Here’s a puzzle. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is a disgusting dark body-comedy, covering — and this is non-exhaustive — sexual abuse, murder, drug addiction, serious injury, disease and much more. Little Britain is a British kinda disgusting body (kinda) comedy, which sought to make humour from disabled, poor, and gay people. Both featured white actors in black face; both started airing within two years of each other in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s.
Yet there’s a difference. Little Britain has been cancelled, both literally and in the sense that so many overpaid newspaper columnists and podcasters drone on about (the sense in which the word precedes ‘culture’), but Sunny hasn’t. And LB has really been cancelled. If you’re not a Brit, you might not even have heard about it, but if you are you will know — if I’m reading the general mood correctly — that it’s viewed with great disgust, as an appalling thing which its creators can’t come back from. Sunny, on the other hand, despite being thematically as bad or worse than LB, remains very popular. Not only that, and again if my read of the mood is right (which it might not be, but search in Twitter for ‘It’s Always Sunny’ and ‘Little Britain’ and you’ll see positive views about the former and negative about the latter), it remains popular with people like me, that is to say with people who, inter alia, look on LB something entirely unacceptable, a cruel throwback to a different era.
So this is the puzzle: two shows, alike in theme, one cancelled and one not, and one popular even among the cancellers. How can this be? The puzzle is really two, or so I’ll treat it: why does Sunny remain popular even among socially progressive people (I use this to pick out roughly what others might call ‘woke’); and why does Little Britain not so remain. I’ll suggest answers in subsequent sections, before suggesting some possible general morals for ‘cancel culture’ and even more broadly for how group attitudes towards things (topics, culture, politics) are formed.
In Stalinist Russia in the 1930s, literary critic Mikhail Bahktin was writing for a PhD on French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais. At the heart of that work is the idea of the carnival, and so will it be at the heart of my answers.
The idea of carnival, if you’re a pale North Atlantic type like me, can seem foreign. If you’re from Rio or New Orleans, or have visited around roughly this time of year (on Mardi Gras), you might have experienced it: parties, parades, costumes, music, food, drink, drugs.
Apparently, there’s an important idea here: carnival, taking place before Lent, was a period of collective letting off steam, in which the rules of reality were suspended. Imagine (I make no claim to either historical or literary-theoretical fidelity here or in any of what follows — the idea should stand or fall on its own merit) you’re a medieval peasant. Your lord’s being a dick, taking lots of your crops. It’s cold, your pants are dirty, and the priest is lecturing you. And a lot more lecturing is coming up: it’s soon to be lent, a time for reflection and sobriety, and the weather won’t be nice yet. As a sort of pick me up, you have carnival. At carnival you eat and drink and are merry, and stage parties and spectacles, a key feature of which are that there’s a reversal of roles. You’ll dress up as a priest, and maybe give a sermon; a priest will dress up as you. Ditto lord and serf. For one day, roles are reversed, and this functions as a sort of psychological releasing of the steam-valve, one that keeps up the unstable unequilibrium of serfdom.
I hope this idea is somewhat familiar. If you’ve ever happened to be in Norway in May, it might call to mind Russefeiring. This is a period when the Norwegian — who sell alcohol stronger than beer only in special shops, for limited hours, and where barmen look askance at you if you drink too much — goes wild. Or rather, the teens do: it’s a celebration for high school leavers that involves days of extremely elaborate partying (they rent and illustrate buses), constant drunkenness, and, at least if you read the tabloids, public sex.
But you can see this closer to home. Someone — I can’t remember who — said that the function of college in the US was to let young people off the leash, let them drink and do drugs and have sex as much as they like, a sort of 3–4 year party, to pacify them for a life of wage slavery. And, to return to the UK, if you’ve ever witnessed the weekend binge drinking in the towns that remain unhollowed-out you can’t help think something similar is going on here: that this is the drinker’s recompense for the week in the office.
So, here’s a theory, which I’ll inset just so you know it’s important:
there are a range of desires which interfere with the smooth running of power, and to keep in control of this power, society, in some sort of weird impersonal way, creates release valves to, well, release these desires harmlessly.
I’m taking some liberties, here, but we can see this same sort of thought in Bahktin’s book on Rabelais. Here’s a passage:
common to both Rabelais’s writing and the carnival form is an attitude in which the high, the elevated, the official, even the sacred, is degraded and debased, but as a condition of popular renewal and regeneration (Bahktinian Thought, Dentith: 68)
Be in Oslo on Norway day, watching the completely wrecked looking youngsters among their elders dressed in traditional Scandanavian garb. Take in Joel Goodman’s mesmerising New Years Eve shot of Manchester a couple of years ago. You are looking at — stripped of the pejorative sense of the ‘d’ words in the quote above— the carnival-esque as expressed in the above quotation.
But, actually, we can’t quite strip it of the ‘d’ words, because degradedness and debasedness are in fact two central features of Bahktin’s Rabelais. Let me just quote you a bit of Rabelais so you get the sense of what I’m taking about:
The occasion and manner how Gargamelle was brought to bed, and delivered of her child, was thus: and, if you do not believe it, I wish your bum-gut
fall out and make an escapade. Her bum-gut, indeed, or fundament escaped
her in an afternoon, on the third day of February, with having eaten at
dinner too many godebillios. Godebillios are the fat tripes of coiros.
…she did eat sixteen quarters, two bushels, three pecks and a pipkin full. O the fair fecality wherewith she swelled, by the ingrediency of such shitten stuff!(here)
I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure I know or want to know what ‘bum gut’ means, but the same commentator I quoted above points out how tripe — animals’ stomach — is a quintessentially Rabelaisian food. He has fancy reasons, but a simpler one, I think, is just: because it’s gross. If you skim Gargantua and Pantagruel you will find a lot of such grossness. Grossness is carnivalesque. And so we’ve got two things: we’ve got a carnival attitude, where laws are suspended, and we’ve got that it’s gross. And then (don’t watch if you’re easily disgusted; I’m mainly quoting it because it’s one of my all time favourite TV moments) here is exhibit one:
And my claim, which, if you’re familiar with Sunny, should be evident, is that it is Rabelaisanly carnivalesque, initially just in the sense that it is loaded with gross body humour.
But the bodily excess of Frank Reynolds, if it is indeed carnivalesque, is not merely gratuitous. If it’s carnivalesque, then it plays that weird psychic escape valve role that Russefeiring or college or binge drinking does. It marks a break, literally, a pause. Or so I claim.
A pause from what? From contemporary civilised life. From treating Cricket as an object of care, from the realization that the Poyles are all mentally ill, from consciousness of the fact that crack is a tool of the New Jim Crow and the institutionalized racism of the US. On the reading I’m suggesting, the odd lingering popularity of Sunny, in light of its wildly controversial topics, is indicative of a role it plays in letting us let off psychic steam, of giving vent by proxy to the desires and thoughts and feelings forbidden in polite society. That’s the main claim: as middle ages carnival provided respite to the serf, so Sunny does to the contemporary progressive fan.
Wait, you might wonder — am I not then saying we’re all racist, ableist, unfeeling people? After all, if we need such respite from racism, sexism, etc. doesn’t that mean we’re all racist, sexist, etc.? That seems very different from the office worker getting drunk on Friday night after sending emails all week!
It’s much darker. But maybe that’s right. It’s standard Robin D’Angelo-speak to say that we’re all in some sense racist (/sexist/ableist) because racism is an institutionalized fact. But then if that’s so, then it’s completely understandable that we would need a release from these urges we’re told we have (for the record, while I certainly don’t buy the HR-ification these important topics, I am pretty on board with institutionalized understandings of prejudices that would make it come out that I possess all those bad qualities, despite any protestations I may make otherwise; so I think the theory I’ve put forward makes psychological sense at least for me).
That’s my first claim, then. Sunny is gross; that’s a feature of carnivality; carnival is also a way for a society to air urges that it doesn’t have room for, and so Sunny plays that role too, being a problematic fave and being a fave because, not despite the fact, it’s problematic.
But what about the second question? If I’m right about Sunny, then what about Little Britain? How explain the vitriol it gets and continues to get? (I’m excluding the interesting answer, worth considering, that the difference is Sunny is funny and LB is bad.)
Several answers suggest themselves. The creators of Little Britain attempted to pivot to general-British-nice-celebrityness. One of them writes, to this day, a series of children’s books. As far as I know, the Sunny people don’t make such moves. So maybe it’s this: the LB people are hypocritical, and it’s hypocriticality that we really as a society hate.
While that seems plausible, I don’t think it’s right, for a couple of reasons. I’m not sure of the empirical premise, that the LB people attempted to pivot while the Sunny gang didn’t. Howerton’s doing well in the (highly solid) AP Bio, for example; I don’t know enough about the fortunes of Lucas post-LB to really say whether he tried to cleanse himself. And anyway, surely it will overgenerate: surely wherever there isn’t hypocrisy, then a series would remain uncancelled. But that’s not so: it’s something of a miracle that Sunny stands unscathed, when off hand tweets from ten years ago suffice, and I don’t think the unhypocrisy of its makers can explain their seeming bulletproofness.
What does? Well, I’m an academic philosopher, and we’re fond of saying that things have no explanation. That’s natural: our whole deal is trying to explain things, so it gives a little frisson if we posit that something is unexplained. Thus, for example, we might say there’s no explanation why my hand and my wrist and my forearm and my elbow compose something (my lower arm) but why my arm, the Eiffel Tower, and the number 10 compose nothing. In philosophers’ parlance, composition is brutal: it’s just a brute fact that sometimes, things compose to make bigger things.
So here: I want to propose brutalism about cancellation. There’s no explanation as to why Sunny remains in good health while LB and many others have been consigned to the scrap heap of history. It’s random. Some people didn’t give up on it; they shared some memes about it; others caught on, and that was it. More generally, for many things, I suggest cancellation brutalism is plausible, in the following (slightly) narrow sense: two things can be the same in all relevant respects, yet one can be viewed as apt for cancellation and the other not (in unhelpful philosophers’ jargon, cancellation doesn’t supervene on the relevant not cancelly properties of a thing).
It’s hard to argue for brutalism: after all, it’s whole deal is that it does without explanation. But I hope it seems at least mildly plausible in the case under consideration, and, moreover, that it’s interesting: it would be super interesting if cancel culture operated in this random way, if the dynamics of our current cultural moment were in fact just brutal, and if, extrapolating from that, to look for a clear and rational explanation for social attitudes in the objects of those attitudes was a mistake.