A hero, a warrior. Silent but strong, determined and stalwart. Fending off foes everywhere, from bees to people on Twitter: Rowan Atkinson has once again come down against the vicious practice of cancel culture.
“In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything,” he said in an interview with the Irish Times while on his promotional tour for his new show Man Vs. Bee, a show about a man who fights a bee. Who’s stinging now, bees?
Atkinson defined comedy not as the slapstick antics of a silent-but-pompous man bumbling through everyday social scenarios, but as an inherently victim-centric mode of communication. “It does seem to me that the job of comedy is to offend, or have the potential to offend, and it cannot be drained of that potential. Every joke has a victim. That’s the definition of a joke,” Atkinson explained. The definition of a joke, as per Atkinson’s alma mater Oxford University, is “something that you say or do to make people laugh.”
It’s not worth fighting over semantics with Atkinson, who has long advocated both publicly and politically in favor of free speech. He has criticized “anti-hate” laws in the United Kingdom, maintaining that the policing of hate speech is a slippery slope (at the bottom of which is a giant cake or perhaps a puddle of mud to fall into face-first). He spoke out against an anti-hate speech clause in a homophobia bill, worried this could “censor Christians,” leading to “heavy-handed police invention.”
Atkinson is also a firm believer in the right to criticize religion, and he spoke up for his pal Boris Johnson when the prime minister was criticized for comparing burkas to mailboxes or bank robbers. In a letter to The Times, Atkinson described himself as, “a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion,” I guess referencing the Mr. Bean bit where he gets distracted and sleepy during church? Seems like a different thing entirely.
Atkinson’s beliefs are far from the outlier in his class of comedians — among themJohn Cleese, whom Atkinson cites as one of his biggest influences. Cleese spends his days on Twitter railing against cancel culture and calling for the arrest of Donald Trump. It’s a shame these comedians have pivoted to political whining (they’d say whinging), as it diminishes their ability to do the type of searing, political work that we know and love them for — like a man chasing a bee around a house.