From Beijing to Hollywood: The Striking Similarities in the Censorship of Comedy

AP Photo/Sam McNeil

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is taking action against a stand-up comedian for making a joke about the government. The authoritarian regime has expressed concerns about the growing popularity of this art form in the country because it could be used to inspire anti-CCP sentiment among its citizens.

The Global Times, a “news outlet” run by the CCP, published a piece laying out the case for tempering stand-up comedy in a way that promotes trust in the government. A quick read of the article’s arguments might reveal something that sounds all too familiar, given the current political climate in America.

A Chinese stand-up comedian named House faced backlash after a joke during his performance was deemed disrespectful to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). From the report:

During the show, House, whose real name is Li Haoshi, said that watching his two dogs chase squirrels “reminded him of the phrase zuofeng youliang, nengda shengzhang,” meaning they “can defeat enemies while maintaining good moral conduct,” which is a typical slogan of the PLA.

It sparked strong revulsion and indignation among netizens who said it was insulting to PLA heroes and the numerous martyrs who sacrificed their lives during the nation’s quest to win independence from foreign aggression.

The incident prompted an investigation by the Beijing cultural law enforcement body, and the company behind the performance suspended House indefinitely. The Chinese government fined the company 13 million yuan for the offense.

The author defended the move, arguing that even in America, jokes made by comedians have limits. The article uses the incident at the Academy Awards last year when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for joking about his wife’s hair loss as an example. The article goes on to argue that stand-up comedy should respect the Chinese audience and honor social consensus and Chinese laws. In other words, comedy should not offend the sensibilities of the audience – especially as it pertains to the CCP’s governance.

Does any of this sound familiar yet?

The CCP’s approach to comedy resembles that of the authoritarian left in America, which has repeatedly tried to stifle or punish comedians who make jokes of which they do not approve. By examining the CCP’s suppression of comedy and the push for censorship within certain segments of the American left, it becomes evident that both groups share a desire to control and limit comedic expression.

The CCP’s approach to comedy mirrors its wider strategy of suppressing dissent and maintaining strict control over public discourse. The party views stand-up comedy, a medium traditionally used to challenge societal norms, as a potential threat to its authority, just as with other authoritarian regimes.

Similarly, some segments of the American left have embraced cancel culture, seeking to silence comedians whose jokes they deem offensive or politically incorrect. By shutting down alternative viewpoints and limiting the range of acceptable humor, both the CCP and elements on the left attempt to shape public discourse in line with their preferred narratives.

The CCP’s insistence on enforcing “red lines” for stand-up comedy reflects its desire to dictate the boundaries of acceptable humor. The party argues that comedy must align with Chinese laws and social norms to continue existing under communism.

Some on the left in America advocate for the establishment of boundaries within comedy, claiming that certain subjects or jokes should be off-limits. This imposition of limits undermines the freedom of expression and creative exploration that are fundamental to the art form of comedy.

In fact, many on the left have defended the use of cancel culture to punish comedians who step out of line. The most glaring example is Dave Chappelle, who has been repeatedly targeted for cancelation by the authoritarian left. He has been accused of transphobia and even antisemitism for remarks he has made during his specials.

In February, comedian and actor David Cross lashed out at Chappelle and also Bill Maher for making jokes about the LGBTQ community. During an interview, he said: “All the comics b*tch and moan about, you know, ‘they’re trying to cancel me for this joke I made.’ Most of the time it’s a nothing joke and it doesn’t matter.”

He continued: “And now you are positioning yourself as this bullsh*t voice of ‘They’re not going to cancel me. You can’t silence me.’ For what? Your dumb joke that about trans people? Who gives a sh*t?”

“I mean, is it that important to you? Just move on and not hurt, you know, hundreds of thousands of people.”

Actor and director Seth Rogen in 2021 expressed similar sentiments in an interview on “Good Morning Britain” in which he indicated that he regrets some of the jokes he made in the past that would not be acceptable in today’s environment. “There are certain jokes that for sure have not aged well, but I think that’s the nature of comedy,” he said. “I think conceptually those movies are sound, and I think there’s a reason they’ve lasted as far as people still watching and enjoying them today. Jokes are not things that necessarily are built to last.”

“To me when I see comedians complaining about this kind of thing, I don’t understand what they’re complaining about,” he added. “If you’ve made a joke that’s aged terribly, accept it. And if you don’t think it’s aged terribly, then say that.”

“If you don’t like that, then don’t be a comedian anymore,” Rogen concluded.

To be clear, I am not saying that the authoritarian left in America is quite the same as the CCP. They lack the political power to use the government to outlaw certain types of comedy. That pesky First Amendment prohibits them from doing so – at least at the moment. However, they have no problem using other means to keep comedians in line.

Most sane people would just choose not to watch a comedy special they found to be offensive. But authoritarian leftists believe that not only should they not watch it, they should prevent other people from watching it as well, which is why they went after Netflix for hosting Chappelle’s specials. So far, they have been unable to exert a CCP level of control over comedians. But they are still doing what they can to cow them into submission, just like their Marxist cousins in China.


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