Jerry Seinfeld recently told an ESPN radio host, “I don’t play colleges. I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.'” The only time Seinfeld shows up on a college campus is when someone leaves the TV on in a dorm lounge and one of his lucrative reruns comes on. Seinfeld essentially admits he knows nothing about what happens at colleges. Yet his ignorant tirade is being taken as a serious indictment of American higher education.
Of course, there are some comedians who actually have played college campuses, and agree with Seinfeld. Chris Rock said last year, “I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative. Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”
I’m sure that many college students (like other people) don’t want to offend anybody or hear offensive remarks. But what does that have to do with why Rock stopped playing colleges? Rock is rich, and he can say any offensive thing at a college he wants to without risking his paycheck. Unlike faculty, Rock has total academic freedom because he doesn’t have to worry about any consequences for his words. So in essence, Rock is saying that he avoids colleges because they make him uncomfortable: he’s afraid that students might not laugh at his jokes, or might criticize him for saying something offensive. But that’s the definition of free speech: Rock gets to offend people, and offended people don’t have to like it.
Unfortunately, some millionaire comedians seem to think that they’re entitled to get laughs with anyone criticizing them. Seinfeld recently told Seth Meyers, “There’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me.” And then Seinfeld explained the evil PC thing that had bothered him so much while telling a joke about cell phones recently:
“I say, ‘They don’t seem very important, the way you scroll through (your phone) like a gay French king.’ … I did this line recently in front of an audience, and comedy is where you can feel an opinion. And they thought, ‘What do you mean gay? What are you talking about gay? What are you doing? What do you mean?’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
Yes, are you kidding me? Jerry Seinfeld is still doing unfunny “gay men are limp-wristed” jokes in the 21st century? Is he that much of an old hack?
Seinfeld has a net worth of about $820 million, but he wants to be beloved as a comic. He goes into comedy clubs and charity events, and everybody loves him and laughs at anything he says because he’s a celebrity. So why is he afraid that a few college student might boo his jokes? More importantly, why should any of us care about the fragile ego of an almost-billionaire?
Bill Maher has jumped in to defend Seinfeld. On Maher’s June 12th HBO show, comedian Jeff Ross declared, “Comedians shouldn’t have to adapt to the PC. People who are too sensitive should have to become more thick-skinned.”. But what Ross said should also apply to comedians: too many comedians are too sensitive to criticism, and need to be more thick-skinned when someone doesn’t like an offensive joke. It’s only natural that comedians want applause and laughter, not hisses and criticism. But a university should be all about debate and criticism, not polite applause of every joke.
On his June 19th show, Maher said: “You know, when Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry the Cable Guy say you have a stick up your ass, you don’t have to wait for the X-rays to come back. That’s right, a black, a Jew and a redneck all walk onto a college campus and they all can’t wait to leave.”
It’s true that these comedians come from diverse backgrounds. But what they share is a lot of wealth, and an expectation that their audiences now will always love them. Struggling comedians have to deal with hecklers and critics and, worst of all, indifferent audiences. But the millionaire comedians like Rock, Seinfeld, Larry, and Maher live in a bubble of adoring fans handing over their money and laughing at literally anything these celebrities say.
Maher could have also asked why the funniest man in America, Donald Trump, doesn’t speak on college campuses, and the answer would be the same: Trump doesn’t want to answer tough questions or hear criticism, and so he stays away from universities.
Maher has noted, “I used to fight with this audience all the time, because we used to get the audience strictly from liberal sources, then we got the audience like from everywhere and I’ve had a much better time the last couple of months.” So Maher would manipulate his audience to find liberals, and now he’s doing a better job of manipulating his audience to find people who only agree with him.
I can understand why Maher doesn’t want to fight with his own audience, but does Maher think that universities should take the same approach he does, to try to suppress disagreement and criticism? The danger is that if you want people to just shut up and laugh on a college campus, the most effective way is to get rid of any comedians who might offend someone.
Comedian Dean Obeidallah noted, “Seinfeld is right that college students can be very PC. I have seen it firsthand when I performed standup comedy or gave lectures on college campuses. College students react to jokes about issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation differently than many people in their 40s, 50s and older. In fact, on several occasions, college students have come up to me after shows to explain that they were ‘concerned’ with one of my jokes. Typically, they had read something into the joke that I had not intended. We would discuss the joke, but they never demanded I stop telling it.”
According to Obeidallah, “I have been in shows where comedians told very sexist or homophobic jokes. These same jokes would elicit good laughs in comedy clubs, but were met with numerous objections by college students. The students have every right to voice their views about these jokes.”
It would be easy for me to end this essay here and simply dismiss the whining of millionaire comedians who are afraid of being criticized. But there is a serious problem on college campuses that suppress controversial entertainers. No one is banning Jerry Seinfeld from a college campus. Bill Maher has a legitimate claim for being censored, after some people tried to ban him from being the commencement speakers at the University of California at Berkeley. Certain repressive leftists do oppose honoring Maher: not for his jokes, but for his political views and his hatred of Islam. Those left-wing censors are wrong, but they’re also largely unsuccessful.
However, there is a climate where colleges avoid controversy. Scott Blakeman, who has performed with Obeidallah on campus in the Standup for Peace show, noted recently:
I have personally been affected by the reluctance of many college organizations to book comedy shows they deem too controversial. Even though our show is clean in language as well as subject matter, and is far from divisive with its message of tolerance, understanding and peace, Dean and I have noticed a dramatic drop in interest from colleges the past year….Several times in the past year, we received emails expressing great interest in our show only to abruptly hear a few days later that the school could not book our show. It seems as though nervous faculty advisors stepped in to not allow these students to pursue their interest in our show.
Blakeman is probably wrong to target faculty advisors, who rarely have much involvement. Instead, the more likely factor is administrators, such as the one he reports “saw me reading the campus newspaper(as I always do to make the show as specific to each school as possible), and asked me not to mention any of the campus news stories, so no one in the audience could possibly be offended.”
CNN reported the story of comedian Chuck Nice:
He told a bit about getting on his knees at the playground and giving his young daughter a dollar for swinging on a pole in a manner that reminded him of a stripper. It was satire, he says, meant to show that the last thing he wanted was his daughter to become a stripper. The next day, he received a letter telling him he was not welcome back to the institution, he said. “That’s what comedians are talking about when they say college campuses have become places where sensitivity has run amok,” he said. “There are tons of stories like that.”
And that’s the real danger here: not that students might criticize a comedian, but that administrators would ban a comedian who is criticized by students and then preemptively ban controversial comedians. We need to change the priorities on college campuses: we need administrators to encourage controversial speakers and comedians instead of banishing them.
Now, it should be pointed out that the sensitivity police are not limited to college campuses (plenty of comedy clubs and TV shows won’t book a controversial political comedian) and political correctness covers the whole ideological spectrum (Maher isn’t likely to be booked at a Southern college when he calls the Confederate flag “treason,” and no religious college is going to invite Maher to speak, let alone give a commencement address).
On his June 19th show, Maher criticized a recent Huffington Post article by San Diego State student Anthony Berteaux titled “An Open Letter to Jerry Seinfeld from a ‘politically correct’ College Student.”
Maher declared: “I sure wouldn’t want to be judged by what I wrote at 20. Stupid as I was in 1976, I wouldn’t have presumed to lecture George Carlin on comedy. […] Dear you little shit, I’m sure you’re busy with your new letter explaining astrophysics to Stephen Hawking and giving jump shot pointers to Steph Curry, but try to get a clue.”
Is that really Maher’s argument for why comedians are oppressed by college students: Students shouldn’t “presume to lecture” rich comedians about comedy, and any student who dares to comment on comedians is a “little shit”?
Here is Maher’s message: Everybody should just shut up and laugh. In this sense, Maher is essentially agreeing with the censors on campus (and elsewhere): comedy should just be about fun and games, and we shouldn’t have any booing or criticism. The danger with that approach is, when people might be offended by a comedian, the impulse is to remove the problem by getting rid of the comedian—and to preemptively censor the comedians who provoke critique.
But what if we had a different vision of comedy, and of the university? What if the purpose of comedy isn’t merely to entertain, but also to make people think and question different ideas? And what if the purpose of a university is the same?
That’s precisely the argument made by Berteaux, the “little shit” Maher hates for giving his own opinions about comedy. Berteaux concluded his essay by writing, “Offend the fuck out of college students. Provoke the fuck out of me. We’ll thank you for it later.” Berteaux is right, and Maher is wrong.
The only thing worse than a PC student who doesn’t want to be offended by a comedian’s jokes is a gutless comedian who doesn’t want to be offended by an audience’s response to those jokes. Stop whining, and start joking. Stop blaming the mythical PC police just because you don’t want critical thought on a college campus. Stop worrying, and start offending.