Many folks who know me know that I tried stand-up a few times, never making it past MC for open-mike night levels. I’d like to think that I had the proper combination of aggression and the desperate need for attention, but what I didn’t have was the right sense of humor. My sense of humor tends to be reactive — if someone says or does something, I can say something funny in response, but unless you’re running some sort of Andy Kaufman anti-comedy thing, that doesn’t really work on the stage. Or it didn’t for me, anyway.
Nonetheless, I still have a fascination with the art form — I like to watch comedians, and when essays or articles about stand-up enter my view, I check them out. I ran into a couple today. One, at humor site Cracked.com, was entitled “5 Ways Stand-Up Comics Hate Free Speech.” In this essay, Adam Tod Brown bemoans the fact that comedians apparently aren’t genuinely interested in engaging the audience in thoughtful dialogue, complain when they’re called out or sacked for bad taste, and aren’t always willing to “speak truth to power” when it might hurt them in the business. Well, as Ed Gein noted, one man’s meat is another man’s person (Seeing why things didn’t work out for me yet?), but I’m not sure what sort of comedy — and what breed of comedians — would stand before of the brick walls of his clubs and actually be funny.
Later this afternoon, however, I ran into an article by Caitlin Flanagan at the Atlantic, on the strangely anodyne audition process for the college comedy circuit, in this case at the recent convention for the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), where folks go to pick entertainment for various student gatherings. Both Brown and Flanagan note the recent comments of folks like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock that college audiences are too easily offended to make good comedy audiences; Brown derides these statements while Flanagan sees them as evidence of the continuing infantilization of college students. Of the two writers, I think Flanagan’s case is stronger — and wittier as well.
But here’s the quote, and as someone who deals in ideas, and who wants kids to do the same, I found it interesting. Take it away, Ms. Flanagan:
The students’ determination to avoid booking any acts that might conceivably hurt the feelings of a classmate was in its way quite admirable. They seemed wholly animated by kindness and by an open-mindedness to the many varieties of the human experience. But the flip side of this sensitivity is the savagery with which reputations and even academic careers can be destroyed by a single comment—perhaps thoughtless, perhaps misinterpreted, perhaps (God help you) intended as a joke—that violates the values of the herd.
When you talk with college students outside of formal settings, many reveal nuanced opinions on the issues that NACA was so anxious to police. But almost all of them have internalized the code that you don’t laugh at politically incorrect statements; you complain about them. In part, this is because they are the inheritors of three decades of identity politics, which have come to be a central driver of attitudes on college campuses. But there’s more to it than that. These kids aren’t dummies; they look around their colleges and see that there are huge incentives to join the ideological bandwagon and harsh penalties for questioning the platform’s core ideas.
Meanwhile—as obvious reaction to all of this—frat boys and other campus punksters regularly flout the thought police by staging events along elaborately racist themes, events that, while patently vile, are beginning to constitute the free-speech movement of our time. The closest you’re going to get to Mario Savio—sick at heart about the operation of the machine and willing to throw himself upon its gears and levers—is less the campus president of Human Rights Watch than the moron over at Phi Sigma Kappa who plans the Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos mixer.
Talk about your holy fools…