New York magazine’s Frank Rich interviewed comedian Chris Rock for a piece published yesterday, and Rock took the opportunity to point out another sad result of college students “unlearning liberty”: talented comedians no longer want to perform on campus.
In the interview, Rich and Rock discussed how Rock, like many comedians, has been criticized by audience members who were offended by his jokes. When asked what he thought about the recent controversy over Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at the University of California, Berkeley’s December commencement ceremony, Rock said, “Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.” He elaborated:
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.
Rock said he started to notice the trend about eight years ago, and that he wasn’t the only one—as he recalled, “I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.”
Facing objections on the basis of “offensiveness” on campus and in other venues, Rock describes how comedians are put in a tough spot. They have to practice in front of an audience in order to figure out what jokes are funny, but these days, the backlash from offended audience members is much longer-lasting than in the past, thanks to the Internet. He worries that comedians feel less safe to experiment, and that this is “going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up.”
Just as college campuses are meant to be “marketplaces of ideas” generally, they should be places where comedians and other performers are especially able to play with new acts. It’s disappointing to see that this is not so, and that the atmosphere for freedom of speech and comedy in particular on campuses has gotten bad enough that noted comedians are avoiding student audiences altogether. That is a real loss for them—after all, everybody could use a laugh.