“It’s two people doing the job of one,” Adam Brodie jokes. “The business model is flawed, but the friendship is strong,” Dave Derewlany follows up.
This is the way the entire interview goes. Quips and one-liners with only a few pauses as one or the other stops to consider their response, Brodie and Derewlany are, at their core, two self-deprecating Canadian comedy directors who have a sincere rapport with each other, along with a respect for the other’s contributions. They might joke on each other during our Zoom call, but they’re always kind about it.
Comedians are the court jesters of our culture.
Besides their commercial work, they just finished writing and directing a six-episode series called Humour Resources for CBC. Brodie describes it as a comedy for comedians, wherein Jon Dore, an IRL stand-up comic, acts as the Human Resources department for the entire genre of comedy. “Jon actually pitched this to us,” Derewlany explains, “as a way to look at the world of stand-up comedians when they’re left to their own devices.”
“It’s an examination of nuance and context,” says Brodie, “About what happens when a joke is taken out of the flow of the act and stripped of meaning.” And then, of course, what happens when that joke, irreverent, offensive, absurd or otherwise, is held up to the light. When one moment is taken totally out of the surrounding context, out of what makes it funny, and a joke at the expense of people in power—or even the comedian themselves—becomes something much more sinister. What happens when a joke is stripped down to something so devoid of humor that it becomes something ugly?
We’re not the type of people who can define cancel culture. When that social media backlash does happen, it often gives a very loud, unignorable voice to people who haven’t been heard, or haven’t had justice." —Dave Derewlaney
Enter Jon Dore. In the show, he gets on Zoom calls with various comedians, including stand-ups like Nikki Glaser, Ronnie Cheung, Sarah Silverman, and The Lucas Brothers. He then proceeds to interrogate them about specific jokes from their acts and about how they feel about the industry. He gives them notes from an unnamed ‘corporate’ and, throughout the interview allows each of them an opportunity to make him the butt of their jokes. “The plan was always to make the joke about Jon,” Brodie says. “We didn’t want to go after anyone or make them feel unsafe. Jon is the asshole here.”
Often jokes have to be found through multiple attempts, and that’s the real issue comedians have with cancel culture.
And he is. In this case, he’s The Man. He’s the network executive picking apart people’s acts, trying to make every joke funny to everyone. Brodie explains that the show isn’t “gotcha comedy”. Brodie and Derewlaney didn’t try to trick people or dig through ten years of material for a singular moment that might not look great now. Humour Resources was intended to be a satire of the people who are often subjected to the effects of cancel culture; comedians, network execs, publicists. It’s clear that the show is not an attack on the people who participate in online backlash.
While the comedy was all improvised—the comedians were just told that Dore was going to act as their HR rep, and they just needed to go along with the bit—some comedians played into the corporate structure. “It was interesting to see the difference between emerging versus established comedians,” says Derewlany. “Nikki, for example, had real complaints she needed to voice, serious problems.” Glaser spoke about misogyny, sexism, and the way people treat her as opposed to her male colleagues. Other comedians, like Eric Andre, decided to play it up, put on a character, and go after Dore himself. Which was, after all, the point.
We need a chance to find the joke.
On the show, Dore has a red binder. He brings this out now and then as a vaguely threatening example of the consequences of telling a bad joke. But he never actually explains cancel culture or gets into what it means to be canceled. I’m hoping Brodie and Derewlaney can explain how they see this 21st-century phenomenon.
"I dunno!" Brodie laughs," can you just put a link to the Wikipedia article?"
It takes some prodding to get an answer, not because they don’t want to define cancel culture, but because they believe it’s not their place to do so. “We’re not the type of people who can define [it],” Derewlany finally says. “When that social media backlash does happen, it often gives a very loud, unignorable voice to people who haven’t been heard, or haven’t had justice.”
“[Humour Resources] is an examination of nuance and context. What happens when a joke is taken out of the flow of the act and stripped of meaning?” —Adam Brodie
“It’s not really cancelation, it’s more like a cultural course correction,” Brodie adds. “It can tip the power structure. But the frenzy makes me uncomfortable.” When there’s a moment of indignation, righteous or otherwise, cancel culture can become hyper-focused. Often moments around cancel culture lose nuance when you attempt to hold someone responsible for ten seconds of their life.
“I want to be clear; we’re talking about comedians,” says Brodie, “We’re talking about people who are paid in pints of beer, sometimes, to stand up and make jokes.”
“The comedy club used to be a forum,” Derewlany explains. “It was a bubble, for better or for worse.” That bubble, which was threatened by the advent of cell phones, social media, and leaked sets, has now been completely popped in the wake of the pandemic. Without clubs, how can comedians practice, or test material, or even gauge a reaction to a joke? You can’t ask people to unmute themselves just to provide a laugh track over Zoom.
“Comedy is a problem child, because you only know if a joke is successful when you tell it to an audience. Comedians use audiences to test material because that’s the only way to do it! You test it, you rewrite, you change, you delete. Editing is an aspect of the art form,” Brodie says. Nowadays, there’s little room for evolution or feedback. Because of the internet, there’s pressure to land the perfect joke the first time because otherwise, you could have it taken from you. Either by holding it up out of context or by confusing the context to begin with. “A comic’s intuition isn’t always right.”
One take isn’t enough. Often jokes have to be found through multiple attempts, and that’s the real issue comedians have with cancel culture. There is no redemption because the comedian at the center of the vortex has no chance to step back or explain themselves. Without context surrounding a joke, there is no chance for an explanation or an apology. If there’s a vicious online backlash against a joke, there are very few ways back to the public’s good graces because there’s been this massive flashpoint of righteousness that leaves no room for argument. If apologies are useless in the face of such indignation, if there’s no reason to seek forgiveness, what’s the point of trying? Some comedians look at this and think... Why make a joke at all?
“[Cancel Culture] is not really cancelation, it’s more like a cultural course correction. It can tip the power structure. But the frenzy makes me uncomfortable.” —Adam Brodie
Comedians are the court jesters of our culture. Stand-up is about comedy’s inherent desire to upend the status quo, for ill or good. Comedians are in our culture to invert the norm. They have to poke at contradictions, at conflicting perspectives in our world as it is.
Maybe that’s why Humour Resources feels so relevant. With contradictions rampant in our culture, comedians are always going to be on someone’s wrong side. In the murky, neo-corporate politics of comedy, the show is clear about one thing: You can’t make everyone happy. Cancel culture is, more or less, Doctor Malcolm in Jurassic Park, staring at a giant pile of shit and wondering… what am I supposed to do with this?
“The comedy club used to be a forum. It was a bubble, for better or for worse.” —Dave Derewlany
Cancel culture isn’t going away, but maybe how we engage with cancelation in comedy can change. As Sarah Silverman said in her Humour Resources interview, “if there’s no path to redemption, then people go where the love is, and that can be a dark place.” We, as a culture, need a chance to see the full picture, to shine a large light on the context and nuances surrounding comedians and the art of stand-up. We need a chance to give people a flashlight in the dark. We need a chance to find the joke.