How to say the unsayable: the comics tackling anti-‘woke’ trolling

<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

‘Cancel Anti Wokeflake Snow Culture” is not an out-of-context Piers Morgan quote but the title of comedian Sam Nicoresti’s new show. In it, they flip between being a curious leftwing standup exploring their own gender, and Nam Sicoresti, a cancel culture-obsessed livestreaming comic who is gearing up for an interview with Jordan B Peterson.

Cancel culture is not a new topic, but discussions on free speech in comedy and the right to offend have felt closer to the surface after a Jerry Sadowitz show at this year’s Edinburgh fringe was pulled after its first performance due to “content that was considered … extreme in its racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny”. Meanwhile, Netflix specials from Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle have been the subject of much controversy, with some viewers labelling them as transphobic. Some of the purveyors of anti-cancel-culture comedy, such as Nicoresti’s character Nam, could be described as edgelords – troll-like figures whose primary purpose is to antagonise. “To my mind, it’s somebody who doesn’t have the courage to stand by their opinions, who believes in nothing, where the only thing that matters is causing outrage, because outrage generates engagement,” says Nicoresti.

In the UK, the rise of podcasts in the mould of Joe Rogan’s, and the move by the TV channel GB News to bring current and former comedians to screen to discuss culture-war issues, have meant we are hearing the same debates more often. Only last month, UK podcasters Triggernometry were guests of Rogan, telling his audience of millions that the UK comedy scene is restrictive and rubbish.

Alongside Nicoresti’s parody, this year’s Edinburgh festival fringe features a number of shows challenging that narrative. Hannah Fairweather makes jokes about a certain unnamed podcast and how its hosts are richly rewarded (with many listeners and a high-profile comedy agent) for their claims that free speech in comedy is in jeopardy. Erika Ehler defies the idea that the comedy climate is restrictive with challenging but measured material about abortion, race, Catholicism, “eating ass” and her attraction to autistic men.

Erika Ehler.
‘You can get away with most things if you’re smart and funny’ … Erika Ehler. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

It feels as if there’s more surety than ever from comedians on this topic. After years of hearing claims that “You can’t say anything any more”, most are quick to say: “That’s not the reality of comedy.”

“You can talk about dark topics and do it well. Edgelords, their priority is to be offensive,” says Fairweather. “It’s people who are more preoccupied with offence than they are with being funny. They’re the people who will be, like: ‘It was just a joke,’ but they weren’t prioritising the joke, they were just trying to push it as far as they could.”

Ehler agrees: “You can get away with most things if you’re smart and funny about it. If you don’t have those two, then you’re just an asshole on stage. That’s when you get these lazy comics who are, like: ‘Oh, too far for you?’ If you had sharper writing, you could make it work. But you just want to blame the audience.”

This often gets left out of the public debate, says Nicoresti. “The thing with this argument about freedom of speech in comedy is you’re talking about a collaborative art form – because you have to go on stage and get a laugh.”

Fairweather agrees: “From clubs, I’ve never personally experienced any rules or been told what I can and can’t say. Audiences are the biggest rule-makers. I’ve gigged with some of these guys and they’ll do badly, then say: ‘This audience is too woke.’ And it’s, like: ‘They just didn’t find you funny!’”

Many feel that branding yourself a “free-speech comedian” has become a marketing tool, helping people gain a profile they never could through comedy. “The reality is, if you talk about being cancelled, you’re rewarded for it,” says Fairweather. “They are disproving all of their points with their own work.” Conversely, she was told that as a woman, speaking about her own experiences in the industry could see her labelled as “difficult”.

Hannah Fairweather.
‘How is what Sadowitz is doing any less wrong because he is a previous offender? … Hannah Fairweather. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Ehler saw it happen back in her native Canada. “I think those dudes forget that just being a trans person, a gay person, a person of colour going on stage, that is offensive to some people in the audience and they don’t take well to that,” she says. “Whereas they can go on stage and no one’s going to be immediately on edge just because of who they are.”

The Sadowitz saga has prompted mixed reactions from fellow comedians, with some (including Simon Evans, Andrew Doyle and Viv Groskop) coming to his defence and others arguing that racial slurs (which the Sun newspaper reported were used in the show) can never be justified. In a statement posted by his Twitter account Sadowitz accused the Pleasance venue, which cancelled the show, of “cheapening and simplifying” his act. “I am offended by those who, having never seen me before, HEAR words being shouted in the first five minutes before storming out without LISTENING to the material,” he continued.

People say: ‘Don’t buy a ticket,’ but other idiots are buying a ticket, so I feel like that’s not enough of a protest

Erika Ehler

“In any other workplace, if you are accused of ‘extreme racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny’, your contract will likely be, and in my opinion, should be, terminated,” says Fairweather. “I have seen a common response of, ‘But this is just what he does’ and I find it baffling. It ignores that we live in a world where progress is a great thing, and things that were once acceptable are not. If he hadn’t always done this, would it be wrong? And if so, how is what he is doing any less wrong simply because he is a previous offender?”

Nicoresti has worked as an usher during performances of the same Sadowitz show. “I’ve seen him call people the P-word and the N-word and get his dick out, and he’s free to do and say all that stuff … he’s not owed a 400-seater venue to do it in, or a whole team of underpaid staff to facilitate it. His hatred, framed as a character, ripples out into an audience of intolerant idiots who aren’t characters,” Nicoresti says. “Simon Evans saying ‘This is our Spartacus moment’ is so funny because I’ve seen the show and I don’t think Evans is really going to start saying racial slurs on stage any time soon.”

When Nicoresti and Fairweather began writing about these topics in their shows, they decided to do extensive research – something they both feel “edgelord” comedians neglect to do. Before she started doing standup, Fairweather was a big fan of Gervais and would listen to him discussing what the comedy industry was like. “I had a very warped idea that does not match what my experience has been,” she says. “So I can see how if someone’s listening to these things and doesn’t have the context, they’d be, like: ‘I am angry about this. It’s just complete misinformation.’”

For both, it underscored how taking a certain position on free speech and cancel culture in comedy can turn to something darker once you gain a particular audience. “You’re selling yourself to people who ultimately don’t care who you are,” says Nicoresti. As the character of Sicoresti proclaims: “I can say exactly what I want with zero censorship. As long as it pleases the algorithm and my supporter base.”

Related: Edinburgh festival 2022: 50 shows to see

Nicoresti started writing their show to understand their own stance on these issues and explore why so many people in these “free speech” spaces have co-opted discussions about gender and pronouns. There is space for nuance on stage that is absent from social media, Nicoresti says. “You can feel like the people that are talking about this are all on one side of the coin. It’s just trying to redress that a little bit.”

Ehler agrees these ideas should be challenged. “People say: ‘Just don’t buy a ticket,’ but other idiots are buying a ticket, so I feel like that’s not enough of a protest.”

“Maybe we’re fighting fire with fire,” says Fairweather. “I don’t think [this debate] should be left to comedians but I think it’s worth talking about.

“There’s a lot of ‘How far can you push it?’ discussions. Why is it always that? I didn’t come into comedy being, like: ‘What can I get away with saying on stage?’ I just wanted to tell jokes.”

Sam Nicoresti: Cancel Anti Wokeflake Snow Culture is at Banshee Labyrinth, Edinburgh, until Sunday; Hannah Fairweather: Just a Normal Girl Who Enjoys Revenge is at Just the Tonic at the Caves, Edinburgh, until Sunday; Erika Ehler: Femcel is at Monkey Barrel Comedy, Edinburgh, until Sunday.