Todd Phillips directed the Hangover movies and, before that, the comedy Old School. He’s also the director of the upcoming film Joker which no one is mistaking for a comedy. In a Vanity Fair feature about Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips explains why he moved from broad comedy to a gritty, realistic story of a deranged killer:

Phillips had found it increasingly difficult, he says, to make comedies in the new “woke” Hollywood, and his brand of irreverent bro humor has lost favor.

“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he says. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the f**king funny guys are like, ‘F**k this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies—I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”

Despite the fact that a significant number of top comics have said cancel culture (or political correctness) creates a problem for comedy, there is a coterie of progressives in the media who appear desperate to dissuade you of the notion that cancel culture is worth worrying about. Naturally, those people are coming down hard on Todd Phillips. From Esquire:

Complaints about “woke culture” are coming fast right now, and they’re generally lodged by people who are furious you’re not laughing at their jokes. The world’s Todd Phillipses can’t do what they used to do, or else they’d be cancelled, because, as they argue, we’re living in “cancel culture.” Never mind that we haven’t defined what cancellation actually looks like, we haven’t lost anybody to it either. How are we living in “cancel culture” if everyone’s still here?

This is a kind of sibling to the pro-Antifa argument, i.e. how bad can they be if no one is dead? Actually, they can be really bad. They can be assaulting people, setting fires, doing extensive property damage, and generally behaving like the Joker’s minions in public. The fact that no one has been killed by them yet doesn’t mean we should blithely ignore a group organized to commit political street violence. And as the author of the Esquire piece eventually admits, not everyone canceled by cancel culture is still here.

Now, true: Shane Gillis’ racist podcast chatter did end his SNL career before it started, which was a surprise because usually Lorne Michaels only prematurely cans people for saying fuggin’ after midnight, or suggesting that OJ Simpson is a murderer. Roseanne Barr has definitely been banished from her ABC sitcom for Ambien-tweeting. I’m trying to obey comedy’s rule of threes here and name a third person who offended the liberal elites and got pushed out on a cultural ice floe, but I can’t.

It’s true that cancel culture has only claimed a handful of high-profile scalps at this point. That’s because it’s still made up of a relatively small fraction of the overall population. They may seem numerous on Twitter but they don’t really have the power, at this moment, to enforce their wishes. So, when cancel culture comes after Dave Chappelle, Chappelle survives. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a pernicious force or that everyone who encounters cancel culture can shrug it off so easily. Jesse Singal wrote about a few lower-profile examples last week:

Last year, a woman in Portland was widely portrayed as racist for — the story went — calling the cops on a black guy whose parked car was blocking a crosswalk. The tabloidish headlines helped turn the outrage meter to 11: “‘CROSSWALK CATHY’: WHITE WOMAN ALLEGEDLY CALLS COPS ON BLACK COUPLE FOR PARKING JOB” (Newsweek); “‘Crosswalk Cathy:’ Woman calls the Bureau of Transportation on couple for bad parking job” (Yahoo); “#CrosswalkCathy Calls Police on Black Man Because She Didn’t Like The Way He Parked” (The Root). Except, if one believes in the laws of time and space, it’s impossible she was motivated by race, because she reported the car (to a non-police hotline) before knowing who the driver was. Didn’t matter: Online outrage has its own sets of laws and rules, and a bunch of idiot internet vigilantes quickly went to work doxxing “Crosswalk Cathy” and attempting to make her life a living hell. Remarkably, many of the articles with loud, racism-accusing headlines related the timeline of the incident accurately in their actual bodies — meaning writers or editors or web producers must have known exactly what they were doing in playing up a clickbaity, outrage-fomenting, chronologically impossible race angle. Even more remarkably, many of these outlets still haven’t corrected the false claim that “Crosswalk Cathy” called the cops rather than a non-police number, which matters a lot in this context. This all feels like a pretty good example of “cancel culture”!

At Yale, there was a somewhat similar controversy earlier in 2018: A grad student called campus police on a black woman sleeping in a student lounge. A bunch of news outlets and Yale activists and a furious band of Twitter users, outraged at this seemingly bigoted act, responded in a way that can only be interpreted as an attempt to destroy the grad student in question. Except that story, too, was a lot more complicated than it initially appeared. It’s a long one, well-told by Cathy Young, involving trauma and mental illness and all sorts of strife and misunderstanding, but it’s just impossible — I mean that — to learn the details and remain confident this was, at root, about race rather than a host of other stuff. (Which is not to say, of course, that other, similar situations aren’t about race; of course people get harassed because of their race, all the time.)

As a final example of how brutal these outrage campaigns can get, there’s the case of the Steven Universe fan artist who was bullied to the point of a suicide attempt for drawing cartoon characters too fat or too skinny or the wrong color or whatever else. Once the online mob decided she had sinned against the show, and against social justice (conveniently, there’s always a super-important principle at stake to justify sociopathic online behavior), no punishment was too harsh. It’s a very hard story to read, but I hope people click that link.

It’s not a coincidence that many of the people complaining about cancel culture are comedians (or people connected to comedy like director Todd Phillips). They are the canaries in the coal mine. And, true, most of them aren’t dead but they are taking real hits to their careers (check out the top critics response to Chappelle’s latest special). In response, they are letting us know that something foul seems to be clouding the atmosphere. Maybe those warnings will turn out to be overblown in the long run. Maybe cancel culture will fade away. I certainly hope so. But it’s also possible that what is mostly an irritant now could become far more concentrated and toxic over the next decade.