Even Mr. Bean Has a Dumb Opinion About Cancel Culture

"Every joke has a victim," Rowan Atkinson said in a recent interview. "That's the definition of a joke."

Rowan Atkinson attends the U.K. premiere of "Man Vs Bee" at Everyman Borough Yards on June 19 in London
Rowan Atkinson attends the U.K. premiere of "Man Vs Bee" at Everyman Borough Yards on June 19 in London.
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These days, it seems impossible for a comedian to do an interview without inevitably being asked for their take on “cancel culture.” That even applies to Mr. Bean — real name Rowan Atkinson — who has some surprisingly dumb opinions on the issue.

“It does seem to me that the job of comedy is to offend, or have the potential to offend, and it cannot be drained of that potential,” Atkinson said in a recent interview with the Irish Times. “Every joke has a victim. That’s the definition of a joke. Someone or something or an idea is made to look ridiculous.”

We’d argue that the job of comedy is, first and foremost, to be funny. (When did that become such a radical concept?) And of course, jokes can make people or ideas look ridiculous without offending. There’s a way to make a clever joke about someone without resorting to tired stereotypes, hate speech and the like.

“I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about saying what you’re allowed to make jokes about,” Atkinson continued. “You’ve always got to kick up? Really? What if there’s someone extremely smug, arrogant, aggressive, self-satisfied, who happens to be below in society? They’re not all in houses of parliament or in monarchies. There are lots of extremely smug and self-satisfied people in what would be deemed lower down in society, who also deserve to be pulled up. In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything.”

First of all, no one ever said that all people in marginalized communities should be immune from ever having a joke made about them. But if the reason to go after them is that they’re “smug, arrogant, aggressive, self-satisfied,” that should be the butt of the joke — not their race, gender, sexuality, etc. It’s fine, for example, to make fun of Caitlyn Jenner for suggesting that we move all of California’s homeless people to “big open fields.” It’s lazy and hateful, however, to make fun of her for being trans.

It’s also ridiculous of Atkinson to suggest that comics aren’t “allowed” to make ill-advised jokes like that. As we’ve seen time and time again, “cancel culture” is not real, and comedians like Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle who face criticism for transphobic material keep raking in millions of dollars from streaming services like Netflix. No one is being hauled off to jail for making a bad joke. But that doesn’t mean comedians should be free from criticism over said jokes; just as they’re free to hurl as many vile insults as they please, we’re free to react to them however we see fit.

And if, as Atkinson suggested, comedy’s job is “to offend,” then shouldn’t an offended audience be mission accomplished?

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