How Political Correctness is Changing Comedy
By. Brandon Skorzanka
The organizers of the event flocked to the stage mid performance. Comedian Nimesh Patel looked confused and they began talking over his performance. They tried to play it cool, saying “There has been a change of plans for a dance marathon, and we have to end this early.”
He responds, “Why now? Shouldn’t this have come up earlier? Is this because I was talking about something uncomfortable?”
Realizing their little lie was caught pretty instantly, the organizers opened up about the real issue. “We think there is a difference between making people uncomfortable and being disrespectful.” They proceeded to denounce the jokes to the crowd, saying they do not condone any offensive behavior at Columbia University. The audience didn’t know whether to clap or cry when Patel was asked to give his closing statements.
At the close of November in 2018, students came together for an event organized by Columbia’s Asian American Alliance. The main event: Nimesh Patel’s new special: cultureSHOCK: Reclaim. Patel was talking about a friend from New York who is a gay black man. His joke was that homosexuality isn’t a choice because “no one looks in the mirror and thinks, ‘this black thing is too easy, let me just add another thing to it.” The silence was deafening. Patel scans the audience expecting a laugh but instead turns a bit pale with a, “What the hell just happened?” look on his face. As a comedian should, he tried to keep the ball rolling, but the audience was done with him. The set only lasted thirty minutes. In his closing statements he told the audience that he supported Columbia’s Asian American Alliance and none of his remarks were offensive. Mid defense, the mic was cut from off stage.
Comedians everywhere are talking about political correctness. Comics like Paul F. Tompkins say it’s good for comedy because it challenges comedians to stray from ridicule and return to the simple idea that anything can be funny. Others, like heavy hitter Bill Burr, say that, because all comedy is critical, political correctness has condemned a large percentage of what can be deemed “funny.” That, however, is for the audience to decide. Nimesh Patel happened to experience the worst case scenario first hand.
Comedy Legend, and member of the world famous Monty Python Troupe, John Cleese has expressed in many interviews that he isn’t a fan of political correctness. He relates political correctness to the idea that you have to be protected from all things that make you uncomfortable. Comedy involving topics that society has deemed taboo creates a high anxiety situation. Cleese sees it has the audience having “extra energy.” People who can handle these high anxiety situations find the punchline all the more satisfying while those who can’t, take offense. He believes in political correctness to the point that you shouldn’t be mean to people who can’t look after themselves, but not to where any criticism can be labeled cruel. “If people can’t control their emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.”
Recently Chris Rock, in an interview with Vulture Magazine stated that he no longer does shows at colleges because students are far too conservative. Conservative not in their political views, but as Rock puts it, “not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.” He relates political correctness to the new trend of kids’ sports not tracking the score so no one loses. It is going to take stand-up to a much safer and comfortable world. Comedians are some of the only performers that practice on stage, and Rock thinks that when trying out material, there is no more room for mistakes. When Chris Rock notices that he’s gone too far, he instantly knows it, and will no longer use the line. However, it is again up to the audience to decide. “Honestly, it’s not that people were offended by what I said. They get offended by how much fun I appear to be having while saying it.”
Lisa Lampanelli is a “take no prisoners” kind of comic. You don’t go to a Lampanelli show and expect her not to cross the line. As an insult comic, it’s her job. She recently wrote an article for the Hollywood Reporter called How Political Correctness is Killing Comedy, and she makes several good points. Lampanelli compared comedy to music: “Comedy is like music — there are genres and styles for every taste. Katy Perry is there for people who like frothy pop music. Metallica is there for people who like head-banging metal. And Susan Boyle is there for… well, I don’t who the hell is listening to that freak of nature, but that’s not the point. In art, there’s something for everybody.” If you go to a comedy show, you are there to see that specific person. Comedians have different styles and you listen to the ones you enjoy. People go to Lisa Lampanelli shows specifically because she crosses the line. If you something offends you in a show, it’s your own fault for going. “Going to my show and expecting me not to cross the line of good taste and social propriety is like going to a Rolling Stones concert and expecting not to hear “Satisfaction.””
If You Show Up It’s Too Late to Bitch
Look, if you show up to a show to see a specific comedian, you get what you pay for. You get their jokes, their personality, their character, and because you were willing to purchase a ticket with their name on it, it’s your own fault if you get uncomfortable. Lets’ talk about consent for a minute. No, not the consent you need on tinder, but consent for the media you consume. If you head to see the new Marvel movie, you’re not going to see The Goonies Remastered in the Marvel theater, and you’d be pissed if you did. You paid to see Marvel, and that’s what you’re going to get. Louis C.K. recently took heat after appearing unannounced at a comedy club because the audience didn’t come to see Louis. They didn’t give “consent” to being subjected to his performance, and therefore his reappearance was poorly executed. Honestly though, I don’t care if Louis is coming back. I never listened to him because of his good character after all. He just should have sold his own tickets so people know what’s going on.
On the other side, “consent” in performance should also protect comedians. For example, Kevin Hart’s new special, Irresponsible, also received flack because it touches on several controversial topics. However, all those folks in the audience, yes even the cheap, trashy seats in the back, paid to see Kevin Hart. He has a unique style of comedy that works for him and people want to see that. In this way, the audience has given their consent to see him talk, and therefore cannot complain about anything part of the performance. Though, when was the last time you read an article about how a comedian’s reputation is protected by consent?
The Purpose of Comedy
While chatting with Dr. Philip Tschirhart, a professor of Communication at UNLV, he brought what we as humans use comedy to accomplish.
“Take a look at the Holocaust,” he says, “Prisoners were able to make jokes about their oppressors, and it kept their spirit alive.” It gave them a moment happiness in those dark times. This returns us to the idea that all comedy is critical.
He then asked me, “Have you seen Nanette? It’s pretty similar in terms of the purpose of comedy.” Nanette is a new comedy special on Netflix featuring Hannah Gadsby that made me feel like I was 13 again and my mother was yelling at me. It isn’t your normal stand up special. It starts as comedy and ends in anti-comedy after turning a stand-up into a comedy commentary. It’s almost as if it is supposed to be the most politically correct special. She opens up about her own experiences and leaves us with a powerful message. Thing is, I wanted to laugh while watching, instead I felt like a POS human being. Thanks Hannah.
“It was a good special,” continues Tschirhart, “but a lot of comedians are arguing over whether or not it can be considered comedy.” Indeed, it had its moments, but it wasn’t exactly what one would expect when looking to see stand-up. Some might even be disappointed at the end because the most important question in comedy is, is it funny? “The audience determines what’s funny.” Political correctness is the same thing. The audience takes in the performance and decides if its comedy, regardless of how controversial the topic. Tschirhart thinks that political correctness can go either way in terms of being good for comedy. “My overall point is whenever someone says comedy “shouldn’t” be this way (a statement of policy), they implicitly suggest – comedy “ought” to be this way… (a statement of value) and in doing so, they just make more perspectives for comedy to thrive.”
The Downfall of Patel?
Nimesh wrote the joke six years ago and says it has killed at clubs with very diverse audiences. He may have gotten an extra surly group of folks at Columbia University, or maybe his joke truly is offensive. Regardless, Patel’s career remains intact, and he has no lack of support from the community. Many comedians have stated that what happened to Patel was blown out of proportions with little saying otherwise.
On December 7, Patel published an article in the opinion section of the New York Times titled I Was Kicked Off Stage by College Students. Did I Deserve It? He doesn’t think so. In fact, he sees this as a prime example of regression. His main concern isn’t that people have gotten worse, but the way we consume media has been broken.
“When you silence someone you don’t agree with or find offensive, not only do you implement the tactic used by the people you disdain; you also do yourself the disservice of missing out on a potentially meaningful conversation. You cannot affect change if you are not challenged.” –Nimesh Patel