Sean Penn, Conan O’Brien Denounce Cancel Culture, Calling It ‘Soviet’

Even some left-wing Hollywood hardliners are waking up.
PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 29: Actor and author Sean Penn discusses his new book 'Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff: A Novel' at Free Library of Philadelphia on March 29, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

It seems even Hollywood’s most notorious left-wing activists are waking up to the dangers of cancel culture.

In the July 5 episode of the podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” the recently retired host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” asked veteran actor Sean Penn about the trend of destroying careers for past political incorrectness.

“Empathy is a very important word and also forgiveness,” said O’Brien. “We found that someone did something in 1979 that is now not appropriate. They’re dead to us.” O’Brien went on to describe cancel culture as “very Soviet,” saying, “People can also be forgiven. If they even need forgiving. What happened to that?”

Penn agreed with O’Brien, calling the practice “ludicrous.”

In illustration, Penn brought up Alexi McCammond, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue who was fired after only a few weeks on the job for anti-Asian comments she tweeted as a teenager. “When we’re destroying careers like that, what are we really achieving? What are we doing?” the Oscar-winning star of films like “I Am Sam” and “Mystic River” wondered.

The two men then turned to how the trend is impacting their particular genres of show business with Penn pointing out that he would no longer be considered for a part like groundbreaking gay activist Harvey Milk because he’s straight.

“Today, almost certainly I would not be permitted to be cast in that role,” Penn said. “We’re living in a time when, if you’re playing a gay lead character, you’d have to be a gay man or a trans character. And there have been these casting issues.”

He then warned that the Left has pushed the cause of “representation” too far. “When you have a period of evolution that certainly has an opportunity for people who have had less opportunities to move forward. That has to be supported, and yet in this pendulum swing society that we’re in, you wonder at some point if only Danish Princes can play Hamlet. It is, I believe, too restrictive. People are looking for gotcha moments and to criticize.”

O’Brien likened Penn’s experience to the current tendency among late-night talk show hosts to make comedy political—a trend he has pointedly resisted because, he said, it can lead to “losing your way” when it comes to being funny:

“I know people in comedy, people who do the job that I do that feel like there’s so much that’s happening that doesn’t feel funny that they feel like it’s their job to speak out about those things,” he said, adding. “And I think, yes that’s great but it’s easy for that to just turn into anger and outrage, and then you’re not, you feel like you’re losing your way as a comedian. And I think that’s what gets so tricky right now.”

O’Brien continued, “The job is ‘how can I reflect some of what’s happening around me, but also for me, I just know that I serve at the altar of silliness and comedy and that is what I need to try and get back to. That’s what I need to — that’s where my strength comes and that means, I have to be honest with you, there are times when the news is such that I feel like my comedy can’t have anything to do with it. And some people might say, ‘Well, that’s a cop-out. You should make your comedy about what is happening right now.’ And I just think, frankly, I don’t have that ability. There are times when it’s embarrassing to be in show business.”

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