No one cares anymore about cancel culture, but it is a heckuva marketing tool for some comics

Bill Burr is mostly right: powerful comics don't get canceled. Blaming it for comedy's problems only helps them

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 16, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Maher (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Maher (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Thank you, Bill Burr, for sparing me from suffering through more than 90 minutes of Bill Maher’s desiccating “Club Random” podcast. I feared that time would be lost forever but you, sir, assisted me and others with reclaiming it by nipping the host’s pointless attempt to engage you in an empty, meaningless argument.

I’m referring to Maher’s stab at diving into the supposed horrors so-called cancel culture inflicts on poor wealthy comedians with huge platforms and followings. For an extra good time, Maher reminded us of his incurable habit of being on the wrong side of history on most issues by mentioning the mythical plight of a certain world-renowned masturbator as an entry point.

“Isn’t it time everyone just went, ‘OK, it wasn’t a cool thing to do, but it’s been long enough and welcome back to the work'?” Maher droned, becoming what feels like the 587th famous performer to mourn their inability to see Louis C.K. smirk at them on a network show.

But this isn’t about that nonsense, which Burr responded to by pointing out that C.K.’s collective acts of indecent exposure and nonconsensual onanism displays cost him $50 million — a few beats after mentioning that he’s self-producing and releasing his material, which has netted him many tens of millions of dollars since.

No, the part I’m celebrating is when Burr invoked the most reliably triggering term of all before dispelling it and distracting Maher to change the subject.

 “I remember whenever that cancel culture got to the point when it was, ‘I don’t like some of the topics in your stand-up act.’ That’s when it got weird,” he said, adding, “That’s all over.”

“What’s over? Cancel culture?” Maher says incredulously.

“Yeah. No one cares anymore,” Burr said. 

The host who exists in a gilded bubble was not having it. “Either one of us could get canceled in the next two minutes!” 

“No. For what?” Burr questioned. “Well, if you’re not doing anything . . . I don’t know. I feel like I’m going back two years of my life. I don’t even think about it anymore. Nice ashtray by the way.” With that Maher moved on to bemoaning the thoughtless acquisition of nice things. 

It’s worth remarking that Maher’s terrible take on C.K. and effort to kick off the millionth pointless cancel culture debate took up just over a minute of a too-long podcast episode. Maher also goaded Burr by disparaging the pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses and insulting his stated position of being “on the side of the kids” with his condescending, out-of-touch reply of, “Yeah, that’s easy to say. No one wants to see kids dead.” 

But it’s the one-two punch of mentioning comedy’s unmentionable performer and the cancel culture boogeyman that generated headlines and tossed lighter fluid and a flipped Zippo onto the social media discourse.

“Club Random” announces its rudderless nature in its title, and whether that works for Maher depends on who’s dropping by. Burr’s regular guy contempt for Maher’s languid insistence that he knows more than everyone else makes other segments watchable.

I also suspect that far fewer of us would have been aware the episode even happened if Maher hadn’t dropped the term that reliably irritates cultural partisans into action.

Burr is mostly right. Cancel culture never was a threat to any famous comedian – especially men like Maher, who has expressed a slew of odious views on his HBO show without suffering any consequences. 

Its effect has been the opposite, making stars out of mid-level performers like Shane Gillis whose hiring and firing from “Saturday Night Live” when racist jokes he made on his podcast – which is much more popular than Maher's – were brought to light only expanded his fanbase. 

For someone like Ellen DeGeneres, whose daytime talk show ended after 19 years following allegations reported in BuzzFeed of sexual misconduct, racism and intimidation committed by her executive producers, cancellation mostly amounts to a time-out.

Regardless, when supposedly cancelled comics are landing Netflix specials, selling out stadiums, or winning a best comedy album Grammy following this supposed career death, that tells us that this dire menace to clown kind is about as real as the Chupacabra.

Maher has spent decades in the TV business, so he can’t honestly claim ignorance as to why his dear “banished” friend – who, like many other performers, is making plenty of money from his direct-to-consumer sales – hasn’t had his sitcom deal restored.

That is not to say it might never happen. Someday there could very well be an executive who decides his brand’s funk smells less like moral rot than money, whose network’s legal department deems the financial risk posed by hiring an admitted harasser, who committed a misdemeanor several times, is worthwhile.  

Cancel culture never was a threat to any famous comedian – especially men like Maher.

Whether Maher's ignorance is feigned or genuine is beside the point, because he knows just mentioning the name and those two little words is enough to get a rise out of the public. And this demonstrates the only real weight cancel culture has in the comedy world, in that it’s a proven marketing tool.

The fact that we’re even talking about Maher’s dusty podcast is more evidence. “Club Random” registers as the 129th most popular among Apple users and sits at No. 177 on Spotify, according to Chartable data. (Among comedy podcasts it ranks 25th on Apple and 46th on Spotify, so there’s that.) 

Burr’s appearance may boost those rankings, but the cancel culture canard is better at roping in views than a Times Square ticket hawker.

A slice of the same logic also removes the shock of Jerry Seinfeld blaming “the extreme left and P.C. crap, and people worrying so much about offending other people” for the supposed death of TV sitcoms, as he did in a recent issue of The New Yorker. 

One expects that of a grumpy old man who's made millions in the medium at a time when the competition amounted to six broadcast networks and a few dozen cable channels. 

Besides bathing in “Seinfeld” residuals, Seinfeld has added to his fortune and fame by producing entirely toothless popular content like “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and his latest project “Unfrosted,” a fabulized history of the Pop-Tart’s invention.  None of which qualifies as un-P.C. or even edgy.

It’s streaming on Netflix, which nearly guarantees it would have been found and enjoyed by people if the comedian never blamed progressives for the supposed downfall of hilarity on TV. But positioning himself and therefore his product as standing against buzzkills in the culture war gives Seinfeld entry to the conservative echo chamber whose denizens might have ignored it otherwise. 

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Entertainment promotion is often a cynical business; knowing that should remove the shock of a determinedly mid comedian falling into the angry man camp that is increasingly seizing more attention and moving more units in the game than others.

That doesn’t negate the harm of famous, powerful weaponizing the cancel culture specter to generate, clicks or a comeback. Maher characterizes it as part of the #MeToo’s so-called punishments when in truth it predates the movement by many years. 

Remember when Gilbert Gottfried was fired from his Aflac deal for making tasteless jokes about the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan? That was 2011, when the great evil was called outrage culture, largely generated by jokes like that, along with rape and sexual violence. 

This dire menace to clown kind is about as real as the chupacabra.

Reducing someone’s hurtful (and yes, illegal) actions or the gatekeepers’ inaction to remedy workplace abuses to “not a cool thing” teaches the public that making amends and delivering restitution to those harmed is unimportant. Allowing the laughter to resume matters most. 

Indeed, the reason I called Burr’s observation mostly right is because we don’t hear from or about the people whose careers actually have been canceled, like the five women who came forward in 2017 to detail C.K.’s misconduct. One quit comedy altogether. Others like Rebecca Corry keep trying to move forward in a career they’d been building long before they crossed his path.

Corry, who has more than three decades of experience as a performer and stand-up, wrote a 2018 Vulture essay describing the difficulties she encountered before her name became habitually linked with his and spoke to Variety in 2022 after he won that Grammy.

“Why am I constantly being asked to speak on cancel culture, the joke that is the #metoo movement, and C.K. every time he’s in the news cycle? I don’t care what that guy does, and of course cancel culture is real. I’m living proof,” she told Variety. “The moment I was sexually harassed at my job, I was canceled. That’s how it works, kids.” 

“So,” she adds later, “let’s talk about what I’m doing and when my Netflix special is happening. There are people who have been doing stand-up for five minutes with comedy specials and others with multiple specials who suck. So when’s mine? I’m ready when you are, Ted (Sarandos, Netflix co-CEO).”

As far as I can tell, he hasn’t called.

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DeGeneres, though, is sharpening her material for her Netflix special, which will be taped this fall. Rolling Stone took in her recent set at West Hollywood’s Largo at the Coronet Theater and characterized her means of addressing her part in her show’s downfall as “processing,” including copping to being an immature boss who “didn’t know how to be a boss.” 

Throughout the investigation into DeGeneres’ show, it was clarified that the misconduct was perpetrated by others, not her; and that her main shortcoming was turning a blind eye to her managers’ toxic behavior. This was preceded by years’ worth of rumors that the real DeGeneres was anything but kind.

Rolling Stone reports that in her set she admits that the chapter, which counts as her second cancellation from show business, has taken “such a toll on my ego and my self-esteem.” Understandable.

What about the egos and self-esteem of the more than 47 former employees who detailed their painful experiences to BuzzFeed, some of whom left the business after working for “Ellen”?DeGeneres’ audience was thinking about them, too.

During a post-show conversation, one woman asked, “Do you think you’ll seek revenge for those who have wronged you?” This was met by what the reporter described as “a loud round of applause and cheers from every corner of the room.” 

There’s your evidence of what famous people crying over supposed cancel culture has yielded. Not justice or a new sense of fairness, but misdirected grievance aimed toward less powerful people ruining everyone else’s good time by exposing our favorite stars' misdeeds. 

That, and a lot of outrage clickbait.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Burr Bill Maher Cancel Culture Comedians Commentary Ellen Degeneres Jerry Seinfeld Louis C.k.