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John Cleese Thinks Political Correctness Is Killing Comedy

In a new video, the comedy legend talks about why he doesn't perform at college campuses anymore

Liam Mathews

Monty Python member John Cleese has become the latest comedy legend to wade into the shark-infested waters that is the debate over political correctness in comedy.

In a video for commentary website Big Think, Cleese warns that oversensitivity from political correctness is hurting comedy and could lead to a society where free expression is not allowed.

Cleese lays out a theory that "all comedy is critical," in that it in some way comments or passes judgment on something the joke-teller observes, and therefore whoever is being judged by the joke could feel offended by it. Cleese objects to offended parties trying to regulate other peoples' thoughts and behaviors, as that leads to a culture where ideas are not allowed to be freely exchanged and dissent is suppressed.

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Cleese says that he's been warned against performing at colleges, because it's on university campuses in particular where "the political correctness has been taken from being a good idea, which is 'Let's not be mean in particular to people who are not able to look after themselves very well,' to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual or group could be labeled cruel."

"All humor is critical," he concludes. "If you start to say, 'We mustn't; we mustn't criticize or offend them," then humor is gone. With humor goes a sense of proportion. And then as far as I'm concerned, you're living in 1984," referencing George Orwell's dystopian novel where it's a crime to have beliefs that criticize the powers that be.

Cleese is not wrong that the suppression of socially unpopular ideas could be a result of offended people browbeating comedians into not saying disrespectful things, but what he and other comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock don't seem to understand is that the political correctness they object to is not about suppression of thought, it's just about how young comedy audiences are less tolerant of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia than the audiences these older comics are accustomed to performing for. Comedians only feel under attack because they keep digging in their heels and saying "you can't say anything anymore" instead of listening to the offended parties' objections, which causes the offended parties to intensify their rhetoric.

Cleese is 76 years old, and this is not his fight. Not to censor a man who's made priceless contributions to comedy, but he should have stayed out of this. He has nothing to gain by sharing his opinion.

Watch the video here.