dave chappelle
It was one of the most unusual impressions from a comic legend who doesn't generally do them at all. But it marked an important moment in the culture wars.

In his new Netflix special Sticks and Stones, Dave Chappelle set a trap for his audience and they walked right into it. "I want to see if you can guess who it is I'm doing an impression of," he said. "All right? Let me get into character. You gotta guess who it is, though. Okay, here it goes. 'Uh, duh. Hey! Durr! If you do anything wrong in your life, duh, and I find out about it, I'm gonna try to take everything away from you, and I don't care when I find out. Could be today, tomorrow, 15, 20 years from now. If I find out, you're f---ing-duh-finished.' Who's that?"

Chappelle waits a beat while the audience — bizarrely — guesses that he's doing an impression of President Trump. Chappelle rears his arm back and points at the audience: "Thaaaaaat's you! That's what the audience sounds like to me!"

Chappelle explains that the modern audience is so tedious to entertain it's almost not worth trying.

Stand-up comics are the frontline fighters of the culture war for a reason: It is their job, more so than even musicians or artists, to push boundaries, to turn sacred cows into hamburgers. They identify and probe societal tension without any mandate to heal the fissures — though humor itself can serve as a salve. This is undeniably healthy for a society, but it's also what makes the industry unacceptable to the militant humorlessness of "cancel culture."

I remember the exact day that I realized the woke scolds were coming for stand-up comedy. It was Sept. 4, 2018, and I was reading a Vulture piece unironically titled "How Funny Does Comedy Need to Be?" heralding the time of "post-comedy." Writer Jesse David Fox was doing Olympic-worthy mental gymnastics to explain how stand-up comedians like Hannah Gadsby are pioneering a new art form of comedy that isn't funny: "Like post-rock, post-comedy uses the elements of comedy (be it stand-up, sitcom, or film) but without the goal of creating the traditional comedic result — laughter — instead focusing on tone, emotional impact, storytelling, and formal experimentation. The goal of being 'funny' is optional for some or for the entirety of the piece."

It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Everything, today, is problematic. Everything is about power and privilege.

Identity politics has become enshrined as a sacred religion on the Left, and it is enforced by armies of humorless, finger-wagging scolds. As Helen Pluckrose, one of the co-authors of The Grievance Studies explained to me, "The people who have the ability to recognize their own implicit bias and, with the help of critical theory, see the powerful discourses oppressing people, are woke."

One of the most popular ideas wokeism preaches is that "speech is violence." It has gained traction among a generation of coddled minds raised with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and cry closets. But the idea that speech is violence is death to a comedian. Their livelihoods depend on the ability to be hyperbolic. And the Church of Woke and its devotees engage in relentless prosecution of ever-changing and random rules.

In truth, even before the advent of post-comedy, much mainstream comedy was post-funny. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart pioneered "clapter," a form of comedy aiming for approval but not laughs. Today's late-night hosts practice clapter, from Stephen Colbert to Jimmy Kimmel, former comics who have traded in laughter for political orthodoxy. Even the monologues and sketches of Saturday Night Live often follow this script.

Furthermore, comedians who made their name being irreverent, such as Seth MacFarlane, Chelsea Handler, and Sarah Silverman, were pulling up the ladder behind them and policing their fellow comedians about what kinds of jokes were allowed.

An important function of the comedian is to find what we aren't allowed to talk about, mine the deeply buried preconceived notions, poke fun at stereotypes, disrupt the status quo, and release the pressure.

Woke killing the joke left millions of people longing for the good ol' days of escapism. Comedy used to be the place where you could express yourself freely. Now, jokes are weapons that can be dragged up and used against you. Chappelle noted what happened to his friend Kevin Hart, one of the most commercially successful comics, who lost his dream of hosting the Oscars over old tweets.

The past few years have seen heavy hitters such as Chappelle, Bill Burr, and Joe Rogan go from defense to offense. And that means crossing pretty much every unwoke red line. Gun violence. #MeToo. LGBTQ. Racism. Transactivism. Abortion. Pedophilia.

In his 2016 Netflix special Triggered, Rogan attacks the persistent insistence that boys and girls aren't different. "There's no physical equality, folks. That's why we have the Olympics." Rogan says, "It's not sexist to say that women can't do big physical labor things as good as giant men can." This seems like a pretty mundane observation. In 2016, it was provocative.

But Rogan and others who already had name recognition and a wide audience noticed that cancel culture's fatwas resulted mostly in elite sneering, not silencing. The scolds could stomp their feet, but there was still a large audience for comedy.

And the critics misunderstood the phenomenon, calling it "punching down" and insisting that this isn't true comedy. But the "punching up vs. punching down" dichotomy isn't about bullying. First, cancel culture has plenty of power, so the distinction is a bit blurry. Second, the audience isn't looking to gang up on the downtrodden. They're seeking to do what comedy has always done: put society under a microscope.

The realization that cancel culture was toothless against those who'd already achieved widespread fame only supercharged the comedy sets of those without much of a filter to begin with.

In his 2017 Netflix special, Walk Your Way Out, Bill Burr says: "Now, look, I know you're not supposed to make fun of fat people. I understand, all right? I don't know why, though. Why? They're not a race, they're not a religion. It's totally curable. Eat an apple and go for a walk, you know? Why are you yelling at everybody else?" The "I don't know why you're not supposed to say what I'm about to say" formula became a standard means of eye-poking the wannabe-censors. Indeed, the woke scolds are the new hecklers.

In his comeback special after being temporarily sidelined by controversial allegations of sexual misbehavior, Aziz Ansari sent up the competitive virtue signaling amongst white folks. "Is there some sort of secret progressive candy crush we don't know about?" he asks. "Don't you imagine some white people getting together in secret, like, 'Alright let's tally up our scores, what did everyone do for equality today. Let's hear it. Tell us about your day, Brian.'

"'Well, I told one of my African American friends I thought Black Panther should have won best picture. Then I tweeted out some support for this new documentary by a lesbian filmmaker. Then I Instagrammed a little love for Colin Kaepernick.'

"Brian's won a bunch of Instagram likes from some other white people playing the same game!'"

Cancel culture's relative powerlessness against comedy's top rank creates another problem for it: the unintentional bulletproofing of those it has had some success against, allowing the comic to develop a sort of immunity to shaming.

Until his #MeToo charges, Louis C.K. was a god king in the comedy world. Afterward, he was cast out by an entire community of people who knew exactly who he was for decades. But having nothing to lose emboldened Louis to joke about the things no one could joke about. In a leaked 2018 set, he went after the taboo topics on the Left. About the Parkland child activists, he said, "Because you went to a high school where kids got shot? Why does that mean I gotta listen to you? Why does that make you interesting? You didn't get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way and now I gotta listen to you talk?" Regarding gender: "They tell you what to call them: 'You should address me as they/them, because I identify as gender neutral.' Oh, okay. You should address me as 'there' because I identify as a location."

Sensing the audience bristling at the material and almost daring them to try to cancel him again, Louis asks: "What, are you gonna take away my birthday?"

A key point here is that they're not ignoring the critics. They're listening attentively. The difference is that they don't plead their case for being the hero or even being innocent. Instead, they are telling the woke scolds, "You're the villains here."

British comedy legend Ricky Gervais came out with his own Netflix special in 2018, Humanity, and addressed the intellectual suffocation being practiced by the perpetually offended: "People see something they don't like, they expect it to stop, as opposed to deal with their emotions. They want us to care about their thing as much as they do."

Many of their critics accuse them of acting like victims when, in fact, they're on the attack. They're rejecting victimhood. They're not offended. They're going on the offense. They're not triggered. They're on the assault.

The question is whether this crop of comics, and thus this particular rebellion, simply ages out — or will the rise of young, fearless stand-ups such as Tim Dillon and Andrew Schulz indicate that the baton can be passed? Do you have to be grandfathered into this system of cultural power? If so, cancel culture has suffered merely a temporary setback. And America's free fall into humorlessness, briefly arrested, will resume with a vengeance.

Bridget Phetasy is a writer, comedian, host of the Walk-Ins Welcome podcast and The Weekly Dumpster Fire show on YouTube.