So, college “p.c. culture” stifles comedy? Ever hear a comedian sh*t on the American Dream at a Wal-Mart shareholders meeting?

When it comes to free speech, censorship and lockstep ideology, campuses have nothing on the "real world"

Published August 17, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Sarah Conard/Jessica Rinaldi/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Sarah Conard/Jessica Rinaldi/Photo montage by Salon)

So lately I’ve had people passing around this article by Caitlin Flanagan about the p.c. police ruining campus comedy, which appears to be stage one of a one-two punch from the Atlantic about how p.c.-ness is ruining college in general, with the haymaker being Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s magnum opus about how p.c. culture is somehow not only killing academic discourse but also infecting us all with mental illness.

Well. That’s a lot to take in.

Let me start with the comedy bit. Flanagan is not talking about all comedy performances on college campuses. She’s specifically talking about gigs paid for by student-activities committees out of common funds that students have no choice but to pay into along with their tuition. (In my long-ago college days I remember that drunkenly bitching “My student-activities fee paid for this?!” was a common refrain at campus events, sometimes before the event even started.) She’s talking about gigs that pay $1,000 a pop, which, as she acknowledges, is a big deal in the world of stand-up comedy in any venue.

This isn’t a “normal” gig, in other words, it’s an institutional gig. You’re not playing to an audience of paying customers who’ve been warned--caveat emptor--that the $10 cover you’re putting down for a night’s entertainment might piss you off. You’re being approved by a committee that’s been entrusted with other people’s money in order to provide entertainment for an entire organization.

You’re being guaranteed a more-or-less captive audience--these large-scale student events are always well-attended since they’re generally available at low or no cost to students and preempt any other scheduled events for the evening--and a big fat check. In return, you sacrifice a lot of the creative freedom that comes from running your own show and charging tickets for it.

This ought not be news to anyone who works in entertainment. It’s pretty standard, and even 10 years ago when I was in college the comedy geeks all knew and expected that officially sanctioned campus events would be less edgy and exciting than the student-run open mics and improv shows that constituted the bulk of our weekend entertainment.

Indeed, that’s the reason our one “large-scale event” every year was usually a musical act and not a comedy act, because music was more of a universal crowd-pleaser than comedy. Flanagan correctly notes that campuses being a paying venue for stand-up comedy at all is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that is itself a result of campuses marketing themselves as “all-inclusive resorts” and bulking up their “student activities funds” to keep students happy--something she seems to paradoxically decry even as she laments the comics who aren’t getting that student-activities money.

Well, look. At one point in time I performed improv regularly and aspired to be a stand-up comic. I went to all the requisite classes and workshops.

I had one coach I really liked because he was very blunt about treating your performing career as a business and being well aware that the legendarily successful comics who were “hard to work with” were an exception, not a rule.

He talked a lot about how comedians more than any other artist must not just be aware of their audience but neurotically obsessed with their audience--making people laugh is the hardest emotion to elicit from an audience, and it’s a binary thing, you either succeed or you fail. Unlike other actors or speakers, stand-up comics must tape their sets and listen to them over and over again, gauging the reaction of the crowd from moment to moment. A stand-up comic who genuinely does not give a fuck what people think is a stand-up comic who stops getting booked for shows.

And you know what his advice was? If you can “clean up” your act and still keep it authentic, alive and fresh, you should do it, because pissing people off is bad for business. Many people can’t clean up their act and still be funny, of course, which means they’ll make less money than the people who can. That’s unfortunately how business works.

And the place he said to go if you really wanted to make a career of it? Not comedy clubs, where the pay even for comics who bring down the house is generally pitiful and the chance of being abused by drunk hecklers is high. Not colleges, either, which are cushy institutional gigs if you can get them but where the slots are limited and competition is fierce, as Flanagan observed at her NACA conference.

No, the place to get the big bucks is the motivational corporate speaking circuit. Get booked at corporate “leadership” conferences, or “networking” events, or the corporate “retreats” given out as rewards to a company’s top-performing executives.

Those people command fees of multiple thousands per gig, making the $1,000 purse for a campus gig seem paltry. And if you can come off as credibly inspirational or positive about whatever the company’s business is, you don’t even have to be all that funny, as long as people leave feeling good.

Let’s recap Flanagan’s horror at the “herd opinions” that campus comics must bow to--that campus comics can’t make overtly sexist, racist or anti-gay jokes, that their jokes have to be safe, inclusive jokes about “Costco, camping, and pets,” and that being a gay dude who jokes about sassy black women--something some black women are legitimately pissed off by--gets you “only” 18 offers for a gig as opposed to the 40 or 50 you “deserve.”

Well, the corporate speaking set has pretty much the same rules, only you trade a certain leeway when it comes to sexist humor--not much leeway, since HR departments are as lawsuit-averse as campus administrations--for adding the requirement that you also can’t bad-mouth capitalism, business or the general concept of working hard to achieve the American Dream.

Right-wing media has been having a freakout over a handout (a handout freakout, or HOFO) at a University of California faculty training session describing “meritocracy” as an un-p.c. term, seeing this as part of the unrelenting academic assault on freedom.

I find it very hard to see it as anything but one very small counterattack against the much larger “real-world” p.c. culture where you’re not allowed to say anything against “meritocracy.” I can’t help seeing all this hand-wringing over campus culture as coming from people who are mentally and emotionally stuck on campus--without seeing the degree to which “campus culture” is just a reaction against this “real world” they speak so highly of.

I’ll speak from my own experience. I did do my time at the extremely left-wing Swarthmore College, “the Kremlin on the Crum,” as they call it, where the handful of officially sanctioned student events every year were predictably inoffensively anodyne, though that didn’t stop them from booking a local stand-up comic who inspired a mass walkout due to an endless onslaught of Monica Lewinsky jokes. (Whether this was because they were offensively sexist or offensively unfunny, I don’t personally know, although he was telling these jokes in fucking 2005.)

I also heard a lot more jokes from student comics, improv troupes and uncategorizable open-mic performance artists, many of which were quite outrageously “offensive” (graphic violence, graphic depictions of rape, liberal use of slurs, etc.) even though they all came from the same kind of incoherently rebellious campus left perspective. Some of them were really funny, though none of them were particularly liberatory or profound, any more than your typical comedy club’s litany of jokes about alcoholism and oral sex are.

But then I graduated, had a bunch of adventures in the working world and, for a time, found myself doing “business development” for a small IT company, a job for which I was direly unqualified.

I spent a great deal of time in this position attending lots and lots and lots of corporate events--Chamber of Commerce events, tech-centric “disruption” events, Networking for Good fundraisers.

I got a lot of free meals out of my company expense account in return for almost no success at developing actual business contacts, but I consider myself karmically justified because I have never had to sit through so many direly boring and unfunny speakers in my life.

I spent a year listening to speakers billed as “funny” and “entertaining” who made those boring campus entertainers seem like George Carlin. And everything was not only obnoxiously “p.c.” but also obnoxiously pollyannaish and optimistic--any joke that might come off as cynical or subversive was off-limits. Every speaker, no matter how they varied their jokes to play to an audience of Young Millennial Tech Brats or Grizzled Commercial Real Estate Development Veterans or African-American Owners of Independent Dental Practices, hewed to the same “You Are Responsible for Your Success” script as faithfully as pastors to the Bible.

To me, this is the real “p.c.”--literally what is “politically correct” to say in America, what you have to say to get on the good side of the politically powerful regardless of its truth. This other “p.c.” everyone talks about is just a weak attempt to oppose it -- which just as often gets co-opted or absorbed by it.

George Carlin would be banned from both the campus and the corporate comedy circuit not just for his “Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd” joke but for his loud, vicious denunciation of the U.S. as mass-murdering brown people. Even if you somehow “cleaned up” the act of one of my favorite and foulest comics, Rick Shapiro, the fact that he trades in the relentless bleakness of poverty—“Nothing works out for anyone! I sucked dick for heroin, you will too!”--would permanently lock him out of those $5,000-a-pop “inspirational” gigs. Even at the Kremlin on the Crum you had to go to the beer-soaked student open mics to hear anything the least bit “subversive”--by which I mean fiercely anti-sexist or anti-racist as much as I mean fiercely sexist or racist, by which I mean anything fierce at all.

I myself went through college a thoroughly obnoxious “anti-p.c.” gadfly, arguing with every crunchy activist and social justice crusader I met. I didn’t engage in “self-censorship” until I went around hurriedly locking all my Facebook and LiveJournal posts so none of my respectable business contacts would see my anguish about Trayvon Martin or my insomnia-fueled rants about the brutality of capitalism, because I knew there would be no vigorous debate or social media shaming if I were found out, I’d just quietly lose my job.

This isn’t just about the fact that, as Scott Timberg points out, conservatives still ban far more books from libraries and curricula than liberals.

It’s about how one professor coming under Title IX investigation for an article containing a veiled attack on a student is part of the “political correctness gone mad” narrative but another professor straight-up losing his job for negative tweets about Israel is not. It’s about how conservatives get to revise the AP U.S. history exam and kill a Smithsonian exhibit about the Hiroshima bombing because they both contain facts that make them uncomfortable, but this isn’t labeled as “political correctness.” It’s about how Mel Gibson kills his Hollywood career with a rambling anti-Semitic rant and Rose McGowan gets blacklisted for a single snarky tweet about sexist casting notices--but only the former is “censorious p.c. culture,” the latter is just Hollywood businessmen protecting the feelings of the people who sign their checks.

That’s it, isn’t it? It’s only “p.c. gone mad” if it’s the wrong people whose feelings are being policed, the people who are “normally” in the check-signing position.

I didn’t take my coach’s advice, when I got my brief window to fame and fortune by being the "Jeopardy!" guy. He called me and told me my 15 minutes of fame were the perfect vehicle to a cushy life on the corporate-speaking circuit, that if I reworked my public image enough I could make money in my sleep telling entrepreneurs and executives how to “disrupt the rules” to make big profits.

It wouldn’t even really be contrary to my beliefs to do so. It would just be leaving out certain parts of my beliefs--the parts likely to step on the toes of the check-signing elites of the world.

I ultimately made the other choice--I went public with my SJW beliefs, I wrote incendiary political think pieces for left-wing rags, I made myself unhirable as a cheerleader for the American Dream. I’m working the “p.c. left” college-campus-speaker diversity circuit, which, as a cursory look at any speaking-gig website will tell you, has a whole lot less money floating around it than the inspirational/corporate circuit, despite its supposed tyrannical power.

The fact that people like me get shut out of the Chamber of Commerce isn’t “political correctness,” though. It’s just “the free market,” or “the way the world works,” or, as my parents would call it, “simple common sense.”

Actual political correctness doesn’t get perceived as political correctness. If it’s really “politically correct” to believe something then that belief isn’t perceived at all--any more than fish perceive water. “Political correctness” is the label we put on any attempt to change what’s politically correct — "political correctness gone mad" is what we call it when that change happens too fast for our tastes.

The fact is George Carlin wouldn’t have been welcome as institutionally endorsed entertainment in the 1940s, or the 1960s (the decade in which he was arrested for public profanity, the decade when the Smothers Brothers were forced off the air), or the 1980s, or the 2000s--but it’s only the 2000s-specific rape-joke critiques that are treated as a new, horrifying era of “political correctness” that must be resisted.

Everything else that makes something like him controversial--and has always made someone like him controversial--is chalked up to “the way the marketplace works” and to “common sense.” You know, things we don’t question because they are politically correct.

Which brings me back to the Lukianoff/Haidt piece and its insulting thesis that college campuses are incubators for mental illness and emotional fragility because they make students hypersensitive to oppression--ignoring that the entire rest of the world is a hypersensitive minefield ready to blow the fuck up when you so much as mention the concept of oppression.

They inappropriately borrow the language of cognitive behavioral therapy--a practice meant to deal with personal emotional problems on an individual basis--to diagnose an entire social movement as mentally ill. So I’ll borrow their use of mental-health rhetoric and point out that what they’re doing is called gaslighting. They’re treating real, society-wide problems as though they’re just individual mental hang-ups. They’re treating the oppressive culture of “political correctness” that silences dissent and enforces conformity that we have always had as normal and sane, and treating the resistance to it--the flawed attempt to come up with new social norms that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable instead of vice versa--as though it’s the real sickness.

It’s a textbook example of the Martha Mitchell effect, of deciding you’re paranoid before even asking if they really are out to get you.

It’s an unfair criticism. It’s a criticism that comes from a place of immense privilege and comfort. And it is, most of all, tiresomely and predictably politically correct.

By Arthur Chu

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Comedy Political Correctness The Atlantic Universities