Oscars “In Memoriam” for the Cancelled

Celebrities and media personalities have been ‘dying off’ (getting cancelled and removed from public life after committing unforgivable acts) at an astronomical rate. As the Oscars approached last year, I thought it would be interesting to create a “Memoriam to the Cancelled” the way The Academy does for celebrities who have actually died. The project would consist of a slideshow featuring all the cancelled celebrities and personalities (from The Simpsons’ Apu to Harvey Weinstein) projected on a giant billboard. Within a few weeks, Deanna Director, Jeff Greenspan, and I were brainstorming the best way to pull it off “the right way.” Good satire reflects a situation and adds to the conversation humorously, and we spent long nights debating how to do both.

We spent hours juxtaposing the slides in a way that would (hopefully) make people laugh and think, and recruited an orchestra and singer to make people feel like they were there. A few nights before the Oscars, we filmed the display and reactions from those passing by. The next few days were spent editing to release it the night of the awards.

I’m obsessed with cancel culture. What gets you cancelled? Can you be un-cancelled? Is there a spectrum, or is it all the same? When somebody gets cancelled, it happens as an isolated incident. We don’t think of them as part of a group of other cancelled people, songs, or TV characters. It’s easy to throw the term “cancelled” around, but it’s hard to give it a single meaning. What feelings does it evoke in people to see Kevin Spacey and Rosanne Barr occupy the same space? Is that even OK to do?

Some found the project inspiring—a way to keep the conversation going. A few people thought it was tasteless. Others saw it as a sort of expression of free speech. Lots just thought it was funny. More people than anybody anticipated argued that we shouldn’t have included Michael Jackson and couldn’t grasp anything past that.

Feedback was mostly positive, but the best part was seeing people (especially those on the street the night of) interact with this piece in different ways, have different opinions, and talk to each other. So much of the debate about cancel culture takes place online, remotely. It felt important to have a conversation in person.