What do we see?
This is a still from a video posted by Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen on his Facebook and YouTube channels on 21 July 2021, titled ‘Long live free art!’ (Subtitle: ‘Death to the ideologues.’) In this still, Teeuwen holds up my picture to the camera and calls me out for having a ‘genderneutral shitface’. The video responded to an opinion piece that was published in Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant on 13 July 2021. In this piece, I argued against the idea that Dutch comedians are increasingly cancelled by ‘woke’ activists. The article went viral and sparked a controversy on social media, culminating in this video, which attracted more than 500.000 views. The point of the video – which also attacks politicians and art professionals – is that ‘woke’ critics of humour are curtailing artistic freedom.
Hans Teeuwen is one of the most famous comedians of the Netherlands, who achieved legendary status in the 1990s with his transgressive humour. He forged a break with traditional Dutch comedy, in which comedians typically present a clear moral lesson. His was a comedy ‘beyond good and evil’, characterised by lack of a stable persona and scandalous fantasies of sex and violence. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Teeuwen’s comedy was seen as elusive and ambiguous, and hence as apolitical. In recent years, and following the murder of his close friend Theo van Gogh by a Muslim fundamentalist in 2004, Teeuwen has increasingly defended radical freedom of speech against the perceived threat of orthodox religion and left-wing political correctness, both on stage and in public debate.
Which public issue is being addressed here?
By defending artistic freedom against the moralism of a supposed left-wing elite, Teeuwen’s video is part of the ‘woke wars’: the wars waged against so-called ‘woke’ activists who are accused of ‘cancelling’ comedians and artists on moral and political grounds. In recent years, many comedians in both the European and Anglo-American context, such as John Cleese and Dave Chappelle, have spoken out against ‘woke cancel culture’. Doing so, they respond to a growing awareness of the role played by negative stereotypes in reinforcing social hierarchies and power imbalances. Within this context, and given the fact that comedians often play with stereotypes, humour has become an increasingly politicised and contested topic within the European public sphere, with comedians becoming increasingly defensive. Teeuwen frequently uses his comedic platforms to defend his right to say whatever he likes, even if that is tasteless or offensive.
What does the humour do?
Teeuwen’s video does not leave much room for ambiguity. Rather, the tone is slandering: Teeuwen launches a crude, ad-hominem satirical attack, using swear words and naming and shaming his butts. The video shares its politics and aesthetics with that of the right-wing, boorish website GeenStijl, infamous for its slandering humour. Teeuwen’s irregular home-made videos are often shared by GeenStijl and associated media outlets such as PowNed, and Teeuwen has openly praised and collaborated with the platform. The Nietzschean morality that GeenStijl has been said to propagate can be recognised in Teeuwen’s argument that the talentless (‘woke’ activists) are curtailing the freedom of the talented (comedians).
The serious tone adopted by Teeuwen within his videos points to another aspect of the recent politicisation of humour: that humour is taken very seriously, on both sides of the political spectrum. While not so long ago, humour was frequently seen as innocent, and not able to have any serious effects, this idea of ‘comic innocence’ seems to be waning. But, paradoxically, this video also demonstrates that the seriousness of humour does not mean that everyone wants to have a serious debate about it. Rather, Teeuwen as well as many columnists and Twitter trolls agreeing with him, have claimed that those who want to have a serious discussion about humour are humourless and lack talent. A serious debate about humour is seen by many as proof of the fact that ‘woke’ critics want to curtail artistic freedom. Hence, a more acceptable and rhetorically smart way to make a serious point about humour is to do so in a comical fashion, like Teeuwen does in his video.
Oudenampsen, Merijn. “GeenStijl and the dawn of a conservative counterculture.” In: “The conservative embrace of progressive values: On the intellectual origins of the swing to the right in Dutch politics.” PhD dissertation, Tilburg University. 2018. https://research.tilburguniversity.edu/en/publications/the-conservative-embrace-of-progressive-values-on-the-intellectua.
Zijp, Dick. “Laten we stoppen met die morele paniek over humor.” De Volkskrant, 13 Jul. 2021. https://www.volkskrant.nl/columns-opinie/opinie-laten-we-stoppen-met-die-morele-paniek-over-humor~be117dac/.
Zindulka, Kurt. “Monty Python star John Cleese says woke cancel culture is killing comedy.” Breitbart, 4 Aug. 2020. https://www.breitbart.com/europe/2020/08/04/john-cleese-woke-cancel-culture-is-killing-comedy/.