Despite what you’ve been led to believe, there has never been a better time to be a standup comic. On the heels of the ubiquity of online video streaming, sites like Netflix and Amazon have provided massive amounts of money to comedians to pump out specials. The content is simple to film, very cheap to produce, and so in addition to an unprecedented increase in the quantity of comedy specials, the top comedians are being paid more than ever. The price for this appears to be, not the dreaded cancel culture some of these comics want you to believe is the greatest issue of our time, but rather a ton of criticism and critique.
But, the money and the platform simply wouldn’t exist if people didn’t react in great numbers. That’s the whole racket. Netflix releases a new Dave Chappelle special, people flood to the site, then they flood online, they talk about the special, sending more people to the site, rinse and repeat.
It seems especially strange that the likes of Chappelle and Gervais spend so much time explaining what they get in trouble for saying, and how any reaction other than the one they want is indicative of some grave social decay, given that it seems to be the only thing they care to speak about anymore. This is partly what is frustrating. It’s not that I think these two are bad comics. To suggest otherwise is pretty disingenuous. For me, it’s precisely the opposite. There is something depressing about living in such a ridiculous and troubling time, and these comedians with the biggest platforms, and amazing skill, can’t seem to find anything worth talking about other than Kevin Hart not being able to do the Oscars, and that if a trans person can change their gender, then maybe they could become an animal, or a different race! I’m not going to bother with the discussion about whether the jokes are actually good, or whether the way they are handling these subjects is problematic, or some brave fight against PC culture. Rather, it is just truly fascinating that this is somehow the shit that interests them. Gervais came to fame with a truly brilliant dissection of British office life, the workplace, and life as an Everyman. Chappelle has created some of the greatest sketch comedy the world has ever seen, often hitting at very serious issues with a deftness and a brutality that was incredible to see at its peak. So what happened? Well, they got paid. It is most likely that simple.
Consider how much the necessity of free speech seems to underpin what they’re doing. They insist on ‘telling it like it is’ and speaking truth to power. Yet, you never see them encroach on the way that the world’s wealthiest actually suppress free speech, through low—wage labour, and the purchase of political speech and influence. Instead, they rail against the people who are far less powerful, mostly powerless, without spending anytime at all on the absurdity of what created the things these people are now reacting to. It’s not controversial, it’s not edgy. It’s just disappointing.
The power they want to truth—tell about is not a power at all, but rather a movement that is threatening to change the foundations of a social order that as they grew wealthier and more important, starting working very well for them, thank you very much.
In a way, Gervais and Chappelle have less in common with truth—hurling social commentators, than they do people like Bret Stephens and Jake Tapper. They might seem completely different, but in truth, they are all of a sort; they are millionaires being paid by billionaires. And, their role in the media ecosystem is to create the feeling and illusion of debate, criticism, and social discourse, while resting comfortably within the confines preferred by those who hand them more money than they know what to do with. It’s not that this is some great conspiracy where the heads of places like Netflix have to tell these comedians what to say, or what not to say. It’s precisely that they don’t even have to. The money talks. What’s more, it’s not even that they don’t attack the role of wealth in suppressing speech because they don’t want to upset the applecart. They’ve moved beyond that. For this type of person, they are entitled to everything they’ve earned. And, by extension, since they believe themselves to be geniuses, any social order that rewards them with lifelong riches, well, it must be getting something right.
So, Netflix can use their personas, their hard—earned career notoriety, their fan bases, and their haters, to move product. What’s best, is they can market them as these rebels, outsiders who don’t bow down to social convention. All while doing nothing more than playing directly into it. V