A few weeks ago, this article came out in the A.V. Club about how Sarah Silverman sides with college students when it comes to being politically correct in comedy. A lot of comics have come out and said that lately playing colleges just isn’t the same as it used to be. College students won’t laugh at certain “edgy” material because it isn’t politically correct (or more often, I think, doesn’t sound P.C.). Many top comics who used to tour colleges now totally neglect the college venues because of it. As a recent graduate who spent almost all of my previous on-stage time in front of other students, I know from first hand experience that there’s a difference telling a joke to students rather than a normal audience. A particular joke about chopsticks that I wrote while at school comes to mind as the type of material that often won’t work on a college campus, but is still a funny joke pretty much anywhere else:
I think Asians aren’t impressed by magic because a wand is just half of chopsticks.
There’s more to the joke, but even just this opening line can rouse boos from a college coffee house, just because it sounds racist. I’m not going to argue whether it actually is racist or not, but I’ll tell you that I think the joke is funny because it’s so obviously false and ridiculous, not because it’s making fun of Asians at all. The involvement of Asian people is totally tangential to the humor of the joke! But, the mere mention of Asians is enough to get a lot of students hot and bothered. Trust me, the joke does just fine here in New York City.
Another time, just after I started writing jokes and had performed only a handful of times, I participated in a dorm talent show where I told the following joke:
Even if a gay rifleman is honest and shoots straight, he’s still not a straight shooter.
Afterwards, my RA pulled me aside and said that he had to talk to me about my jokes because someone had come up to him and complained about being offended. He made it clear that he didn’t have any problem with what I said and felt stupid for talking to me, but had to say something nonetheless. I was blown away and I felt awful. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings – I just thought it was a funny joke!
Do students actually have a point? Is it wrong for something to just even come close to sounding racist?
As it turns out, I also ended up becoming a Resident Assistant in college. To become an RA I had to go through a semester-long training course and then a two-week long training camp before the start of the school year. A major part of both the course and the camp is the focus on diversity. I particularly remember a day devoted entirely to “diversity training” (a funny notion I think, as if someone can be taught how to be ‘more diverse’). The RAs from all the dorm staffs gathered in an auditorium to listen to a speaker talk about diversity on campus and the importance of everyone feeling welcome. After her speech, she became the moderator of an activity. All of us would either go to one side of the room or the other, depending upon whether we agreed with whatever statement on diversity that she said. Then, after each statement she would allow certain people to speak their minds if she called on them, often very obviously only allowing the side that she agreed with to talk. She would also verbally disagree with pretty much anyone who didn’t seem to think diversity was the most important thing in the entire world. Because RAs tend to be the same way, almost everyone in the room jumped on board with her as well.
Because I thought the activity was stupid, I sat on one side the whole time and just listened while everyone moved back and forth. Eventually, a lot of the other RAs who I knew plopped down right next to me.
To give you an example of how it worked, the moderator would say something like “I think there should be more ethnic themed houses on campus” and people would either go to a “yes” side or a “no” side of the auditorium. There were several ethnic theme houses on campus already, such as separate African American, Asian, and Hispanic dorms that almost exclusively housed people of those ethnic backgrounds. When everyone was done moving, the moderator called on a hand. The ridiculousness of the exercise was summed up in one response to this prompt. A girl on the “yes” side (there should be more ethnic themed houses on campus) who happened to be black was called on by the moderator and said something like “I shouldn’t be forced to hang around your people if I don’t feel comfortable! If I’ve only lived in black communities my entire life and that’s the only place where I’m comfortable, I shouldn’t be forced into dorms where I have to talk to and hang out with white people.” And then everyone clapped and cheered in agreement! And the moderator patted her on the back!
Woah! As a white straight male, if I said something like that, it would NOT be okay! “I shouldn’t have to live with black people if I don’t want to! I’ve only ever lived with white people! Black people make me feel uncomfortable!” And here she was being cheered for it.
I think that part of the problem with P.C. issues is that people are taught that they are the problem. I.e. if you say something, you are responsible for anyone being offended by it. Part of the training class I took for dorm staffing was dedicated to “microaggressions,” or “everyday verbal or nonverbal, intentional or unintentional insults that send negative messages to target persons based on their ethnic group, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc.” Again, the whole idea of the topic was to be more aware of what you’re saying or doing so that you don’t offend anyone. Obviously, in general I think it’s good to avoid offending people, but I think it’s absurd to assume that even things you do on accident are your fault! My position is more like “assume people mean the best and move on.” Rather than being taught to trust other people I was being taught that I’m a bad person and I need to blame myself for anyone having any feelings about what I say.
The point I’m trying to make is that the idea that “talking about any of these topics is bad” is really unhealthy and it’s rooted deep within college culture. The same people who say “we need to talk about race and other stuff so it isn’t all bottled up and wrong” are the same people who say “you should feel bad for causing microaggressions so be careful what you say!”
I usually hate political humor, but Jim Norton is the exception. He’s a fantastic stand up comic who has become somewhat of a spokesman for comics in the P.C. wars. A couple of years ago, Norton went on the television show Totally Biased to debate with Jezebel writer Lindy West about whether talking about rape in comedy is okay. I intuitively agree with pretty much everything that Norton says in the debate, especially his opening line about how comics should be allowed to say whatever they want if they’re at least trying to be funny.
However, that’s quite obviously the comic’s perspective. Audience members should get a good show and obviously don’t want to be offended. Ultimately, people are paying to go to the show and if the product isn’t good then they’ll stop paying for it. Norton’s problem with the “P.C. people,” if you will, is that they try to silence the comic rather than allowing other people to judge the comic on their own. There’s no reason to try to shut down a comic just because you didn’t like what he said if other people loved it and want to pay to see his show.
I think there’s a intense aversion people have to certain “iffy” subject matter that causes the topic to be hushed up. Which only avoids the problem instead of really attacking it head on. When a comic talks about race it’s easy to automatically go “ugh what a jerk, she’s talking about race and that’s offensive! No one should listen to her!” instead of listening to what she has to say to see if it’s actually offensive. It’s much easier to blacklist the whole subject matter than it is to be picky, since, if you agree with the wrong thing YOU could be seen as the racist one.
People ask me all the time if I think any subject matter is “off limits” in comedy and I’m like “no way.” If it’s funny then it’s funny.” If you find something offensive then that’s fine – that joke isn’t for you. But that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the joke. I think a lot of people don’t understand that when they go to a comedy show a comic is telling the same joke she’s told a hundred times already. If you’re offended by it that’s no fun, but the only reason she keeps telling it is because so many people like it.
Very often, students aren’t super exposed to comedy and therefore don’t know how to behave at a comedy show. My school was lucky enough to have Tig Notaro come perform and it was awful. She wasn’t awful. She was great. The crowd was awful. Tig is most famous for her album Live!, a never-before practiced set about her battle with breast cancer, losing her mom, breaking up with her girlfriend, and contracting a nearly fatal disease all within the span of a few months. However, what most people don’t understand is that the album was an anomaly: usually Tig is telling quirky, odd one-liners and surreal jokes, not discussing such serious subjects. The crowd was filled with students that had taken a feminism class that had discussed Tig Notaro and, of course, they were totally oblivious to this fact. They had only heard Live! and that was the only side of Tig they knew. All Tig wanted to do was her normal silly jokes, but students from the crowd kept yelling out at her, trying to interact with her material and asking her questions about cancer. That isn’t how stand up works! Tig stayed late to answer questions from the crowd about her double mastectomy, but she was way more interested when one of the kids from our campus “stand up club” introduced himself and started talking about comedy. She’s a comic first. Not a feminist.
I think that kinda shows more than anything that humor is about the jokes, not the subtext. I’ve never tried to write a joke to “say” anything, I just try to make people laugh. And I think that’s the best comedy. But people who aren’t comics think that the message is what comes first to comics. And that’s a huge assumption.
Sarah Silverman’s point is mainly that college kids are almost always ahead of the times. After all, they’re the audience of the future so we should be listening to them whether we agree with them or not. I definitely think that college students are usually ahead of the times, but I just hope that people can still respect comedy for just being funny rather than extrapolating from it. People worry all the time that people will hear a joke and then think “well if a comic is joking about rape it must be okay!” Oh, come on! When’s the last time you heard anyone say anything and your mind was instantly changed?
Ironically, comics fought long and hard to be able to say horrible stuff on stage that at the time older people didn’t like. Comics couldn’t really swear or talk about sex until comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin came along and changed the game. And it was the young people who wanted them to speak up and say things that no one else to say. Yet now it’s the young people who want to hush up comics and tell them they’ve said too much! Maybe it’s all coming full circle and there’s only “so much” a comic should be allowed to say. I don’t think I’m ever going to push the envelope too much, but I do hope that Sarah is wrong about the future. She’s probably right to some extent, but I hope everything won’t have to become 100% clean. Comics say the things that no one else is willing to say. Hushing people up about race or gender won’t solve anything. Telling meaningful jokes that ARE funny will.
One more wrinkle that I wanted to talk about is that, oddly, comics can also totally benefit from a very liberal audience. I also told that chopsticks joke in a stand up competition in San Francisco where I was lucky enough to make it to the final round. I did okay, but the winner went up right before me and crushed. He was a muscular, tall, good-looking gay guy who had fantastic delivery and moderate jokes all of which were about being gay. The crowd absolutely loved him. I (and many of the other comics I talked to afterwards) thought the guy who got second place was robbed, since he was my favorite by far: fantastic writing and delivery and completely original ideas for jokes. It seems like people are willing to hear about topics like race and sexual orientation, but only if you’re speaking from your own experience as a member of that group. Which is weird. That shouldn’t matter! You shouldn’t judge whether or not someone’s joke is funny based on his sexual orientation!
The more people learn about comedy, the more people will understand the perspective of the comic. As an audience member it’s natural to only worry about your reaction, but when you do that you’re forgetting about the comic’s point of view. And everyone else at the comedy show. It’s easy to say “that hurt my feelings and you shouldn’t have said it,” but it’s hard to realize “hey, everyone else seemed to like it; maybe I’m the weird one.” Hopefully, with the rise of stand up comedy, people will understand comedy more and my “gay rifleman” joke won’t be automatically labeled as offensive just because I used the word “gay.”
Bonus: I picked reddish pictures to thematically accompany this post because red is a color of passion and this is a heated topic. I’m an artist goddammit.