Is comedy in the cross-hairs of the Culture War? Our Writer at Large asked 15 stars of the Edinburgh Fringe


Alison Spittle, Monkey Barrel

Culture wars are for people with too much time on their hands - and grifters. Comics whine about free speech because they can't use slurs without being called out.

I don't believe in culture war. People want tolerance. Though some want nothing to change. What are they protecting? Top Gear? Using the word ‘gay’ negatively? It’s passé. Society changes.

It contributes to an environment where if you aren't straight and white, you feel this ickyness. I participated in that world and didn't think about who it affected. Now I try to do better. There’s more to worry about: AI, the police state, the death of the planet. If you’re counting white people in Sainsbury’s adverts maybe go pick litter, do something positive.


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Njambi McGrath, Gilded Balloon

Hardly a day goes by without someone moaning how you can’t say anything anymore. What they’re actually saying is: they can’t make racist, antisemitic or homophobic jokes without society condemning it.

Jimmy Carr, Dave Chappelle and others caused outrage using their platforms to validate bigots. They don’t need to. They’re successful. Their words may cause laughter but the harm those jokes do is real. Power comes with responsibility. Comedy wields power.

It’s a tool for highlighting injustice. That’s why authoritarian governments don’t like it. Well-constructed jokes mocking the status quo are worth a million marches. Using your platform to ignite bigotry is unacceptable.

Clever comedy sees the narrative from the oppressed’s perspective. Having a microphone means whatever comes out of your mouth can change minds.

Comedians have been cancelled - so they claim - because everyone is ‘woke’, but when you scrutinise this you realise they’re asking society to ignore their moronic rants. Being ‘cancelled’ means people refusing to listen to bigotry.

Cheap bigoted jokes illicit laughs from their echo chamber. Revolutionary jokes are harder to write, but when they land the reward is bountiful.

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Robin Tran, Assembly George Square

The hysteria about “cancel culture” that “edgy” comedians have caused is nauseating. It's like authors adding prefaces before novels saying “readers are too sensitive nowadays” - if you don’t like this, you’re wrong, stupid, jealous.

Comedians complaining about cancel culture want to shut down criticism. For people claiming to care about “free speech” they certainly don’t think criticism counts.

Their complaints conflate two ideas. One: they’ll lose their jobs - which almost never happens, but is what they ‘claim’ to fear; the other: they’ll be criticised over their opinions, which is what they actually fear.

Comedy is protected under free speech. You can say pretty much any joke without repercussions. Some comedians imply jokes are literally illegal. What they actually fear is their reputations taking a hit.

Since they don’t want to admit they’re scared, they create an intellectual debate to spare themselves embarrassment. Their fears ripple throughout culture. If someone on social media has two people saying “I don’t like your opinion”, they’ll now claim “I’m canceled”.


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Avital Ash, Monkey Barrel

Often, when conflict arises from differing values, it’s due to assumptions made about the “other.” Comedy peeks behind the curtain of another’s world, helping us understand why beliefs differ. It’s a bridge between cultures - showing how we’re more similar than different.

Comedians are particularly suited to addressing culture clashes because we expose the absurdity of prejudice, challenge dominant narratives, question everything.

We humanise concepts that otherwise feel impenetrable. It’s easier to relate to people than monoliths. But comedy can also deepen gulfs between groups. Views deemed “funny” by some, stoke flames for others, because comedy - like religion, politics, gender identity - isn’t monolithic. It’s a balancing act.

Comedians must be mindful of the impact of words. Our platform comes with responsibility. But we also need freedom to explore ideas, be allowed to make mistakes. No-one is perfect. Comedy’s super-power is its ability to make things palatable. It can expose your hypocrisy while making you laugh. You can wake up feeling differently about long-held beliefs.

When it comes to culture wars, at best comedy is a window, a salve; at worst, a dumpster fire chucked into your neighbour’s home, or permission to hate. Change is tough, but easier if you’re laughing. That’s the magic of being funny - something I’m not managing to do answering this question.


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Mary O’Connell, Pleasance Courtyard

Comedy is about connecting. You say something funny, it resonates with audiences, they laugh, everyone connects. So I don’t understand performers knowingly alienating audiences through hate speech.

You can joke about anything. Theoretically. The skill comes in making subjects funny. It’s a comedian’s job to push boundaries. We’re well aware there’s a fine line between funny and offensive. The skill is pirouetting around that line. But if you fall off the tightrope, don’t get angry with gravity.

It’s important comedians have space to try things out. A lot of comedy is trial and error. Audiences let you know when you’ve gone too far. It’s important to listen. The live scene isn’t restricted. If you want to make off-colour jokes you can, but you must do it to people’s faces. They’ll react accordingly.

You mustn’t perform in a bubble. If your audience consistently lets you away with jokes you wouldn’t perform to another group, widen your circle baby.

The hysteria around ‘woke culture’ and people being cancelled is boring. Being ‘cancelled’ just means there’s consequences. No-one’s stopping you doing anything, just be prepared for what follows.

I’m not mourning the demise of mother-in-law jokes but if I heard one that wasn’t just about boring old misogyny, I’d be intrigued. Comedy must feel fresh, so when someone has an old-fashioned take that doesn’t bring anything new and isn’t funny - what’s the point?


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David Ian, Just the Tonic @The Caves

Conflicts surrounding differing values aren’t new, but are increasingly prevalent in today's polarised world. While these battles often ignite intense debates, comedy is a unique medium that addresses topics in a way that both challenges and unifies.

Comedians are cultural observers, using humour to shed light on social issues; exposing the absurdities and contradictions within ideologies. Comedians question prevailing norms, challenge authority, and spark conversations that might otherwise be difficult. By pushing boundaries and presenting controversial topics, comedy opens up space for reflection.

Comedy’s most remarkable quality is its ability to transcend barriers, bring people together. In the face of culture wars, where opposing sides view each other with disdain, comedy can be unifying. Humour can humanise, and foster empathy by highlighting shared experiences and common ground. While you may not know what it’s like growing up gay, you probably know what it’s like to feel different. So with a personal story from my life, you can realise that I too am just human and relate to me.

And the thing about humans: we’re difficult to hate up close. When you generalise, hate is easy; when you humanise, it’s almost impossible. Plus, every war needs comic relief, right?

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Lane Kwederis, Underbelly

Comedy is the antidote to culture wars. Cultures always clash: people spit hate, hurl insults. However, every argument has holes. Laughing about that connects us. I've faced my own war with culture as a comedian/dominatrix. Without comedy, I’d never have felt safe enough to talk about my job. Our culture still stigmatises sex work. Comedy hopefully changes that narrative.

If I screamed about sex worker rights, people wouldn’t listen. When I make people laugh, they’ll even learn.

As a dominatrix I deal with people’s ‘shadow sides’ - darker impulses like anger, hate, fear. Where else do those emotions appear? Culture wars. Our impulse towards war has unfortunately always been part of the human condition. It stems from fear. How can we release fear? My two favourite ways: laughter and orgasms. So make jokes and orgasms. Not war. Just remember: joke and orgasm responsibly.

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Kuan-Wen Huang, Gilded Balloon

The term ‘Culture War’ is telenovela-level melodramatic. There’s no war, just people disagreeing. In the social media era, people need more live comedy. First, audiences must listen, something people rarely do anymore. Secondly, unless you’re performing, no-one cares what you have to say.

The majority don’t have strong views. As for comedians: none of us are in China. There’s no prior script-clearance required. So maybe some perspective instead of exaggeration? If punters don’t like your stuff, do something else. Or maybe your joke isn’t funny?

If some are turned off, but others enjoy it - you’re fine. You don’t need to please everyone.

Should comedians feel the need to reference cultural wars, chances are, it’s marketing shtick. Let’s not use the term ‘war’ - that insults soldiers like Ukrainians defending their homeland, or even potentially me should China invade Taiwan.

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Sachin Kumarendran, The Caves

I was recently booked for a rugby club dinner. Armed with zingers, I looked forward to - in good humour - roasting the sport.

To be fair, attendees near-unanimously received said zingers sportingly. However, one elected to - on stage - grab me and threaten to throw me out. Fortunately, it de-escalated - he looked well-hard. There's some old proverb about a single snowflake causing an avalanche - this one could have.

I doubt a political test would categorise the rugby club snowflake as hard-left; and the clubhouse wasn’t rife with wokeness.

People objecting to me saying anything is incredibly rare. When it has occurred, it’s predominantly gammony middle-aged men. So comedy demonstrates that representations of ‘culture war’ - populist archetypes of who’s offended - often aren’t true.

Nonetheless, disproportionate animosity towards comedians is concerning. At one high-profile comedy club, an audience member threw something at a performer: a worrying indicator people believe because they don’t like comedians, they’ve the right to forcibly stop performances.

In my experience, making fun of rugby is, statistically, the most offensive topic - but it seems dubious to say rugby should therefore be untouchable.


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Ange Lavoipierre, Underbelly

Cancel culture is crumbling on comedy stages faster than incels on a date. Complaints about cancel culture aren’t new. Crucially, though, we’re now seeing this from progressive performers.

There’s an emerging strain of comedy hitting cancel culture from the left. The complaint from the left isn’t quite the same as the more familiar critique from the right. Self-styled edge-lords Dave Chappelle, Louis CK and Joe Rogan have made their feelings on cancel culture’s excesses abundantly known.

If drafted into the world’s most annoying school debating team, their line would be: “You can’t say anything anymore.” Both sides, though, are frustrated with the chilling effect of crowd-sourced morality.

What separates them, apart from voting habits, is the rules they choose to replace the ones we have now. On one hand, the sequel to ‘you can’t say anything anymore’ is: “Here’s some hate speech I prepared earlier.”

On the other, there’s a generation of progressive performers exhausted by orthodoxy, debate without nuance, and the internet’s blunt instruments for punishing offenders. Like their edge-lord predecessors, they’re coming for cancel culture, but using new, better material.


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Steve N Allen, Gilded Balloon

The ‘culture war’ feels like it’s split comedy - but that’s because it’s the new phrase to describe an old phenomenon. Since the 1980s there’s been two types of comedy: progressive, and traditional, both mocking the other. I grew up watching Ben Elton; my dad had Bernard Manning.

In the old days, if offended, you’d slink off, now you take to social media. I once did a Twitter joke about Prince Harry and was told: “Some topics shouldn’t be joked about.”

Even if true, those topics are cancer or paedophilia, not royals. Being a good source of material is why I favour monarchy.

Unlike old divides, the culture war is actively stoked. Conservative Lee Anderson said the next election will be fought on culture wars.

It’s pushed comedians into two camps, both playing to their crowds. There’s gigs where everyone loves anti-Brexit jokes, and there’s comedians who know if they say ‘woke’ as an insult followers lap it up.

It works but it’s not brave. Preaching to the choir is fun but pointless.

Making those you disagree with laugh is challenging, but when it happens that’s comedy doing something other art forms only dream of.

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Thenjiwe, Just the Tonic - Cask Room

Comedy is best friends with tragedy. When used right it’s the greatest tool for progressive change. Humour challenges people to address social issues. Coming from South Africa, comedy played a big role in addressing issues politics failed to address.

My comedy rule number one: if you can’t say it in front of the person you’re talking about, don’t say it. Rule two: if it’s not your lived experience, don’t decide how people who lived it should feel. You’re comedians not judges.

When apartheid censorship ended, South African freedom of speech turned a new leaf. Comedy is one of the main things uniting us; where rich and poor laugh together. In South Africa, we’re known for our ability to laugh at ourselves. Although some subjects aren’t comfortable for everyone, when executed well they’re great ‘edutainment’.

Comedy is cheaper than therapy, but as the saying goes: laughter is the best medicine - except when you’ve diarrhoea.

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Sikisa, Monkey Barrel

Comedy often causes offence, especially when it’s about race, gender, and sexuality. Should that be shunned? Banned? Can it be enjoyed without danger? Or could it be the road to a better society, helping us live together and come to terms with intractable social issues?

There’s been changes in the concept of freedom of speech and culture war. Comedy is a double-edged sword. There’s a sense of social media ‘clicktivism’. Comedy can be a force for good, but equally people can turn on you.

I’ve experienced this when I’ve mentioned white people. Instead of understanding the point, people who were “offended” were more vocal than those enjoying it. I got called “unfunny”, “racist”. The truth is there’s no comedian everyone loves.

When I’m coming up with new material, I’m wary about reactions, but at the same time just want to make people laugh. There’s this idea there’s only one type of comedy - wrong. Comedy is subjective. Most audiences don’t care; they just want to laugh. That’s my job.

However, it’s my responsibility as a black woman to address issues of race and sexuality. What’s the point of having a voice and not using it?

Culture wars are occurring because some have become more ‘woke’ - more sensitive. That’s understandable: some comedy reinforces prejudice, normalises bigotry.

If the joke is punching up and is funny, that’s all that matters. Comedy isn’t always about making fun of people, sometimes it’s about upsetting pre-existing concepts, asking difficult questions. And if something is funny, it’s funny.


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André De Freitas, Pleasance Courtyard

I’ve performed around the world and found that comedy and what the “limits” are changes so much. What’s offensive in one place, might not be offensive elsewhere.

However, everywhere I’ve visited, audiences have a sixth sense. They can tell if a comedian says something horrible - and means it. When that happens, the whole room feels it. The energy changes. Comedians are good at reading rooms - at least good ones.

Throughout history comedy provided relief. For somebody to say out loud the thoughts you believe are bad, shows others think like you.

Amid culture wars, where polarisation seems the norm, comedy bridges gaps. At best, comedy is empathetic, a shared experience: a group of people who don’t know each other all laughing at how silly we are. And when everybody’s laughing it’s a lot easier to create meaningful conversations where we discover what unites us rather than what divides.


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Jonny Pelham, Pleasance Courtyard

Comedy is best when rooted in lived experience, transcending cliché or vulgar stereotypes - revealing the world experienced by performers. It shines new light on challenging issues. Nish Kumar can talk about racism, Bridget Christie the patriarchy, and highlight the fundamental absurdity of the world.

I write personal shows. I wrote about my experience of childhood sexual abuse - funnier than it sounds - partly to challenge taboos. One in six children have been abused, yet society struggles to talk about it.

The show resonated for many. Others found it offensive, too serious for jokes. I understand, but fundamentally disagree. Comedy can talk about serious issues without trivialising. Humour creates new spaces for important conversations to happen.

I don’t believe there’s hard rules for what can and can’t be said. Comedy’s unique ability to say the unsayable, and challenge orthodoxies and power structures, is what makes it a vibrant, dynamic art form.

However, this doesn’t mean comedians are unaccountable. Freedom of speech isn’t universal. It’s not okay to shout fire in crowded theatres, nor say racist, misogynistic or hateful things.

It comes down to audiences and society judging what is and isn’t acceptable.


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