Are comedians justified for not wanting to perform at universities?

Are comedians justified for not wanting to perform at universities?

Photo Credits: ALLYSON KO / AGGIE

Yes, but they should still do it anyway

Over the last few years, several prominent comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Bill Maher, have said they no longer want to perform at colleges. They cite what they see as extreme levels of political correctness on university campuses.

“[The younger generation] just want to use these words,” Seinfeld said in 2015. “‘That’s racist, that’s sexist, that’s prejudice.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about […] I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me don’t go near colleges — they’re so PC.”

This is especially interesting and impactful coming from Seinfeld, whose style of observational comedy has never been known to offend or stoke controversy. Yet, he still feels that today’s college audiences are increasingly unable to take a joke or to embrace comedic content or styles that could offend a single person in the room.

It’s very difficult to find irrefutable examples of this extreme political correctness in action where everyone can agree that it’s, shall I say, “problematic.” To one person, a comedian might be brilliantly and subversively weaving racial or sexual themes into their work, while to another person, the comedian is just racist or sexist. This ambiguity helps demonstrate why extreme political correctness on campus is a very worrying trend, especially for comedians.

It’s also an ironic trend, for it was radical, subversive and boundary-pushing comedians like George Carlin who initially pushed back against the squares and the humorless during the 1960s, 70s and 80s to help advocate the liberal values that today’s PC police claim to be protecting. Carlin and his ilk helped create the counterculture where social liberalism and social justice could be embraced, yet comedians who follow in his subversive tradition are often disowned by today’s progressive (or regressive?) left, despite being staunch supporters of liberal values in every sense (Exhibit A: Bill Maher).

Chris Rock is perplexed by this phenomenon, saying in 2014, “I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because [the students are] way too conservative […] Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”

The roots of these problems that have put off many famous comedians can be observed nowhere more clearly than at the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities, where representatives from college activities committees across the country come to watch and book all sorts of performers for the coming year, including comedians. This is an important way for up-and-coming comedians to get exposure and book many gigs at once.

Caitlin Flanagan, who covered this event for The Atlantic in 2015, quoted a member of a student activities board as saying, “We don’t want to sponsor an event that would offend anyone.” Well, how do they hope to accomplish that? Perhaps comedians are not the product they should be shopping for. As Flanagan wrote, “If your goal were simply to bring great comics to a college campus, it would be easily accomplished.”

Flanagan said that jokes about anything to do with race, sexuality and other hot button issues were simply not welcome and that students would rather hear jokes about mundane aspects of college life. Really? Do you want comedy that just numbs you with shallow laughter or do you want it to actually make you think while still being funny? Opting for the former is just lazy.

Flanagan said comedians often omitted jokes involving race, gender and sexuality that normally do well in their club routines, and that comics who didn’t sanitize and sterilize their routines often were not offered as many gigs by the college activities committees. Is it right to do that much to accommodate the audience? Or could that be considered selling out? If the comedians didn’t alter their jokes to appease the most sensitive person in the room, then perhaps college audiences would understand the potential that comedy has to provide commentary on the topics they seem so anxious to avoid.

Comedy is at its best when it’s given a chance to evolve over time — when comics can work out their material without needless and artificial external pressures, as if by natural selection, not when arbitrary parameters set by a picky audience pre-determine what areas can be covered. Thus, NACA does not foster fruitful incentives for up-and-coming comedians trying to find their voices and personas.

There’s a difference between having jokes that incorporate sensitive topics and events in order to make a point and comedians who actually target and vilify those sensitive topics and events. For example, Amy Schumer has a sketch in which she satirizes the sexual assault problems with football teams. Some people say that rape is a topic that can never be joked about, but in this example, Schumer is not making light of the problem or saying it’s funny. She’s using irony and humor to expose how horrible, grotesque and perverse the situation is. The football players are the target of the joke, not victims. Dealing with sensitive topics in this manner should be considered completely acceptable.

If handled with craft, care and comedic intent, no subject should be off limits. And there should be no protected class who we are not allowed to joke about. College students have to understand that the only way to have a healthy society is if everyone is willing to laugh at themselves and put up with being made fun of.

I hope that we are able to change the status quo of overly-sensitive college students and scared-for-their-jobs activities committee members thinking they’ve had the last laugh by successfully forcing comedians and speakers to censor themselves in order to get a platform. After all, how can you have the last laugh if you refuse to laugh at anything in the first place?

Written by: Benjamin Porter — bbporter@ucdavis.edu

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