That joke isn’t funny anymore: Exploring the limits of Columbia’s comedic code
By Alexandra Warrick and Nathaniel Jameson
Here’s a riddle: think of a slippery, slippery thing, a cast-off bit of refuse that, if not handled properly, is liable to cause laughter…and serious hurt. Yes, comedy is a banana peel of a medium: you can cause a lot of wreckage–and schadenfreude-soaked titters–if you drop it thoughtlessly. On the flipside, no comedian wishes for their zingers to possess mashed-banana softness, with edgier jokesmiths publicly kicking back against today’s perceived climate of baby-food barbs.
Orange you glad we didn’t make another banana metaphor? While this is an examination of joking on campus, the jokes stop here; the balancing act of campus comedy-making is no laughing matter. An aspiring campus comedian is faced with serious considerations if they plan to “work blue”–that is, perform risqué material–on campus; unlike those of a Carlin or a CK, our undergrad humorist-hopeful’s audience is more often than not made up of classmates, neighbors, friends. Context is everything; Patton Oswalt’s stand-up bit about wanting to commit suicide to Toto’s “Africa” absolutely brought down the house on CONAN, but would be utter grotesquerie if dropped by a sophomore in the basement of St. Paul’s.
Or would it? Where’s the line? How do you push the limits and when have you pushed too hard? When are these risks constructive, when are they cathartic, and when are they just plain cruel? Furthermore, in a shared space like a college community, how do politics intersect with comedic performance? According to the prominent leaders of Columbia’s comedy scene, the answers to these questions are far from cut-and-dry, warranting sincere, empathetic consideration by any would-be Wanda, Wiig or Wilmore.
Tracing The “Line”
Much conversation around comedy centers on the concept of the “line”–the border between the acceptable and the sacrosanct. However, conceiving of this boundary as a clearly delineated line might be misleading, as is conceptualizing transgression as a “crossing” of a line. “The ‘line’ is a weird amorphous thing,” says Mark Lerner, CC ’18; Zane Bhansali, CC ’17, concurs, claiming “the ‘line’ is really more of a zig zag” for its conditional nature.
Bhansali, co-president of semesterly anthology Latenite Theatre and original member of video collective Columbia University Sketch Show (CUSS), would articulate the zig-zag as “synonymous with society’s standards–or the standards of whatever environment we might be in,” confirming the importance of “push[ing] those standards” in comedy; however, the personal border he commits to is that between comedy that rustles audiences andvs. comedy that causes pain. “Taking offense,” he explains, “is not always equivalent to being hurt, but I think it’s important to acknowledge if comedy actually hurts someone.”
To foster either community or experimentation without the other is to miss a critical element to comedic success,” Bannister explains; “a lack of community paralyzes the members’ comedic mobility within the group, making our campus comedians less free to participate, speak up, and ultimately, create. Likewise, an inhibition of experimentation paralyzes the scope and growth of the comedy we create.
Lerner, a comedian who has contributed writing to Latenite, CUSS, sketch group Chowdah, seasonal parody XMAS and this year’s Varsity Show, possesses a comedic ethos of responsibility—“the great thing about comedy is that when you do cross the line, people are allowed to react and you can hear that reaction”—and an understanding of the variables that allow line-crossing gags to sink or fly, claiming it all “depends on the joke and the writer and the performer and the delivery and the audience and the time and the place, always.”
What drowns a joke, Lerner asserts, is taboo-flouting for its own sake, especially by campus comedians who “witness a social problem but lack personal experience on it” and so choose to mimic its problematic tropes. “If you’re just talking or writing about something that’s problematic or oppressive to do it, you’re not going to have a good joke because you’re not subverting your subject in an interesting way.” He cites an elucidating meme of a bro in a tank top that reads “Satire Requires a Clarity of Target and Purpose Lest It Be Mistaken For What It Intends To Criticize,” concluding that irreverence-gratia-irreverence can only hope to be boring at best.
Olivia Rodrigues, BC ’18–stand-up comedian, Fruit Paunch improv performer and showrunner of campus comedy series Memento Mori–agrees, asserting that while pushing boundaries is one thing, “playing off of a painful truth of oppression from the place of the majority” is another. She shares a particularly blue example: “I probably say ‘I’m a dumb c–t’ at least once a day and most days I call someone else a dumb c–t. I’m appropriating the language of misogynists and using it towards my own end, which gives it power.” She concludes with an edict: “Don’t touch shit you don’t know.”
Rob King authored a book on slapstick and is a Columbia Film professor currently teaching a course on the American comedy. When asked about the distinction between problematic comedy and comedy that endeavors to constructively utilize problematic themes, he posits that the latter may still result in alienation: “a comedian or a comic performer [doesn’t] automatically have license to engage with problematic material freely simply by virtue of them not explicitly constructing an ‘out-group’… I think that the very act of engaging problematic material in a comedic context can have the effect of constructing an out-group even when that’s not necessarily how the laughter is intended.” Citing the “extreme” example of racial mimicry, he concludes that, “even if it is used as a way of critiquing the form itself for progressive purposes, the act itself risks constructing an out-group regardless. In this context, it may not matter if one is ‘well-meaning.’”
To lead an extracurricular comedy group, one must guide comedians as they develop their work in a way that both fosters a sense of community among them but also supports their freedom of expression and experimentation. These two endeavors might appear to contradict one another when there is inter-group contention regarding appropriateness; however, Control Top Improv co-president and Chowdah performer Sophia Bannister, BC ’19, maintains one cannot exist without the other. “To foster either community or experimentation without the other is to miss a critical element to comedic success,” she explains; “a lack of community paralyzes the members’ comedic mobility within the group, making our campus comedians less free to participate, speak up, and ultimately, create. Likewise, an inhibition of experimentation paralyzes the scope and growth of the comedy we create.”
Don’t touch shit you don’t know.
Ultimately, she asks, “how can we successfully and confidently experiment with new forms and new jokes without being able to rely on our peers to support our efforts and give meaningful feedback?” Lerner agrees, insisting on the paramount importance of allowing members comfort in speaking up. “I don’t think you can have honest criticism without a strong, tight-knit community of people who want to help each other, so personally I’d say community has to come first.” However, Bhansali acknowledges that maintaining a sense of an equality of voices can be challenging: “To be a leader in a group means that you already take on some degree of authority, which means that you run the risk of overpowering other people in your group even when not intending to.”
It’s worth noting the tricky boundary between the notion that fostering community is healthy for comedy-making and the notion that one should avoid divisive comedy. Frequent Latenite contributor Philip Anastassiou, CC ’18, says that, while he “[doesn’t] think there are any compelling reasons a student-run club at a college should feel obligated to put on work they don’t agree with as a community,” he “encourage[s] any group of people who are interested in doing comedy together to wrestle with material they may find uncomfortable, because wrestling with voices that are unlike yours – assuming they’re not hateful or advocating any sort of negative “-ism”—makes your own comedic voice and convictions stronger.”
“I’ve always thought that the mark of good writing… is that it leaves its reader or audience polarized,” he asserts. “If I write a play and half of the people who see it think it’s hilarious and the other half despise it, then I’d consider that a job well done. That means you’ve said something worthwhile. You’ve hit people with something they obviously need to talk about.”
Despite their maligning by certain comedic circles, content warnings are an important key to maintaining the integrity of divisive comedy while still having a community’s back, according to Anastassiou. “They allow the work to be presented while providing people with fair notice to decide for themselves whether or not they want to engage with that content,” he says. “I can’t think of something I’ve written or directed in the last few years that hasn’t needed a trigger warning and it’s definitely been an effective system in my experience, not only to me as an artist, but also, as far as I can tell, to every audience who’s come to my shows.”
I’ve always thought that the mark of good writing… is that it leaves its reader or audience polarized,” he asserts. “If I write a play and half of the people who see it think it’s hilarious and the other half despise it, then I’d consider that a job well done. That means you’ve said something worthwhile. You’ve hit people with something they obviously need to talk about.
“Content warnings exist so that censorship shouldn’t be necessary,” Bhansali contributes. That being said, “a discourse about what is appropriate does not always equal censorship… It’s hard. I’m not sure I entirely believe in the slippery slope argument regarding censorship. I think that’s reductive and ignores where the pressure to censor or restrain is coming from. It’s something I think about a lot, but I do think censorship should be avoided. Criticism, however, does not equate to censorship, no matter how harsh.”
In reference to the free speech fracas visiting our campus and beyond, Lerner dovetails with a comparison between political and academic discourse and comedic performance, where he feels the “expectations are different.” With one, he says, the audience absorb in silence; with the other, you “verbally react”—you “laugh, groan, boo”—and you make your feelings known. “A lot of right-wing troll artists, Milo Yiannopoulos for example, do what is essentially a comedy routine but cloak it in politics and say their speech is being violated,” he says. “They bait people [to]boo and jeer and yell—like they’re supposed to—and then they turn around and act like… their levelheaded academic discourse has been censored. And it’s like… no, you’re a troll, free speech means people are allowed to boo your bad jokes, and stop pretending otherwise.”
This brings us to recent statements made by professional comedians–Jerry Seinfeld, for one–stating an aversion to performing on college campuses for fear of backlash. “I can understand how after years and years of playing to older audiences, audiences from all around the country, that liberal bubbles like campuses necessitate an entirely different comedic skill set,” Rodrigues says. “The joke he complains he’s being ‘censored for’ is the ‘gay French king’ joke,” Lerner explains–a joke wherein Seinfeld compares the swiping motion one uses on their phone to that of a “gay French king,” accompanied by a flourishy hand motion. “To me it’s a blatantly homophobic joke and he blames the audience for reacting honestly to it… which is their job as an audience. The bottom line for me is that Jerry Seinfeld can probably do better, but he doesn’t try to and he doesn’t have to. He can blame his audience because he’s already rich and famous.” Bhansali concurs: “This is a case where I just gotta say, suck it up. If a large portion of people are saying that your comedy is hurtful to them or people they care about, especially young people, then you should probably examine your comedy before just throwing the blame on them for being insensitive.”
A discourse about what is appropriate does not always equal censorship… It’s hard. I’m not sure I entirely believe in the slippery slope argument regarding censorship. I think that’s reductive and ignores where the pressure to censor or restrain is coming from. It’s something I think about a lot, but I do think censorship should be avoided. Criticism, however, does not equate to censorship, no matter how harsh.
Furthermore, the discourse branding college students as “special snowflakes” who must learn to handle offensive comedy is one that is, according to Professor King, “tremendously enabling to the right,” affirming that “the areas of sensitivity that are being voiced are areas where there needs to be sensitivity.” In teaching a course on the history and development of comedy as a genre, Professor King maintains that there is much that is “pedagogically useful” about engaging with “bad taste” material but believes an educator must always “acknowledge the capacity of films, humor and so forth to give serious offense.” While the conversation surrounding campus sensitivity is a vital one, he believes it can come with the ideological risk of enabling a “kind of ‘free-speech’ right, which is to say a right wing that can claim that it stands for freedom whereas the left doesn’t – [that] the left is censorious… priggish… [and] political correctness gone mad.”
Ultimately, Professor King believes that actively circulating marginalizing maliciousness on campus in the guise of goofery is not worth defending. “The free speech that is worth defending is the freedom of a kind of speech that can say things that are inconvenient to power and inconvenient to privilege,” he says. “That’s the free-speech left.” When involving oneself in comedy-making in a college community, one can never forget that there’s weight in the silly and the screwball. When it’s your turn at the stand-up mic, what will you stand up for?w