it to test and fine-tune your material. But if there’s “cancel culture” then what’s happened to Jeff Ross?
That’s a great question, and I don’t know. That’s one where it’s hard to tell because we’re in a pandemic, so we don’t know who would be getting jobs or who would be touring, because nobody’s touring or really working, so it’s a really weird time. But it was interesting to watch the comedy community kind of…
There seemed to be a collective shrug, which is crazy to me. That article didn’t seem to really hit as hard as I thought it should have.
You also have to have a certain amount of fame to be canceled, so it’s this weird thing of: How do you cancel someone who isn’t super famous? And why are we only canceling people who are super famous? Since power is relative, can you only cancel someone who’s super famous?
I mean, I would say Jeff Ross is about as famous as Chris D’Elia.
Really? The answer is: I don’t know. As comedians, it’s our job to advertise our flaws. We are scumbags. We admit it. We go onstage, say we’re a scumbag and piece of shit, and then when it’s revealed that we did all those things people get mad at us. So when it comes to minors and rape, that’s never acceptable and never OK, but expecting comedians to be perfect? That’s not what we do. We didn’t sign up for that. That was never our job. We advertise our mistakes. We hate ourselves! You don’t need to cancel us! Nobody hates us more than us. You don’t think we’re funny? We agree! So it’s this fascinating thing.
But with people like Chris D’Elia and Jeff Ross, people who really abused their power and station, where do you think they should be in the industry? Do you think they should still be given a platform? It’s sort of like, if there was a journalist who was out there preying on young girls I wouldn’t want them in my industry, or have them represent my industry.
It’s interesting, because I’ve worked really hard to not be the #MeToo police. Here’s what I will say: I think that ultimately, because of the internet, the people will decide. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but people will find their audience—even if they’re curious, or if it’s schadenfreude. I think I’ve made my stance on predatory behavior super clear, but…I don’t know. I think Sarah Silverman had a really elegant take on this of, “Can you forgive? Can anyone have retribution? Can anyone get help?” I don’t think I know the answer, and I think right now we’re all in so much pain that we have such a low tolerance for forgiveness right now, because everything is so scary. The person next to you at the grocery store is scary right now. Your own brother or sister is scary to you right now, if they just flew. Everyone is so scared that it’s impossible to think about forgiving anyone. We have zero tolerance right now. But these people might resurface again on independent platforms, without sponsors or networks behind them, and the people that listen or watch, they might not be watching for the right reasons, but I’m sure people want to watch a freak show.
The other day Vulture’s Jesse David Fox remarked that he wishes journalists would stop asking comedians about cancel culture. I agree that these conversations are often tedious, but I still find them useful, at least insofar as they reveal how some comedians privately discuss abuse in their ranks.
Just look at the substance of Cummings’ comments: Jeff Ross isn’t famous enough to get canceled. Comedians are upfront about being abusive pieces of shit, so you shouldn’t freak out when it turns out they’re abusive pieces of shit. Nobody’s working right now, so it’s impossible to say who is and isn’t facing consequences for their actions. This is pure delusion. None of it has any basis in reality. It’s only legible as in-group logic, the stories comedians tell each other to justify conclusions they’ve already reached.
Cummings used the same “We admit we’re scumbags, why are you mad about it?” line in Showtime’s Comedy Store documentary. While her fellow panelists seemed to agree, this reasoning is indistinguishable from the way some comics use “offensiveness” as carte blanche for hate speech and abusive behavior. (Also, I can’t recall Jeff Ross or Chris D’Elia or Bryan Callen ever advertising their sex crimes, though she’s right there were plenty of red flags.) The pandemic doesn’t make it “hard to tell” what happened to Jeff Ross: what happened was that none of his peers condemned him even when they had unprecedented cover to do so. And that Roseanne line is a very popular form of denial about how criticism works. To this day I still get people telling me that posting videos of Shane Gillis was the real racism, because nobody hurt by his jokes would’ve seen them otherwise. These people never seem to grasp that critics are less worried about people who don’t like hateful comedy than people who do.
Then there’s the maneuver I wrote about last time: the abdication of personal responsibility in deference to public opinion. To be fair, it’s not just comics who do this. Over the course of several conversations last year with the owner of the Comedy Cellar (and a few regulars), I heard repeatedly that Louis CK’s warm reception there justified his comeback, and that it’s not up to the club to dole out justice. In a June conversation with Cris Italia, I pressed him on the fact that many of The Stand’s regulars have a history of bigotry. He denied it, responding only that no customer has ever complained. (I suggested that perhaps they’re not complaining because they like what they see; he firmly rejected the idea.) Both reframed ethical questions in capitalist terms, right and wrong purely as a matter of what people want.
I find it very interesting when comedians—renegades, as Joey Diaz calls them in The Comedy Store—adopt the same moral framework as business owners and politicians. Maybe a career chasing laughter deprived them of the ability to think independently; maybe they always believed that popular equals good, and that’s why they went into entertainment. Either way, it takes a special form of cowardice to deny that lots of people can agree on something and still be wrong.
This is why journalists should keep asking these questions. Comedy isn’t a self-policing industry. Many comedians who make it to the top seem convinced they deserve to stay there forever. They’ll apparently do whatever it takes to preserve their station, even turning a blind eye to credible allegations of abuse. They deserve to face uncomfortable questions, and the public deserves to know how far they’ll go to avoid answering.
Some quick housekeeping. For insurance reasons I have to disable comments from hereon out. (At least until Substack lets me moderate them.) Comments are pretty rare around here anyway, so I hope this won’t affect your reading experience too much. As always, you’re welcome to email me your thoughts and I’ll do my best to respond. If they seem of interest to the broader readership, I’ll devote a special section to them in future newsletters.
Also: Twitter put me in jail for the crime of tweeting the words “stupid” and “idiots” at The Stand a couple weeks ago, when whoever runs the account was cheering on the doxxing of my entire family. If you’ve messaged me in the last day and want a response anytime soon, uh, feel free to shoot me an email.