When I heard Chris Rock say, “I won’t work colleges anymore, because they’ve gotten too conservative,” I took note.
Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’ Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say ‘the black kid over there.’ No, it’s ‘the guy with the red shoes.’ You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.
This frightened me, because if an icon like Chris Rock had to be worried about offending kids at college comedy shows, what hope is there for a comedian of my limited stature?
As it turns out, none.
My last college gig was an unmitigated disaster
Or so I was told. I actually thought I was receiving a typical college response.
The instant the lights went down, I heard nothing but kids talking over me. When I said my first “Hello!” into the microphone, approximately three of the 150 people in the room responded. The rest? They were in their own world, eating, talking, and posting selfies to Instagram.
To be fair to them, it was what’s known as an “Ambush Show.” The kids didn’t know they were getting comedy, they were at a party to get a free meal, listen to a DJ and dance, and socialize, when suddenly, “Oh, and we also hired a comedian! Enjoy!” was thrust upon them.
So, I’m not blaming the students for their disinterest. You can’t tell a room full of people ready to let loose to “shut up and listen for the next 30 minutes.”
I shrugged their indifference off and barreled forward the best I could, because I was under contract. I had to sling my jokes for 30 minutes, audience apathy be damned.
When I was pulled from the stage 25 minutes later and told I was offending people, I was floored.
(Yes, you read that correctly. They yanked me 25 minutes into a 30-minute set. Apparently what I was doing was so pearl-clutchingly horrible that five more minutes of it would have set the world ablaze.)
Now, I’m not dense. I knew I wasn’t killing it. However, had everyone tuned out halfway through my set, I would have thought, “Crap! I’m losing them!” Since disinterest was the norm from the get-go, I figured, “This is how it’s going to be.”
But never in a million years did I think I was shocking the audience
When I was told otherwise, I asked which of my comments were out of line. The opening response was: “Off the top of my head? When you made fun of white people names.”
To be fair, I did make fun of white people names.
After the audience ignored my “Hello,” it was obvious they weren’t going to pay attention to me telling jokes. So, I decided to speak with them—to do interactive material. I started working the room, dancing on verbal eggshells the whole time because I am not stupid. I knew full-well that at a university, it’s best to tread lightly.
For fifteen minutes I spoke with different tables and different students, making light, situational jokes: “You only ate half a baby carrot? You were too full to finish a baby carrot?”
(Groundbreaking? No. Safe? Yes. Hilarious? No. Chuckles from the six kids paying attention? Yes.)
When I got to a table of white girls, I asked the first girl I saw, “What’s your name?”
“Rachel,” she responded.
“Oh God…” I groaned, over-emphasizing my exasperation to show I was being absurd. “That is the whitest name, ever.”
I heard mild giggles from the peanut gallery, and the girls at the table laughed, so all was well.
Or so I thought
When that moment came back to bite me in the butt, I was floored, and asked for clarification: “How was that offensive?”
I was told: “The event is multicultural. Our goal is 100% inclusivity.”
Pointing out any race, even my own, brought attention to race, which automatically “made things uncomfortable.”
Though I didn’t, I wanted to shout, “FOR WHO?!”
I’ve been a comedian long enough to know the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable laughter, and the (very light) chuckle I heard at my (dumb) comment was genuine. Especially considering all you hear about regarding comedy is “punching up vs. punching down.” Apparently white people are now a protected race, so… kudos white people! Look how far we’ve come!
The other “point of offense” is one I should have seen coming
Up in front, I wondered whether or not I should do a joke in support of gay marriage. After all, I know people generally hear trigger words and react to them, not context.
Instead of yanking the joke, I went crystal clear, adding a preface upfront. Speaking slowly and clearly, I said: “I’ll tell you this; I support marriage equality, and I don’t understand the arguments against marriage equality…”
(Note: I made sure to say, “marriage equality” from the stage. Again, I was watching my language in order to avoid what happened anyway.)
The joke itself is at the expense of bigots. I had seen a list of “Threats to the American Way of Life,” and #1 on that list was gay marriage.
(Note the italics; read it in a spooky voice in your head. “Oooooh, gay marriage… spooky!”)
Not being able to wrap my head around such obtuse, bigoted, off-putting thinking, I wrote a joke mocking that viewpoint. I figured standing up for marriage equality at a liberal arts school would be embraced.
The issue was: “The problem is with you, a heterosexual male talking about gay marriage in the first place. You cannot determine how someone who is homosexual will react to your stance on their issue.”
Hearing that, I was at a loss for words
If my joke had been at the expense of homosexuality, then yes, it would have been out of line. But to say I cannot talk about a political issue involving a sect I’m not a member of? That’s bullshit. Especially because the LGBT community needs me to talk about it. Not as a comedian, but as a straight person.
The only way marriage equality happened in America is because straight people stood side-by-side with the LGBT community, championing their cause. If the LGBT community were to stand alone in their fight against discrimination, the issue would be dismissed as “A gay problem.”
Just like AIDS was “a gay problem” in the early 1980s, before whoops! straights started dying from it, too. Just like civil rights needed honkey-Americans to stand arm in arm with people of color fighting for equality. The majority has to see and understand the plight of the minority in order to create change.
Anyway, logical failings aside, if there was any viewpoint I thought would be safe on a college campus, it was “pro-marriage equality.” But no. Even the topic is verboten, meaning the line was crossed when I opened my mouth. What came out of it didn’t matter. Because when you’re not paying attention to content and you’re simply trying to indulge the delicate sensibilities of a society waiting to be outraged, you’ve already lost.
The problem is: you cannot cater to everyone, and everyone is offended by something
That’s simply life.
Fully believing my joke stood on the right side of history (as the kids like to say), I posted it on TikTok.
If you’d like, you can view it and the comments here.
Spoiler alert: the LGBTQ community was happy to have a straight ally on their side, and didn’t mind me talking about “their issue.”
It’s sad that our institutions of “higher learning” have become so out of touch with reality. For years we’ve read about helicopter and bulldozer parents, and now we’re facing the results of those actions: kids with skins so thin they cannot tolerate the slightest adversity or challenge.
My hope is that my experience was an isolated incident
My fear is that this is the future, with over-the-top sensitivity a new normal that uses good intentions as a weapon that destroys society.
After all, we all know what the road to hell is paved with.
Like the way I write? Go give my book a gander.