College Students Don't Want to Hire Racist or Homophobic Comedians. Why Is That a Problem, Exactly?

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld on stage.

Jerry Seinfeld recently ragged on college students, saying their requests for non-offensive comedy are stifling. Photo by Thomas Hawk. 

College students are getting a bad rap these days.  Listen to some comedians and journalists and you’ll learn that millennial students are hell-bent on obliterating free speech. Jerry Seinfeld recently said that he doesn’t “go near colleges—they’re so PC.” Jonathan Chait argued that P.C. culture has left gifted professors afraid to do their jobs. In the newest Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan says college students “can’t take a joke.”  Others warn that demands by students for trigger warnings leave them “swaddled” and ill equipped for life outside of academia.

What all these complaints have in common is the belief that as college students seek to create a campus environment that’s safe for people of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and gender and sexual identities, they are repressing creativity and free expression. Is it true, though? That answer depends on whom you think is being repressed.

Caitlin Flanagan's Atlantic article “That's Not Funny” focuses on the process of how college students hire comedians to perform on campus. For her article, Flanagan traveled to the National Association for Campus Activities, where representatives from colleges review acts auditioning for the university circuit. She describes the unwritten rules followed by the student bookers thusly:

“Women, as a group, should never be made to feel uncomfortable; people whose sexual orientation falls beyond the spectrum of heterosexuality must be reassured of their special value; racial injustice is best addressed in tones of bitter anguish or inspirational calls to action; Muslims are friendly helpers whom we should cherish; and belonging to any potentially 'marginalized' community involves a crippling hypersensitivity that must always be respected.”

The article trots out all the familiar arguments about today's students. Flanagan says she has seen “the infantalization of the American undergraduate.” Young people these days are “less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed.” She writes, “O, Utopia. Why must your sweet governance always turn so quickly from the Edenic to the Stalinist?”

The author's sarcasm aside, I struggle to find anything wrong with these criteria. Were I to summarize it in one phrase, the students’ guidelines for comedians would probably be, “Don't punch down.” That seems like a great idea in all settings and situations. Screening out comedians who make rape jokes and gay jokes seems like a good thing to me—and likely to millions of college students.  Like all writers who make this case, Flanagan seems unwilling to accept that the goals students seek might be worth the boundaries they set.  Personally, I find it easy to believe that a comedy act free of sexism, racism, and anti-queer jokes would be an improvement over the status quo.

Flanagan is critical, as well, of the way ethnicity is weighted in the selection process. She writes, “Those whose racial or ethnic background contributed to the diversity of the slate had been given special consideration. There were comics of Nigerian, Afghan Pakistani, Indian, Hispanic, and Korean–African American heritage. Some were very good. But others barely had the 15 minutes necessary for a showcase.”

Again, I can't see the problem here. Prioritizing diversity in our popular culture seems like a plus. Likewise, offering opportunities to those who, because of their backgrounds, might previously have been denied a foothold into the field is a step forward. What it is, though, is an upsetting of the status quo, which might explain a lot of the ruffled feathers. The college bookers making these decisions respect their own values, and those of their classmates, and want to hire comedians who'll respect them, as well. A show where an angry white guy says everything that crosses his mind—and makes other white guys laugh while everyone else pretends not to be offended—was the law of the land for a long time. Now that those comedians are being told their services aren't wanted, we're hearing from them in an uproar. I think one of the problems commentators might have with these progressive ideas is that they come from young people. I wish more people of older generations were willing to listen to and learn from student leaders.  

Take Jerry Seinfeld, for example. Seinfeld has taken to inveighing against P.C. culture now that his 14-year-old daughter has started calling out his sexism. His complaints have seemed out of step with the culture generally and his incredibly unfunny attempts to joke about trans issues indicate he wouldn't find much of a home on the academic circuit anyway.

What the Atlantic article fails to note in all its handwringing is that this shifting culture has led to a renaissance of comics who earn laughs while punching up. John Oliver, for instance, has had viral hits recently with segments from his show Last Week Tonight about issues such as trans rights and pay equity. Likewise, former immigrant rights organizer Hari Kondabolu's breakout album Waiting for 2042—named for the projected year white people will no longer be the majority ethnic group in the U.S.—is full of hilarious, pointed, insightful takes on race and colonialism.

Comedians like these two prove humor doesn't need to emanate solely from the id of an angry dudebro. Great comedy can come from critiquing the status quo, rather than reifying it by telling the ten thousandth variation on whatever offensive joke pops in one's head. College bookers have obviously weighed the pros and cons and decided they'd prefer to employ people who can make audiences laugh while not insulting the people who pay to attend their schools. That doesn't sound like censorship; it sounds like taste.

Like many cultural critics who write these types of stories, though, Flanagan can't seem to grant the idea that the students are making reasoned, informed decisions. She interviews a successful comic on the college circuit named Geoff Keith, who tells her, “You can't use logic on these people, or they think you're a dick.” As an example, he cites that a joke he makes about gay people might not be homophobic. As a queer person myself, I can safely say that roughly 100 percent of the time someone has tried to defend to me why something they said wasn't homophobic or transphobic, in my judgment, they were wrong. Just sayin'. Instead of listening to and considering marginalized groups, far too often people with a platform say, “Stop whining already.”

It seems to me that college campuses are simply using their own judgments on these matters, as well. They're not interested in using student funds to support and promote comedians whose humor makes light of women, people of color, and queer folks. To me, that sounds like egalitarianism, not oppression.

The media continues to call millennials “infantilized” and “coddled,” but to an observer the opposite appears true. Students across the country have made judgments and set boundaries about what they consider acceptable. The press, meanwhile, has thrown a hissy fit. Who exactly is being childish?

by Leela Ginelle
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Leela Ginelle is a trans woman journalist and playwright living in Portland, OR. Her work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch and The Advocate. Follow her at @leelaginelle.

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