Comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently made headlines with his statements about how college campuses are too “PC” for comedy due to college students’ lack of understanding about sensitive topics like racism or sexism.
“I hear that all the time,” Seinfeld said. “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’ I’ll give you an example: My daughter’s 14. My wife says to her, ‘Well, you know, in the next couple years, I think maybe you’re going to want to be hanging around the city more on the weekends, so you can see boys.’ You know what my daughter says? She says, ‘That’s sexist.’ They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist’; ‘That’s sexist’; ‘That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Well I may not be a stand up comedian, but I’m a comedian and magician who has performed at over 500 college campuses in the last decade and I can say that I wholeheartedly disagree with Seinfeld’s comments.
1. Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t work college campuses.
While he may perform at an occasional college campus with a ton of money, or give a commencement speech here and there, Jerry Seinfeld admits in his statement that he doesn’t work colleges. He doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of what college students are like. He’s basing his opinion on a thing that college comedians love to complain about. “Colleges are too PC.” I suspect that comedians who complain about this use it as an excuse for a joke that goes over with a comedy club crowd and falls flat with college students. Or maybe they think they’re not getting repeat bookings with colleges and blaming it on the college being “too PC.” I can’t speak for them. But I do know that there are MANY comedians who make a decent living from performing at colleges and they have no problems with this issue. They know the audience and they know the gig (see number 4).
2. This isn’t just a “college campus issue.”
Are college students politically correct and sometimes a little too quick to claim that they’re offended? Yes. Guess who else is? F***ing everyone. College students are intelligent, quick, and connected. They GET IT. They know pop culture more than anyone else in the world and while some of them may still have naive or underdeveloped views about socio-political issues, they know right from wrong. If we’re going to have a discussion about college students getting “too PC” to take a joke, we need to be having it about everyone. College students aren’t any more politically correct than a diverse television viewing audience. There are some great debates out there about whether political correctness is killing comedy. I can see both sides of that argument. But that’s not what I’m here to write about.
First of all, the example Seinfeld gave about his 14 year old daughter is somewhat irrelevant. That’s not the type of misunderstanding of sexism that would keep a joke from being funny in a college. So what would keep a joke from being accepted as funny in a college?
3. Jokes that disparage groups of people just aren’t funny.
In my experience, college students don’t want to hear jokes that disparage groups of people. It’s not only because it’s not politically correct; it’s because gay jokes, fat jokes, sexist jokes are easy, unintelligent and lack creativity. They’re not funny because there’s not that much effort involved in writing them. I have watched nationally-known comedians bomb with college students by trying to do entire sets based on homophobic material. The crowd goes silent, the tweets and Yik Yaks start flying. I’ve personally witnessed it on multiple occasions.
This reminds me of a joke from one of my favorite comedians, Mike Birbiglia: “I wasn’t like the class clown in school growing up. I think the class clown was always the mean guy who walks in the room and was like, ‘You’re fat! You’re gay! I’m outta here!’ You know? I was always a little fat, a little gay; I never got along with that guy.”
The stuff that goes over in colleges is comedy that is relatable. Today’s audiences want the person onstage to be someone they feel like they could hang out with. There’s a reason people love Jimmy Fallon. Gone are the days of the comedian being the guy in the room who is cooler than everyone and has to prove it by making fun of everyone he can. Now before you say it, YES, I do often call a guy a “dick” in my shows. But I’m very adamant about doing it in a way that makes it feel the same way it would feel if that guy were one of my best friends.
4. These are learning institutions, not comedy clubs.
I’ll stress again that I’m not a stand-up comedian. What I do is a different game. But I see entertainers go into the college market expecting that THIS is the place they can really let go. Of all places, colleges are supposed to fulfill that Animal House stereotype of anything-goes reckless abandon. It’s like they forget that they’re performing in a student union ballroom next to an academic advisor’s office. If a joke works in a comedy club but falls flat in a college, there are many situational factors that could be blamed. Political correctness may be one of them. But there are other issues to think about. In a comedy club, people are usually there with a small group of close friends. Those people usually know each other very well and the rest of the room is full of strangers. In a college, a student is aware of the impression he or she is making on everyone around them. There isn’t the amount of anonymity in a college audience that you find in a comedy club. It’s not as easy to laugh at sensitive topics when you think the people around you might hold you responsible for your views. Everyone can be a little bit of an asshole when they’re anonymous.
5. This is a business.
Show business people often forget about the second word. This is a business. The discussion about the commerciality of art and “selling out” will go on forever in coffee shops and art studios around the world. Are we creating our art for them or for us? At a certain point, we must realize that if we are being paid to do our art, we have to accept that we’re living by the rules of the person who pays us. If they don’t like what we do, they won’t rebook us. Many times it’s not the students who are the barometer of what is acceptable in a college, but the administrator or director of student activities. They will clearly tell you if you shouldn’t drop “F-bombs.” And I hear about it when a comedian disregards these rules. I hear about it when a director or administrator says “Oh, _____ won’t be invited back here. We asked them to keep it kind of clean, but they were way too dirty.” So is that the fault of the audience? Why paint college students with the broad brush of “they’re too PC” when it’s the comedian who made a bad business decision? I know. It’s not sexy to talk about comedy or any art as a business. But we kind of have to, right? Did Seinfeld complain when the FCC censored scripts on his show? Probably not, because he was getting a million dollars an episode.
So I ask the question: What jokes do Jerry Seinfeld and others want to do in colleges that they feel like they can’t? Do they wish they could do more gay jokes? Racist jokes? I honestly would love an example of a joke that works in other venues, but not colleges. I would be willing to bet that if it doesn’t play in a college, it also doesn’t play on television. Seinfeld has always prided himself on working clean. He’s a clean comedian, so what material is he afraid won’t hit hard in colleges? As far as the college market goes, Jerry doesn’t have a dog in the fight. He can say what he wants. Most colleges don’t have “Jerry Seinfeld” money anyway. They can book one of the MANY comedians making a living on working college campuses. I’ve been asked by a lot of people about my opinion on this matter. Are people too PC these days? Maybe. But as someone who visits 80-100 college campuses a year, I can tell you that college audiences are some of the best and they love to laugh just like every one else.
I would love to hear your opinion on this matter. If you’re a stand up comedian, or a comedian who works in colleges, what are your views?