Known alternatively as the British James Bond parody Johnny English and as the terminally bumbling Mr. Bean, Rowan Atkinson has a new comedy show on its way to Netflix. This Friday, Man Vs. Bee will premiere on the streaming service. While promoting the new show, Atkinson is letting the world know that he has no patience for cancel culture.
Speaking to The Irish Times in a story published over the weekend, Rowan Atkinson said, “the job of comedy is to offend, or have the potential to offend, and it cannot be drained of that potential. Every joke has a victim. That’s the definition of a joke. Someone or something or an idea is made to look ridiculous.”
Most provocatively, Rowan Atkinson challenged the notion that comedy shouldn’t “punch down,” i.e. that comedians shouldn’t target people who find themselves underrepresented in society or at other disadvantages. “I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about saying what you’re allowed to make jokes about,” the Blackadder alum said. “You’ve always got to kick up? Really? What if there’s someone extremely smug, arrogant, aggressive, self-satisfied, who happens to be below in society… There are lots of extremely smug and self-satisfied people in what would be deemed lower down in society, who also deserve to be pulled up. In a proper free society, you should be allowed to make jokes about absolutely anything.”
This isn’t the first time Rowan Atkinson has aired his grievances with cancel culture. Last year in an interview with Radio Times (via Deadline), Atkinson compared cancel culture to a “medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn.”
On one hand, a critic of Rowan Atkinson could easily point out that the comic actor is a white, cisgendered, heterosexual man who — by all accounts — has never suffered any kind of legal repercussions for his humor. On the other, it seems clear that, whether you agree with him or not, Atkinson’s concerns are genuinely based in the concept of free speech. The Man Vs. Bee star has been a vocal activist on free speech issues for years. In 2005 he led a celebrity campaign against the United Kingdom’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act, and has similarly either come out against laws seeking to limit free speech and/or defended public figures after they made controversial comments; including defending Boris Johnson after the Prime Minister made a joke about burkas.
Of course, one of the most obvious ironies of this situation is that as much as Rowan Atkinson defends the notion of being offensive, the Mr. Bean star tends to be just about as inoffensive as you can get. Love him or hate him, Atkinson isn’t exactly the Dave Chappelle of the UK. At least one Twitter user gets it, as you can see in the tweet below.
If you subscribe to Netflix, you can find out soon just how offensive Rowan Atkinson proves to be in Man Vs. Bee this Friday. Atkinson leads the series as Trevor — a man hired to housesit an elegant mansion. Unfortunately, a troublesome bee has also taken up residence, and the series will chronicle their epic clash. We’re not exactly sure how Atkinson got ten entire episodes out of such a story, but we’re hopeful he’ll be respectful of the bee community’s feelings. Maybe afterward he could team up with Jason Statham for his beekeeping action movie. No, we’re not kidding — that’s a thing.