IMAGE CREDIT: Washington Post

One of the better articles I read this week focused on an interview Chris Rock gave to Vulture magazine in support of his new film, Top Five. This particular press tour has brought several interesting perspectives from Rock, but this one is of particular interest to those working with students in higher education. When asked about Bill Maher being banned from speaking at a college, he took the opportunity to mention that he no longer plays colleges, and stopped about eight years ago because they are “too conservative.” He elaborates:

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. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

This idea is consistent with a post that I saw from a colleague a few weeks back, asking about how students respond to comedy on college campuses:

Is it just my campus? Last night we had a comedian on campus and had a good turnout for the show. However our students don’t laugh. Afterward they all said he was great but they won’t laugh during the show. Have we over PC’d these kids so they think it’s innappropriate [sic] to laugh at someone? Is it just WI kids or is anyone else seeing this too?

As someone who is deeply interested in both comedy and its inner workings, and the work that higher education does for students, this idea fascinates me. As I read, turning the idea over in my mind and reading critiques on why this might be, a few ideas came to mind (courtesy of a few friends who also provided thoughts- thanks for giving me so much to think about!).

Theory #1: Is this a lesson?

Shortly after I posted the article, my coworker John came down the hall to chat theories with me. One that he posed of particular interest: the line between education and entertainment on campus has been blurred to the point that students may not be fully sure that a comedy show isn’t designed to teach something. And their apprehension is legitimate- the college entertainment market is full of people embracing the hybrid of “edutainment;” with that comes the question: what is this program designed to do? Is this a lecture that is supposed to make me laugh? A comedian that will teach me something? Fully one? Fully the other? It’s easy to know what to do when a spade is called a spade. But when there’s a gray area, it’s harder to discern what conduct is expected of you. Speaking of that…

Theory #2: “I don’t know how to be an audience member at this.”

John, who has a dual background in both comedy and higher education, talked to me about a symphony performance he attended with his wife recently. He recognized the talent associated with what he was watching, but ultimately realized his experience suffered because he didn’t have the tools to appreciate it. Those who have a background watching and appreciating classical music, such as his wife, view these performance differently, and can react in a manner befitting the venue and occasion. But ultimately, those unequipped to enjoy an event have a difficult time doing so.

John made a connection between that and his introduction to stand-up comedy as an art form years ago. Watching young comedians develop their craft on MTV weekly gave him an idea of what good stand-up was, what bad stand-up was, and how to identify patterns and talent in the comedians he was seeing. While there is no shortage of comedy these days, the ability to see stand-up on TV (save for Comedy Central’s Half Hour on Fridays and full-length specials on some Saturdays) is less common than it has been, compared to other forms of comedy like sketch or situation comedy. And yes, Netflix is making great leaps in allowing stand-up comedians to stream their specials there. But Criminal MindsGilmore Girls, and every episode of Sons of Anarchy are on there, too- shows where we know what we’re getting. And taking chances on a special by a comedian you’ve never heard of isn’t something most students I work with are likely to do (more on that, later). So when a comedian goes into a room and delivers a set to a mostly quiet crowd, the result may be because they simply aren’t sure of the right thing to do in that particular space- do we laugh? Do we appreciate it quietly? And even if they are sure that they find it funny, and they want to laugh…they still might not.

Theory #3: Pantomiming Offense

Perhaps the best comment I saw in response to my posting of the original article came from my friend and colleague Curtis:

I don’t think folks aren’t laughing at home, or within groups of friends…What we’ve taught then, is not to take offense, but to pantomime offense.

My exact response to Curtis’ post. IMAGE CREDIT: Imgur

There are norms to behavior in most settings. You can’t speak loudly in church. You can’t smoke on airplanes. Wear shoes in a restaurant. One norm we may have cultivated, intentionally or otherwise, is don’t laugh if someone can be offended. Now, this next set of statements has the potential to sound offensive, and I promise I don’t mean for it to. But my sensing a need to preface my coming statements…may be part of the problem.

I am absolutely in favor of social justice education, and the work that we in higher education do to expose students to a variety of walks of life. It is an essential practice to cultivating an understanding that the humanity of all deserves to be recognized and revered. Further, should we ever elect to not address it, many individuals may never learn it at all. All people have value, this is an absolutely true statement that I would never refute.

However, in encouraging recognition of all (again, a worthy and necessary pursuit), we run a significant risk of sanitizing human interaction rather than enriching it.

I worry, often, that we are asking students to assume similarity instead of appreciate difference- and part of that makes it hard to laugh at things that are different. By saying “that’s not funny, don’t laugh at that,” we close off a conversation that could be a truly transformative one: What experiences inform these jokes? Where do stereotypes come from? Why have these norms come about? Can we laugh at this? If we do laugh, and people get offended, what will that offense be grounded in?

Most students (and people, for that matter) equate laughing at something with minimizing it or deeming it unimportant. But there are lots of reasons to laugh. We smile, make jokes, and show our senses of humor to those we know, respect and care about as a way to build commonality and community. We can even laugh, at times, to get through the difficult moments that inequality, hardship, and human suffering inevitably provide. But espousing these two messages simultaneously can be challenging. Does asking students to laugh in the same space that we teach them to show respect confuse the message? And moreover, does their refusal to laugh in our presence reflect actual understanding, or simply reflect their ability to enact a form of ‘code-switching’ wherein they recognize that they can laugh at these things, just not with us? I don’t know that I have the answers to any of these questions, but it gave me a lot to think about this week.


I remember watching a clip from Key and Peele with a coworker and a student a few weeks back. I had forgotten how many elements of it could be deemed “NSFW” by some, but I rolled with it once we had started. That clip turned into a conversation- what parts of it were uncomfortable? Why were they uncomfortable? If you had to have a conversation about the things in this clip, what parts do you know have the potential to be offensive, and do you understand why? Not everyone has the ability to conduct these conversations, based on the conduct of their office or the nature of their time. But they’re important conversations to have.

Life will challenge the people around us. That’s the nature of humanity. Humor can be a great weapon against those challenges, if we allow it to be. Challenge yourself to laugh- not with ignorance or hesitation, but with compassion and understanding.

2 thoughts on “Balancing Humor and Humanity

  1. Amma, I bookmarked this post to read later and it took way too long for me to get moving on it. I’m not sure I’m buying Theory 1, but 2 intrigues me and 3 has me confused. The young comedians who seem to be making it these days seem to have bigger numbers in the bullying/cruel realm, but the comedians’ comedians who use satire and intellectual cleverness aren’t getting laughs. I look to the Chris Rocks and Dave Chappelles of the world to teach the anthropology classes that our STEM students avoid but students act offended by *their* material? Oh, man.

  2. Hi Leah, glad you made it back! I listened to an interview with Rock where he expanded upon the thought, and it sounds to me like #3 is what he thinks is most likely. Why? Because he has seen this population behave “normally” when removed from our walls. I hadn’t considered much of the content involved, and if the argument holds varying validity depending on who is telling the joke…I’ll have to give this some more thought. Thanks for the spark!

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