Intellectual Freedom? Don’t Make Me Laugh: Censorship and Comedy

Academic Freedom, Censorship, First Amendment

By: Kelly Bilz

This Content is Rated PC for Political Correctness

Stand-up comedy is a staple form of entertainment for college campuses, and many performers rely on the college circuit for their gigs. However, many comedians–most notably, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld–refuse to perform there. The campus environment has become too “PC,” and the audience too critical and too offended, for comedy, they argue. 

Other comedians who have performed on campuses written that the culture has definitely changed, although some argue that the change isn’t as drastic, nor destructive, as others make it seem to be. Free speech on college campuses has come under fire not only for comedy, but for a variety of speaking engagements. Nonetheless, this debate has been raging for several years now, exacerbated by cancel culture as well as debates about freedom of speech.

It does have a real effect: in 2018, Andy Gross removed himself from the college circuit after a performance at Purdue, and at the University of Utah, there were calls to cancel (as in literally cancel) David Cross’s appearance that same year. (David Cross did perform, though, and according to the Salt Lake Tribune, “the good-size crowd…ate it up, cheering and hooting in approval.”) 

In many cases, it’s censorship in the unofficial sense–it’s not what the Hays Code was for film–but even though it’s not officially mandated or enforced, this censorship affects many comedians today who rely on the college circuit for their gigs. 

Comedy is hard work. It’s pretty brutal. You know that silence that follows when a joke falls flat? And then there’s dealing with hecklers, too? No. I could never do what comedians do, so I’m not telling them how to do their job. 

It’s a matter of finding your audience and knowing it, and for some comedians, that’s not a college campus. Or maybe it is in a college town, but it’s in a comedy club or bar, not an auditorium. Because I don’t think students are the problem; it goes much higher than that. 

The Kids Are Alright

view from above of part of a seating section in an auditorium with about half of the seats filled
Image by 정훈 김 from Pixabay

This is my generation (to make another reference to The Who), having been an undergraduate not too long ago and still being on a college campus. I work with university students, and I have observed younger generations being more critical. I’ll show them materials from the archives, like a yearbook from the 1960s, and they’ll point out the lack of diversity. They weren’t offended; they were correct. Students today just have a higher standard of integrity and how people should be treated.  

Besides, I’m sure plenty of college kids in the 1980s were offended by the comedians they watched; the difference is that kids in the 1980s didn’t have the same platform to share their critiques. I mean, they could write in the student newspaper, but with social media, stories can go viral overnight. That’s not only a threat to the comedian’s reputation, but the school’s.  

So, it’s not surprising that comedians go through a vetting process before being added to the roster. The National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) goes through audition videos combing for appropriate material. Campus bookers, interviewed by Vice, also evaluate comedians’ acts for potential problematic material, especially jokes about sexual assault and/or the LGBTQ+ community. (Again, comedy is subjective, and I’m not a comedian, but perhaps making jokes about LBTQ+ stereotypes to one of the most openly gay, trans*, etc. generations just isn’t a great idea?) It’s not the “snowflakes” who are censoring comedy; there are a series of gatekeepers in place. 

Plenty of comedians still do college gigs–and perhaps the undergraduate audiences are more open than administrators give them credit for–but these events aren’t mandatory. If students don’t like a set, they can leave. However, booking a comedian is a financial investment, so the higher-ups want to choose somebody who’s good, as well as somebody who won’t cause problems. NACA and campus bookers want to create positive experiences for students, as well as to avoid negative press, and they certainly have their work cut out for them. I don’t envy their jobs, either. 
But, comedy fans, rest assured: comedy clubs are actually on the rise, so you don’t have to worry about colleges killing comedy. Either way, colleges can’t be a tougher crowd than Congress–though you’d have to ask Hasan Minhaj and Jon Stewart about that.

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