Stephen Merchant says ‘people are allowed to criticise things’ amid cancel culture debate

Stephen Merchant has weighed in on recent debates over “cancel culture” and its alleged effect on comedy.

In recent years, a wealth of comedy figures such as Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle and John Cleese have maligned criticisms of “wokeness” causing increased sensitivity in comedy.

Most recently, Jerry Seinfeld joined in on the discussion, claiming that “PC crap” from the “extreme left” had caused the death of the TV sitcom.

Comedian and actor Merchant, who co-created The Office with Gervais, shared his take on the conversation in a new interview with The Guardian.

Though he suggested that there has “always” been policing of comedy, Merchant, 49, noted that those on the political right were the enforcers of standards in the past.

“It feels like it’s the Left that’s doing it now, and it’s allowed the Right to become the arbiters of free speech. Which does feel like quite a significant shift,” he said.

Merchant added that comedians were “more cautious” about their work, “because you don’t want to spend weeks on Twitter trying to justify a joke you were just experimenting with. Because putting out the fires is exhausting.”

Stephen Merchant (Getty Images)
Stephen Merchant (Getty Images)

Merchant then expressed a sense of understanding towards making more considered jokes, in presumed contrast to Gervais.

“I’m also aware that sensitivities shift over time and that people are allowed to criticise and query things, and we do look back at old comedy and think we wouldn’t do that any more,” he said.

“I have no objection to the sands shifting. I think that makes sense and I’m loath to become a kind of ‘old man of comedy’, railing against the younger generation.

“But you do feel like there’s a sensitivity to the words before they’ve even heard the joke or the context. And that is inevitably a straitjacket of sorts – it quashes experimentation.”

Ricky Gervais shares reason Netflix didn’t ‘promote’ new stand-up special (Netflix)
Ricky Gervais shares reason Netflix didn’t ‘promote’ new stand-up special (Netflix)

In Gervais’s most recent stand-up special for Netflix, Armageddon, the comic joked about his work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, in which he jokes about how he approaches messages for terminally ill children who ask for him.

The joke also included the use of an ableist slur.

After the show’s debut, Gervais hit back at those who expressed their upset over the joke, questioning whether people were actually “offended” by it.

“I’m literally saying in the joke that I don’t do that. But people have a reaction. They don’t analyse it,” he said during an appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live.

“They feel something – that’s what offence is. It’s a feeling. That’s why ‘I’m offended’ is quite meaningless. What do you want me to change?”

The special received mixed to negative reviews from critics.