Stand-up comedy isn’t an artform well known for representing a politically correct community of performers. In no other art form is the purpose so regularly to shock the audience and push the limits of what is socially acceptable, let alone funny. Subjects like sexual identity and orientation, relationship abuse, racial tensions, and even sexual assault and harassment are deemed as fair game for many comedians. It is this aspect of stand-up comedy that is responsible for its ability to propagate discourse and reflection in an audience, but over the past few years, it has also generated a fair deal of conflict with college campuses and the socially safe, tolerant learning environments they are attempting to construct for their students.
In a VICE News documentary broadcasted this year, one reporter sat down with a number of bookers that work for some small liberal arts colleges. When asked how they screen for certain acts that may trigger their students, Kat Michael, a booker for Simmons College, responded that “when I’m working … with a comedian, I’m very upfront in saying … transphobic language isn’t gonna be tolerated.” As a result of this move by many college campuses to neuter the acts of comedians that perform for them, many high profile comedians have decided to quit the circuit all together. Among these performers stand the likes of Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Judy Gold.
The logic behind colleges’ decisions is nothing if not sound; students have enough to worry about with classes, clubs, loans, relationships and any number of other worries. It makes sense that they would want to alleviate that emotional load in any way possible. Censoring a few comedians is not going to alleviate anything, and it may actually hurt students in the long run. In a journal article for American Quarterly, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Lawrence Mintz discusses the comedian’s role of “the negative exemplar” in that they adopt those concepts which are considered taboo in everyday society to their own stage persona. They then address the concepts of assault, race or orientation, with a level of irreverence and absurdity that not only generates a humorous effect but also often propagates a level of reflection on the subject after the giggles have worn off.
Although it may not seem like it, stand-up itself is discourse. It may seem like a comedian has the power when they are standing up on a stage, while the crowd has to sit and listen to them talk for an hour, but the situation is much more similar to the comedian being on trial where the crowd is the jury. According to Mintz, comedians put their dignity and name on the line and in return are granted a license to a level of social transgression, and the comedian must guess as to where that license will run out.
A few years ago, I went to a Bill Burr show in Portland. Burr is a successful and well-recognized comic, but by all accounts, he was having a tough time on stage Burr loves to blur the lines of political correctness in his sets, and that night he decided to open by discussing Caitlyn Jenner. This, unfortunately, did not go over well in Portland, a liberal community with a strong LGBTQ+ population. Bill powered through the entire bit, with a rather clever twist on the crisis one faces when their heroes don’t meet their expectations, but from there he moved on to safer material. I share this anecdote to illustrate two points: one, that a comedian can take edgy material and force an audience to reflect on it, and two, that an audience is always empowered to make it clear to a comedian that they have reached the limits of their license to transgression.
On Nov. 1, Howie Mandel will be coming to the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono to perform stand-up, and it is my hope that students will be able to approach his set and every other set to come without worries and be ready to engage in the odd discourse that is stand-up comedy.