John Wilson’s post on comedians who have been critical of college audiences is a terrific essay–one of the most incisively perceptive pieces on any topic that I have read this year.
I would humbly add just a couple of observations of my own to the discussion that John’s essay should provoke.
Provocative figures, including provocative comedians, have to evolve as the reactions that they provoke actually have an impact. This is part of what has happened with the use of the “n” word by African American comedians. When many people were using the word in a racially charged way, claiming the word in order to give it some very different associations made a certain sense. But once the use of the word began to be socially and culturally stigmatized except on the racist lunatic fringe, the use of the “n” word by African American comedians and singers started to seem pointless or, worse, self-stigmatizing.
As they age, many, if not most comedians cannot sustain the inventiveness—often redirected outrage–that has brought them to attention. Some become more predictable and even “tame” versions of their younger selves, reworking the once “edgy” material that has become their trademark–material that has now become culturally familiar and therefore culturally comfortable because it is almost historical (think of Bob Hope for about the last three or four decades of his career or even Don Rickles who continues to perform). At the opposite end of the spectrum, some whose comedy was once very confrontational and politically or even morally provocative seem to become more humorlessly and indiscriminately derisive—simply edgy, rather than comedically edgy. But they are generally forgiven for being much less entertaining because their cultural influence outweighs their increasingly dismal self-indulgence (think of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin very late in their careers). Indeed, although no one can really control the timing of their success, it may be more advantageous for provocative comedians to come into their own when they are somewhat older (I am thinking of Lewis Black and Stephen Colbert here).
But beyond that reality, we do seem to have entered an oxymoronic period in which being “provocative” is acceptable only if it doesn’t really bother anyone at all, but especially anyone on our own “side.” Although it is understandable that performers would want to perform for largely receptive audiences, deliberately doing so is more akin to pandering than to being provocative. It may be part of the deep polarization of American politics, society, and culture that even if we want to piss off the extremists on the “other side,” we generally want to do so from the safety of our own side.
But the problem is that neither “side” is as homogeneous as those on either side would like it to be. So if someone is trying to be provocative–or simply to convey how strongly he or she feels about something–there is ultimately no real “safe” zone.
Paradoxically, our increasing reliance of social media has heightened our impulse to be expressive in unrestrained ways while penalizing us for that impulse by essentially isolating that expression from any context. The phrase “taken out of context” is now as meaningless as the phrase “campaign finance laws.” And, yet, the very thin difference between a provocative joke and a patently offensive remark has almost always been an awareness of context. So, despite our sense that social media has quickly become a civility-free zone and has fostered a general callousness about being offensive, it actually takes more courage than ever to be provocative. In fact, it takes courage (or foolishness—another of those thin lines) in proportion to what you have to lose.
In academia as in entertainment, this reality has become all too inescapable—if selectively and even arbitrarily so–as the cases of Steven Salaita, Saida Grundy, and others have very painfully demonstrated,