Although colleges have never been the primary breeding grounds for our great comedians, during the ’60s and ’70s they were the main loci for the Free Speech Movement. Today, though, institutions of higher learning are more renowned as places for the kind of authoritarian censorship codes that students once railed against. It was at UCLA where Lenny Bruce performed his final show in 1963, yet many wonder whether he would even be allowed on that campus today. It was in 2016 at UC Berkeley, the recognized birthplace of the free speech movement, where Bill Maher’s planned commencement speech elicited a student-led petition with 4,000 signatories demanding he be disinvited. His offense? Offering comedic and critical commentary about the current state of the Islamic religion; or, as perceived by the offended students: Islamophobia.
Should students, or anyone in our public colleges, be in the business of censoring points-of-view and/or artistic forms and methods that might offend? And do their restrictive practices help or hinder the educational process? These, and many other questions, have become central to the recent comedy-on-campus debates.
A number of our most revered comedians have voiced their objections to a contemporary campus culture where booked performers either have to tailor their material so as to not offend, or suffer the consequences of a student backlash that might lead to them being blacklisted from the college circuit. In the ’60s it was mostly student fans that defended and supported Lenny Bruce when the police, objecting to his raw language and characterizations of certain groups (particularly Catholics), interrupted his shows; now, some students are designating themselves in that police role, though their complaints are invariably on behalf of other identity groups.
Chris Rock has spoken of a topsy-turvy world today where right and left and conservative and liberal are no longer clear by our conventional definitions. Students are “too conservative”, he opines. “You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Despite all their trigger warnings, these students are too quick, he argues, to pull their own triggers on others’ comedy bits, and not always for the noblest of reasons. Their quick-fire reactions are, some argue, attention-seeking, self-congratulatory acts that come with the pay-off of engendering righteous feelings amongst like-minded peers. Whether or not these students appreciate the meaning of, or context for, the words that have offended them is (say some) secondary to enjoying the sanctimonious self-satisfaction that comes from feeling they have acted heroically on behalf of others. This assignment of self as the on-the-spot judge and jury inspired Gilbert Gottfried to recently comment, “It makes me feel sentimental about the old time lynch mobs.”
Adding insult to injury, the boos and jeers an “unacceptable” word or caricature receives within a college auditorium rarely stay within its walls. Before the last cries of “I’m offended” can resonate through the room, cell phones have captured the moment and social media has transported it to the awaiting trolls beyond. Chris Rock yearns for the time when comedians could test their material in public, work-shopping it to find out whether it plays well. That essential time, “Before everyone was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull”, has passed, replaced with a process whereby comedic writers just settle for safer—often duller—jokes guaranteed not to offend. As Gilbert Gottfried and Bill Maher have discovered, the price for making off-the-cuff comments can be one’s job. Today, George Carlin’s adage that the role of the comedian should be to find the line of acceptability and then cross it is, for most, a modus operandi too perilous to act upon when playing colleges.
Another titan of stand-up weighing in on the comedy-on-campus debates is Jerry Seinfeld. An unlikely critic, considering his largely innocuous jokes, Seinfeld has emoted on this issue in ways one would expect more from the likes of Maher, Patton Oswald, or Jim Norton. His stature in the industry, however, has made him a lightning rod concerning some recent assertions. “College kids don’t know what the hell they’re talking about” when they bandy around words like “racist”, “sexist”, and “prejudice”, he says. Defending artistic license as both a first amendment and aesthetic right, Seinfeld bemoans the fact that his old jokes don’t always work like they used to due to the chilling influence of hyper-sensitive student types. Unlike the regular punters in the clubs, the campus crowds give him no love, he complains, when, for example, he jests about how the hand gestures required to manipulate an iPhone make its users look like gay French kings.
But does Seinfeld have the right to either expect or demand appreciation for bits that certain audiences find insulting? Isn’t heckling part of the comedic social contract? Just as young audiences once rejected Borscht Belt mother-in-law jokes for the socially conscious material of upstarts like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, so college kids today are making a generational statement, one dismissive of any humor riddled with race, gender, or sex-identifying stereotypes.
It is notable that the majority of the most vociferous critics of today’s student audiences—Seinfeld, Maher, Gottfried, Louis CK, Dennis Miller, Larry the Cable Guy—are middle-aged (or older), white, presumably heterosexual males. Instead of grumbling that the kids don’t laugh at their gags anymore, maybe these comedians should adjust their acts to be more in tune with the tenor of their times. A number of these comedian complainants cut their teeth, not on the college circuit, but in clubs; there they were (mostly) booked by similarly white, heterosexual males primarily motivated to satisfying the commercial demands of those times, when outrageous comedians offering up made-to-shock bits were all the rage. However, college social secretaries, often in tandem with their faculty advisors, are less driven to making a profit than to meeting the codes, policies, and expectations of their Universities.
Maybe the problem at the heart of the comedy-on-campus debates is that stand-up comedy is ill-suited for today’s campus culture. Unlike with so many art forms—writing, music, painting—college is rarely an incubator for comedic neophytes. Rarely, too, are we taught about the history, aesthetics, and distinctions of humor, and when we are, as in some literature or theater classes, it often plays second fiddle to the more “serious” concerns of tragedy. Thus, comedy mostly resides in the extra-curricular zones of our society, in places less demanding of ethical considerations, sensitivity, and safe spaces. Conversely, on the comedy club circuit a Wild West mentality of cut-throat individualism is fostered, where spontaneous, outrageous, and often insulting banter determine the survival of the wittiest.
Comedy’s primary forms can be incompatible with collegiate considerations, too. Parody uses exaggerated caricatures that might be received as derogatory stereotypes on campus; satire rages against the kind of institutional controls and rules that colleges expound and expand upon each semester; and comedic license encourages the humorist to push beyond limits tacitly agreed upon within civil society, such that the language, characterizations, and put-downs we laugh at from a comedian on stage would never be acceptable elsewhere, especially on campus. Moreover, the college comedy deficit means that we are neither taught how to take a joke nor how to interpret one; comedians often complain that the backlash they received over a bit was due to audience misinterpretation, because attention rested upon a particular word rather than on the larger meaning of the joke. This is Seinfeld’s grievance, and Ricky Gervais’s, too. For them, it is not just that today’s students cannot take a joke, it’s that they do not know how to, or what the joke even is.
Because the best humorists—whether Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, or George Carlin—have been hailed as such for refusing to be restrained by what was deemed acceptable during their respective times, it’s not surprising that comedy and campus are often uncomfortable partners. Political correctness may be good for society, but is it necessarily good for comedy?
Critic Caitlin Flanagan recently investigated the business side of comedy-on-campus, concluding that the institution inevitably compromises the comedy. Yes, colleges pay well, and yes, they offer a survival circuit for many low-tier struggling comedians. Nevertheless, in order to survive and maintain a college career, those visiting comics have to re-craft their usual material with care, consideration, and strategic cuts. There must be no “barbs or aggression”, no “comedy that could… trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student”, claims Flanagan. Raised with antennas sensitive to identity politics, the students decide what is acceptable and what is not. Thus, college comedians can mock those groups “liberal” students deride—Evangelical Christians, Scientologists, working-class rural males—yet they dare not even flirt with jokes about race, gender, and sexuality.
College comedy has become predictable, safe, and unfunny, argues Flanagan, due to a “higher education industrial complex” that treats kids like consumers to be satiated rather than challenged. Enrollment (i.e., funding) must be maintained, so colleges bring in soothing entertainment to keep their student customers amused, content, and distracted. A consequence of this opiate for the masses? Once upon a time Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks were the comedy heroes of student bodies; now they are the innocuous Dane Cook and Kevin Hart!
But does quality comedy automatically lose its edge when comedians veer into terrain some identity groups might take offense at? Also, can we craft better comedy by tapping into the sensibilities of today’s youth, such that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not regarded as roadblocks to creative or controversial comedy, but instead serve as inspirations in constructing new paths to new kinds of humor? There is a precedent for such reformation in the ’80s British alternative comedy movement.
Whereas the training grounds for most US comedians tend to be comedy clubs operating beyond the censorious eyes and ears of the politically correct, the “new wave” of British comedy that brought us Rik Mayall, Victoria Wood, Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, and others, emerged from Britain’s university system. Furthermore, its primary influence was the Monty Python team—itself a product of a Cambridge University education—that had ruled outsider comedy throughout the’70s.
Equally inspirational was the punk scene that had made its mark on British culture by the close of the ’70s. Like alternative comedy, punk rock reinvented the rules of its art form by burning the dead wood of the past. Amidst that rot was an institutionally sexist music industry that assigned women to the sole roles of singers or back-up dancers; punk responded by ushering in a new coterie of female managers, journalists, and musicians. Rigid post-war racism, too, had kept black music—and black people—segregated in the margins of the industry and society; punk hit back by integrating reggae into its sounds and by spearheading the Rock Against Racism wing of the Anti-Nazi League. With change in the air, punk did not bemoan the rupturing of the status quo; instead, it gleefully deconstructed and resisted it through proactive and primal expression.
Alternative British comedy in the 80s provides a similar story. Like punk, it rejected the racism and sexism endemic to 70s TV sit-coms and comedy club stand-up. Love Thy Neighbour and Bernard Manning were the symbolic staples of British entertainment until The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents…, and The Black Adder came along and blew them and their kind away. Simultaneously, new clubs like London’s Comedy Store were commandeered by new performers offering a new comedy with new forms, methods, and subjects. Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, two students from the University of Manchester, formed the Dangerous Brothers, and performed loud, crude, and anarchic skits to fringe theater students in local punk dives like Band on the Wall. In such alternative spaces a comedy revolution was born, one that combined the liberal idealism of the student population with the comedic urge to rebel and outrage. Could such a movement, where social consciousness and freedom of expression are equally valued and pursued, happen today?
Like many debates, the comedy-on-campus ones have no outright winners and no definitive rights or wrongs. However, they can teach all interested parties—students, comedians, colleges, critics—some important lessons. Certain students, as well as some of the institutions at which they study, might reflect more upon the meaning of being “liberal”, rather than just self-identifying as such. The practice of freedom of speech must include a willingness to not only opine and criticize, but to listen to—or at least allow—opposing viewpoints. If debate and tolerance are not cultivated during students’ college years we can hardly expect them to treasure these hallmarks of democracy when they then go on to participate in the civic society beyond. Outrage is natural, both within and beyond colleges, but it need not be triggered by every slight; and if it is, can we not learn to voice our objections in ways that do not shut down debate or disallow certain points-of-view? Should not our responses to bad speech be more speech rather than censorship?
Comedians, too, can learn that freedom of speech is not their sole preserve, that audiences—student or not—are entitled to object to material they find unacceptable. Our comedians could perhaps reflect upon their craft more, as well, remembering that the best jokes punch up, not down, and that a comedy bit can be conversational and inclusive instead of preachy and divisive. As the alternative British comics of the 80s showed us, humor can evolve in exciting new ways without having to sacrifice the emotional intensity and envelope-pushing aspects of the craft. As long as truth, insight, and wit are omnipresent in the humor, resistance to it will ultimately be exposed as merely futile.