Athena Kugblenu: ‘The more you get cancelled, the more immune you are to it’

The standup comedian’s new Radio 4 series picks through the minefield of cancel culture – and offers up a few mea culpas

“If real life was like social media, it would look like The Good Place,” says standup Athena Kugblenu, referring to the sitcom about an afterlife so airbrushed and virtuous it is too good to be true. “If people say they’ve never said anything politically incorrect to friends or to family, they’re lying!”

An early adopter to social media, Kugblenu has “around 50,000” tweets and countless blog entries stretching back to 2009 – a small library of incisive, amusing takes on everything from sports to politics and identity. “I’m Team Markle,” she jokes, “but there’s nuance to everything.”

In a new BBC Radio 4 series, Athena’s Cancel Culture, Kugblenu is now bringing nuance and levity to the most polarising of internet subjects and she doesn’t shy away from controversy. With storytelling, standup and playful sketches, she mocks the PC-gone-mad narrative, while also poking fun at a culture that prioritises conflict over debate.

One sketch is a government public information film that warns people to “stay alert” to the threat of cancel culture. Another segment considers celebrities who have been “cancelled” for similar reasons, such as JK Rowling and Dave Chappelle for their comments on trans people, compares the (lack of) consequences and tries to find some logic: “The more you get cancelled, the more immune you are to cancellation.”

The show works as a commentary on the tedious daily social media battles that further lodge people into unproductive, polarised debate. But beneath the mockery, Kugblenu has more sincere ambitions: to make sense of offence, a notoriously hard-to-define but divisive subject. “Instead of what people think, let’s talk about what it is,” says Kugblenu. “Let’s park the opinions and peel back the lid.” Episode three, for example, sees her looking at the history of offence for clues.

Comedian Dave Chappelle
Comedian Dave Chappelle is one of the celebrities considered in Athena’s Cancel Culture. Photograph: Stephen J Cohen/Getty Images

Kugblenu hopes her series will hold up a mirror to our collective behaviour: “A lot of things that people do incorrectly on social media or in real life are a reflection of all of us,” she says. If we could see some mistakes as the effects of conditioning in a prejudiced society, she believes, we could begin to “rewire” attitudes. She makes an important distinction between speaking from “a lack of knowledge” and “hateful” remarks, but she hopes to create more space for people to learn and change. “Most of the time we don’t give people the opportunity to be educated and exhibit growth.” It’s a sensitive and sensible argument, but one that can feel quietly radical in a climate where empathy is rare and context is largely overlooked.

In some of the most compelling segments, Kugblenu uses her own past behaviour to make her case. She digs through her mountain of tweets and unearths the most “problematic” ones. She recounts a story from her time as a project manager when, she says: “I used email like it was WhatsApp group chat.” It resulted in a hearing to review boxes’ worth of emails with her employers, a prospect many listeners will find entertaining and terrifying in equal measure.

If comedy is about engaging with cultural faultlines, Kugblenu digs into the molten rock to make her case. “I wanted to find those things because … ” She corrects herself: “Well, I wanted to go through and find nothing. But I wanted to practise what I preach.” It works because, as she acknowledges, this is her field. She’s fluent in the rapidly changing conventions around language and is a history and cultural studies graduate. “If I can go through my account and find things that are inappropriate, what are we gonna expect from people who haven’t had my education or life experience?”

Unlike her previous Radio 4 appearance on Bameshow, the comedy in Athena’s Cancel Culture isn’t led by her identity (Kugblenu describes herself as mixed race – half Indo-Guyanese and half Ghanaian). But she agrees, it’s relevant: “If Laurence Fox was gonna go through his problematic tweets on Radio 4, that’d be the least funny show ever.” She’s able to talk about these issues with a certain amount of sensitivity. Looking at her old tweets was funny because “I wasn’t speaking with hatred”, she says, “I was speaking without discipline.”

This is also the line that the standup draws when it comes to the ongoing clash of comedy and censorship. “It’s making us all very boring,” she says. “It’s the same circular conversation.” For Kugblenu, it’s simple. The first rule: “Punching up – good, punching down – bad.”Secondly, be original: “The more sensitive the topic, the funnier the joke’s gotta be.” Of course, “up” and “down” aren’t always neatly defined, and the debate may carry on for some time.

What’s one thing she’d like audiences to take away from the new show? A little more self-reflection. “At the moment the work people are doing is: oh, I’ll look at other people and tell them how bad they are,” she says. Instead, she offers a quote by Nelson Mandela: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”


Jamal Khadar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jeremy Hardy: a ferocious talent who radicalised radio comedy
Provocative and political, the stand-up – who has died aged 57 – shook up Radio 4 at a time when it was in danger of resembling a Rotary Club quiz night

Mark Lawson

01, Feb, 2019 @1:30 PM

Article image
All white on the night: the perennial problem with TV panel shows
The format should give comic talents a time to shine. So why don’t our flagship shows reflect the diversity of comedy in 2021?

Rachael Healy

09, Apr, 2021 @9:10 AM

Article image
Let the BBC's new boss do his worst – with comedy, I'd rather be offended than bored | Suzanne Moore
New director-general Tim Davie will reportedly steer TV comedy to the right to correct years of perceived anti-Tory bias. But it was Brexit, not the BBC, that put a spanner in British humour

Suzanne Moore

02, Sep, 2020 @10:37 AM

Article image
Danny Baker live review – geezer with an endless appetite for gossip
The broadcaster’s first standup tour, Cradle to the Stage, is a lucky-dip of nostalgic childhood stories and showbiz anecdotes

Brian Logan

02, Feb, 2017 @12:08 PM

Article image
Sarah Silverman's 'anal probe' tweet sparks political row

Brian Logan: Comedian's response to US anti-abortion law proves no laughing matter for Republicans. Elsewhere, Stewart Lee blasts elitism in comedy and Lenny Henry's thespian thunder rages on

Brian Logan

10, Jul, 2013 @1:49 PM

Article image
Woody Allen wants to make a Louis CK comedy
Brian Logan: The director reveals he is a 'great fan' of the US standup comic. Meanwhile, Geri Halliwell looks set to star in her own TV comedy show and London's Glee Club isn't happy

Brian Logan

23, Jul, 2013 @1:45 PM

Article image
Can Daphne and The Pin save Radio 4 comedy?
One act offers Badults-style sketches, the other does mindbending meta-gags. Both bring new shows to a station that specialises in self-satisfied comedy

Brian Logan

14, Jul, 2017 @2:06 PM

Article image
Radio 4 standups zoom through angst from all angles
The BBC’s new comedy series brings together half-hour sets from Kiri Pritchard-McLean, Imran Yusuf and Joz Norris

Brian Logan

19, Jan, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
I’m Sorry, I [Still] Haven’t a Clue … how radio’s smuttiest show has beaten the censors for 50 years
Innuendo, tone-deaf singing and dreadful wages: as the cherished BBC panel game celebrates its half century, we look back at its finest moments – and its future

Mark Lawson

11, Apr, 2022 @4:47 PM

Article image
‘The godfather of alternative comedy’: Eddie Izzard, Paul Merton and more on Spike Milligan
He was the shellshocked genius who channelled his anarchic brilliance into The Goon Show. Ian Hislop and Nick Newman explain why they’ve written a play about Spike Milligan – while comedians remember a legend

Brian Logan

27, Jan, 2022 @6:00 AM