By Brian Klose
This September, “The Atlantic” magazine published an article on the state of comedy acts on college campuses. In the article, up-and-coming comedians shared how difficult it is to book a college performance and how little they have to work with in terms of material. One comedian, Zoltan Kaszas, said, “Don’t go with your gut.” Another comedian, Chinedu Unaku, said, “Better safe than sorry,” regarding the content of his act. Comedians have to adapt to colleges and student bodies that, in the words of the article, want “comedy that [is]100 percent risk-free, comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student.” Earlier this year, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, voiced their opinions on the apparent decline of college stand-up acts. Rock said colleges are “too conservative,” and Seinfeld believes “they’re so [politically correct].”
The article and the comedians’ concerns raise a number of questions regarding comedy’s place on college campuses. Why are people, especially students, more likely to respond negatively to a less politically correct routine? Can a lack of comedy affect a student body’s lens on the current social climate?
Before tackling the topics regarding comedians and their material, it’s important to define the term political correctness, a term that is notoriously used liberally in any form medium. Political correctness is the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against. In short, political correctness is a hard thing to avoid in today’s social climate.
It’s important to consider the atmospheres of different venues when trying to explain an audience’s reaction and experiences. A comedy club or a theatre hosting a comedy act is wildly different from a performance in a college auditorium. Audiences in clubs and professional theatres often see performers they’ve heard of and are familiar with their material. They feel comfortable in the audience because there is little risk of judgment from the person sitting to their left or right. As a result, these audiences are more comfortable laughing at the less appropriate material. In college venues, however, the atmosphere is much different. Unlike an audience at a club or professional theatre, students are likely seeing a comedy act with their peers. Not only are these students peers, but often like-minded, and responding to anything considered “crossing the line” or “politically incorrect” can potentially lead to judgmental glares and scowls. In an effort to make sure this doesn’t happen, students can either have no reaction or join the scowls.
Often a comedian is brought to a campus as a relaxing distraction, someone that can take students’ minds off the stress of college life and offer an hour of free comedy is the perfect mental medicine. But how far can a comedian go before he or she is at risk of offending a student body audience?
Comedians planning to perform on college campuses are often finding themselves watering down their material in an effort to keep their act as safe and inoffensive as possible. According to the article, the comedian-archetype a college will stay away from is one “whose desire is not to soothe an audience but to unsettle it.” Unless an act is upfront with the subjects of their material, like recent WC performers NWC, a comedian’s routine that includes material other than relatable monologues and harmless observations is often at risk of criticism. Race, sexuality, and anything else related to the current social climate are fair game when discussed intellectually, allowing for constructive, thoughtful discussions. Comedic takes on social issues, however, are less likely to be taken seriously and more likely to be considered insensitive. In the formerly mentioned article “The Atlantic” says, “The students’ determination to avoid booking any acts that might conceivably hurt the feelings of a classmate was in its way quite admirable…But the flip side of this sensitivity is the savagery with which reputations and even academic careers can be destroyed by a single comment—perhaps thoughtless, perhaps misinterpreted, perhaps intended as a joke.”
This sensitivity towards comedians in some ways trivializes the role of a comedian as a different point of view. A comedian, unlike a politician, lecturer, or debater, has the unique opportunity to shed light on heavy topics in an entertaining and intimate way. Their material can certainly be autobiographical, but it can also be a platform for more thought provoking discussions. George Carlin, one of the greatest stand-up comedians, was a perfect example of an activist-comedian. His comedic took on topics such as politics, religion, and consumerism provoked in ways that many other mediums couldn’t. In some ways, a comedian with the right voice and strong message feels that they have an obligation to use their stage as a means of exposure to the real world and how to deal with it.