The most recent iteration of the joke plus controversy plus Notes apology equation comes from comedian Ari Shaffir, who recorded an Instagram video jubilantly remarking on the death of Kobe Bryant on January 26, the day that Bryant died along with eight other passengers, including his 13 year-old daughter, in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles.
Shortly after Shaffir’s video went viral, his January 28 show at the New York Comedy Club was cancelled, as reported by Yahoo! News, after the venue received multiple threats. Shaffir’s show, Ari Shaffir: Jew, on February 8 at NYU’s Skirball Center was also cancelled after the production company withdrew from the show. Shaffir posted a series of Notes app screenshots on Instagram explaining that he always does this bit when celebrities die.
In an Instagram video, Shaffir says “a guy who got away with rape got his today” and tweeted a similar message, though the video is now deleted and his Twitter account is now locked. This presented a unique challenge to Shaffir’s colleagues for a couple of reasons, the most obvious of which is the timing. There are sure to be many actual jokes about Bryant that reference his credible sexual assault allegation. But those jokes will not be told within hours of Bryant’s death. More importantly, there is not much comedy in Shaffir’s video. It's difficult enough to tap dance on a grave if the ground is still soft, but even more difficult and disturbing if the tap dancer just kind of stands there.
“Cancel culture” is often used as a catch-all to shield jokes from criticism, such as those made at the expense of transgender people, minorities, or any time a Ricky Gervais bit doesn’t get a laugh. In these cases, it is important to remember that comedians must be able to say anything, in the name of free speech. The audience doesn’t have to agree with you, and they don’t have to watch, is the usual response. But in this case, the comedians who usually cry cancel wolf are not using the same lines. A figure like Kobe Bryant and a tragic helicopter crash somehow lay outside this non-rule, as many comedians have expressed.
Joe Rogan, a comedian and long time friend Shaffir, said the comic had gone too far, describing it as “beyond dumb,” in a recent episode of his podcast. Rogan told his guest, Jim Norton, Shaffir has a “heel persona” in his comedy that the public seemed to misunderstand. Norton said Shaffir misjudged the country’s grief, then told a story about the comedian pulling his dick out at the end of a taped standup performance for HBO in 2008.
Rogan isn’t the only friend and peer disappointed by Shaffir’s remarks. In his “Your Mom’s House” podcast, Tom Segura, another headlining comedian and friend of Shaffir, said in an unusually somber tone that Shaffir is “such a fuckhead for that one.”
Not all comics have been as diplomatic in their approach. Godfrey, a veteran comic and regular at the Comedy Cellar, posted a video on Instagram captioned, “YOU FUCKED UP @arishaffir MOCKING THE DEATH OF KOBE BRYANT WAS THE WRONG MOVE DUDE!!” In the video, Godfrey notes Shaffir deleted his Instagram video and locked his Twitter account, and says, "I personally don't give a fuck what happens to you, for real."
In one way, Shaffir’s antics have been rewarded, in that he got his first lengthy New York Times writeup, and is now a fresh face on the cross of the contrarian free-speech patriot. Though some of his shows were cancelled, Shaffir was able to instead sell out February 7 show at The Stand, a popular New York comedy venue, performing under the moniker “Myron Lefkowitz.” (Shaffir can be seen in a 2009 video performing under the same name, and promoted this show on his Twitter account.)
While comedians often complain about the groupthink and mob mentality that can shape comedy if audiences have their way, Shaffir used his crowd’s expectations as an excuse.
"Just looking to post some inappropriate jokes for my fans. They've come to expect it from me." his Notes screenshots concluded.