Comedians aren't constrained by cancel culture; they are freer today than ever

Writer and comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff is a guest on the latest episode of The Dana Gould Hour podcast to promote his new book, Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars.

He makes the point that as much as certain comedians complain that people are so sensitive nowadays they can't joke about anything anymore, comedians have always complained about that. In the 1950s and 1960s comedians like Groucho Marx and Danny Thomas complained bitterly that they couldn't do dialect jokes or blackface anymore. I follow Nesteroff on social media, and he's been posting on social media for years, I suppose as he researched his book, quotes from comedians from bygone eras, as far back as Will Rogers, saying that overly sensitive people are ruining comedy.

And in fact, comedians were far more constrained about what they could talk and joke about in eras past than they are today. Further, the consequences of violating taboos in the good old days could go beyond mere social media criticism. Nesteroff says on the podcast:

There are new taboos. There are. But there are less taboos today in comedy than in any other point in history. For most of the 20th century, politics were taboo, religion was taboo, sexuality was taboo, and certainly on television, swear words were taboo. And on the stage for the first half of the 20th century you could not swear without risk of getting arrested. So we actually have more freedom of speech.

Lenny Bruce wasn't just criticized on Twitter for his comedy; he was repeatedly arrested.

It's commonly said that "You couldn't make Blazing Saddles today." It's true that the movie included the n-word, and the use of that word in a similar context today would carry huge repercussions. But Nesteroff points out that the era of Blazing Saddles was not the time of unbridled freedom that is remembered:

Blazing Saddles, of course, [was] co-written by Richard Pryor. The same year, '74, that Blazing Saddles came out, while the movie was playing in theaters, Richard Pryor did stand up in Virginia and was arrested for the language in his act.

Another major part of Nesteroff's book is his history of how right wing groups and right wing billionaires have for decades used comedy as a pawn in their culture war strategy to divide America. Earlier this week on social media, in honor of the passing of TV producer Norman Lear, Nesteroff pointed to a video Lear's First Amendment group "People for the American Way" produced to expose these right wing and religious culture "warriors."

Nesteroff's book sounds fascinating and extremely relevant for today's political climate.