February 12, 2019

GROSKAUFMANIS | Two College Students Walk into a Comedy Show

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Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, two of America’s most well-respected veteran comedians, won’t perform on college campuses. Their reasoning centers around the usual complaints about political correctness, assuming that today’s young people don’t appreciate, or maybe can’t even handle, the types of humor they tend to use in their sets.

High-profile examples of clashes between college audiences and comedians are ripe for cherry-picking. Last December Nimesh Patel, a writer for SNL, was pulled off stage in the middle of a set at Columbia University after one of his jokes was deemed too offensive for the event: an example that fits snuggly into the idea that college students can’t take a joke.

But in an op-ed in The New York Times that followed the incident, Patel himself acknowledged a complexity that this stereotype doesn’t completely capture, writing, “I do not think we should let the actions of a small group — actions that get blown out of proportion because they feed a narrative many people want to hear — paint college campuses as bad places to perform and paint this next generation as doomed.”

I talked to students who perform comedy at Cornell, at other universities and in cities across the United States. Nearly everyone I spoke with said that they haven’t noticed a difference between their audiences on and off campus, in terms of sensitivity to edgier material. Their input offered necessary perspective on a debate that tends to revolve around, but rarely consult, people who are central to it: young performers themselves.

“I think there’s a very big difference between someone who is 21 years old doing comedy for other 21-year-olds and someone who’s a lot older and deeper in their comedy career,” said Leo Dominguez, a senior at the University of Virginia who performs on campus and around the D.C. circuit. “When a joke bombs, a lot of people aren’t ready to be like, ‘Maybe it wasn’t funny,’ so instead they jump to, ‘Oh, these kids are just too uptight to get the joke.’”

This idea led us into a discussion about rising comedians like Cat Cohen and Jaboukie Young-White — just two of many examples of performers who are innovating and adapting to younger audiences, their peers. These comedians aren’t “playing it safe” by any means; they’re still engaging with what other comedians would consider provocative material, tackling issues of race, gender, sexuality, family dynamics and rejection. But a lot of their material is grounded in their own experience, tapping into commentary and self-deprecation, rather than punching down at the expense of others.

“Individuals can talk about their experiences in different ways, and comedy is a fantastic way for comedians to claim their own voices,” said Vanessa Okoyeh ’19, a senior who performs improv and stand-up on campus, at IC and downtown. “But it’s very different when someone jokes about something they have absolutely no experience with that has traumatized other people. That, I think, is where certain jokes cross the line.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since last November, when I went to a “women in comedy” festival at Princeton. I don’t perform, but a friend of mine invited me and I figured it would be an interesting place to go and listen. One thing I was surprised by was the amount of discussion, and the extent of disagreement, among students at the conference regarding the role of offensive material in humor. I didn’t hear anyone say that comedy should be, or even could be, wholly inoffensive. Disagreement tended to surround the question of whether the right to make edgy jokes depends on having direct personal experience with whatever one is joking about.

I think the answer to this falls into a very grey area.

In the shows that I’ve been to, I’ve found comedians navigate this question with varying degrees of success. My friends and I spent a lot of time over the summer at a small spot in D.C. that had free stand-up every Thursday. I heard a handful of male comedians tell jokes about women, week after week, that were kind of lame — angry one-liners about girls who didn’t text them back, tired material that wasn’t so much offensive as it was boring. But I also heard other men joke thoughtfully about gender in some really funny ways, and was ultimately appreciative that they had.

Experience is important, but I also think that if you’re joking about a disadvantage that isn’t your own, the essential thing to consider is context and whether your jokes are punching up or punching down. Ultimately, I think comedy can and should maintain an edge. I just think that edge is a lot funnier when comedians don’t depend entirely on putting others in the crossfire of their punchlines. Julia Shebek ’19, another senior who performs stand-up and sketch comedy on campus, put it best when she told me, “If you’re doing [edgy material] in a way where your joke is the stereotype, you’re doing it wrong.”

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com. The Dissent runs every other Monday this semester.