Wokeness. Political correctness. Cancel culture.
It’s rare to sit through a stand-up comedy show and not hear complaints that these things all threaten to sentence comics into silence.
From Shane Gillis to Dave Chapelle to Dina Hashem, numerous comedians have faced backlash for offending people with their jokes.
As the number of comedy specials released skyrockets and outlets make visible efforts to center underrepresented voices, it’s time to consider the expectations we have of an art form that is meant to provoke and be edgy. What counts as going too far?
Liz Miele, who recently taped her first special due to come out this spring, has thoughts about this. She brings politics and feminism to the stage and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics like abortion access, living with a learning disability and feminist sex positions (surprise: one is called the Equal Pay Position).
We met up with Miele in downtown Brooklyn to ask her whether she sees wokeness and cancel culture as threats, allies or nobodies to comedy—and to learn where politics fit into her own work.
Please note, this interview has been edited and condensed.
Sheena D: Some comedians complain that in today’s climate, it’s not safe to say anything. What do you think? Has cancel culture threatened your comedy?
Liz Miele: Somebody wrote a comment on one of my videos that just said, “Canceled.” My gut reaction was, “Sweetheart, you can’t cancel someone with two roommates. Nobody knows who I am.”
Should people be more self aware of the words that come out of their mouths and how they impact people? Absolutely. Also, should everyone have the right to say whatever they want, especially in the context of comedy? Yes. It’s complicated.
I think Kat Williams was one of the first comics to say, “I won’t apologize.” Every joke can offend someone, but that’s not the goal. If, as a comedian, you get to a point of success, it’s because you’ve hit on some kind of zeitgeist and have learned how to connect with people. If comedians intentionally become more racist and/or misogynistic, because they’ve seen it connect with an audience, that is a tragedy. It’s horrible. But if we silence them we also end up silencing people who’ve made honest mistakes.
We teach children that making mistakes leads to growth and improvement, but not that if an adult writes one wrong tweet, they could lose their job. That’s not okay. Obviously, if that tweet is backed up by years of sexism and racism, that’s a different story.
You can joke about anything. If people don’t like what somebody jokes about, they have every right to walk out, to turn off the YouTube video, to leave a comment saying, “I don’t like this.” I get tons of comments like that, I don’t delete them.
I choose every word I say with intent and I’ve still hurt people. I take feedback and have changed my material. But, ultimately, comedians aren’t caretakers, it isn’t our responsibility to heal wounds and our livelihood shouldn’t be taken away because we’ve said something hurtful. I hope that audiences will do their self-work, pinpoint where the trigger is coming from, and start a dialogue, instead of automatically reaching for the cancel button.
SD: What’s changed in the world of comedy since you started performing stand-up as a teenager?
LM: They were barely putting female comics on late night back then. It was extremely hard for a female comic to get on late night TV because it was a boy’s club.
After getting called out for not having female comics, the Late Show with David Letterman brought on Carmen Lynch. Today, a lot more PoC, female and LGBTQ comedians are starting to really be looked at and highlighted. You hear male comics complain, “Well, now they’re not even looking at us!” Welcome to our world, men! If nobody’s paying attention to you, then you work harder. It’s men’s turn to work harder.
SD: Your bit on feminist sexual positions—especially the equal pay act—is comic gold. What is the origin story of that joke?
LM: I was living with my brother who is nine years younger than I am. We’re total idiots together. He is funnier than I am. He was telling me a sex joke. It was crude and uninspired. I didn’t think it was funny and couldn’t understand why he did. It really disappointed me.
I kept thinking how sex jokes always seem so one-sided, with a woman getting hurt. Why are women always the butt of the joke? I wanted to change that.
After I performed and posted Feminist Sexual Positions, it went viral. People wrote articles about it. It makes me happy that it inspired people. Then there have been so many hate comments. I’ve learned about different male supremacy groups I didn’t know about.
If I had called it women’s sex positions, as opposed to feminist, they wouldn’t be coming after me. The word feminist is what really bothers people. It’s a trigger word, truly, for some. But, most people don’t even know the definition of feminism. To women, who say they’re not feminists. I say, “Just because you don’t know what feminism means doesn’t mean you’re not a feminist. You have an education. You can leave the house without permission and get whatever job you want. You didn’t have that before. Feminism is about women demanding to have equal rights with men. That’s it!”
SD: You also have a hilarious joke about how cats are on track to have more reproductive rights than women. Where do feminism and politics fit into your comedy?
LM: I don’t go out going, “I’m going to write this feminist joke,” it’s just what’s inside me. I’ve been in a male dominated field since I was 16. I’m acutely aware of where I fit in here.
I ask: why does this matter to me? Why does this upset or annoy me? Why am I cycling and spinning out of control because I’m upset about this one idea? I start to pull back the layers to figure out why it’s important to me. Sometimes the root of it is injustice.
SD: What’s it like to be on stage joking about things people might not usually consider funny, like mental health or living with a disability?
LM: There’s two ways to be a good comedian. a) joke about stuff nobody else is joking about, or b) joke about what other people are joking about, but in a unique way.
In general, I talk about what is important to me, and so that’s always going to be cats and mental illness. And, dyslexia, I deal with it every day. It’s a dialogue. I feel more connected to my audience when I’m honest and thoughtful about what I’m going through, rather than guessing what other people are going through.
SD: Back to cats—What kinds of politics does your cat have? Is Pasta a feminist?
LM: Yeah, she is.
She’s a strong, independent woman who does whatever she wants. She will climb into anybody’s lap. I feel like if anybody is equal opportunity, it’s Pasta.