Killing Jokes

06/23/2015 11:08 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016
Dave Kotinsky via Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld's recent remarks on the stifling of comedy at "politically correct" college campuses have reignited the ever-smoldering debate over offensive humor. The question of where the boundaries of acceptable comedy lie is hardly a new one, but the traditionally sensitive camp has changed. The domain of being offended was once -- quite recently -- dominated by religious puritans and overprotective parents imploring others to "think of the children." The idea that college students would be the vanguard of concern over offensive comedy was itself a laughable notion. Seinfeld is by no means the only comic to have noted such a shift amongst young adults. His comments echoed sentiments expressed several months ago by Chris Rock, who said that he didn't play college campuses because the students are "too conservative." The synthesis of aggressive moral superiority with today's campus politics has produced students with the sort of self-righteous mindset that comedy has traditionally opposed.

In a Huffington Post piece titled "Open Letter to Jerry Seinfeld," student Anthony Berteaux responded to Seinfeld's claim that college students were overly sensitive:

We need to talk about the role that provocative comedy holds today in a progressive world.

It isn't so much that college students are too politically correct (whatever your definition of that concept is), it's that comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive. Sexist humor and racist humor can no longer exist in comedy because these concepts are based on archaic ideals that have perpetrated injustice against minorities in the past. Provocative humor, such as ones dealing with topics of race and gender politics, can be crass and vulgar, but underlying it must be a context that spurs social dialogue about these respective issues. There needs to be a message, a central truth behind comedy for it to work as humor.

Berteaux goes on to make the claim that he and other college students actually love and are open to offensive and provocative comedy. But even disregarding such a glaring contradiction, his argument has several flaws.

The first and most obvious of these is his prescription, a prescription for Jerry Seinfeld no less, of what comedy needs to be. The late Patrice O'Neal, a comic and frequent defender of controversial comedy, would often debate political activists over the merits of such speech. Even in the extreme case of Opie and Anthony constructing a scenario of their guest "Homeless Charlie" raping Condoleezza Rice, Patrice still advocated for the attempt at humor. The essential point, in his mind, was that the question of whether a joke was offensive or not missed the point. The quality of a joke should be measured by whether or not it is funny.

Such a marginal example is not necessarily indicative of what Seinfeld and Rock are talking about at universities, however. Having spent time as a student at a progressive liberal arts college myself, I can speak from personal experience to the sort of benign language that has been proclaimed taboo in the crusade against offensiveness. In my freshman orientation, I was surprised to learn that the rules of polite conduct at college better reflected those I had learned in kindergarten, than those that had become acceptable by high school. In addition to "retarded," the words "stupid," "lame," "dumb," and "crazy"--among numerous others--were labeled "ableist" and did not therefore constitute appropriate speech. Racism and sexism have been redefined in academic language to mean "prejudice plus power" and accordingly, only biases that whites and men respectively can hold. Even discussing men and women in physical terms is often called "problematic," as assuming that biological sex matches mental sex is a transphobic generalization--the preferable phrases are "people with penises" and "people with vaginas." Given such an atmosphere, is it really surprising that even relatively inoffensive comics would steer clear of the university bubble?

The crux of Berteaux's misunderstanding--and the misunderstanding that critics of offensive comedy in general have made--can be read in his own words. He describes the need for reevaluating provocation in our new "progressive society." The fundamental flaw is his idea that comedy, in an unprecedented way, must now adapt to fit the ideological orthodoxy of its time. Moral censors have always been comedy's greatest target. What is more funny than someone who not only does not--but cannot--get the joke?

Tweeting about the conflict that Seinfeld identified, New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman wrote: "Maybe sometimes college kids act their age. And sometimes Jerry Seinfeld acts his. And that's it." Maybe sometimes, but not now. University students have adopted the role of both the innocent child, upset by seeing something too coarse for their fragile minds, and that of the austere, old-guard, witchfinder general on the lookout for anything inappropriate or improper. Youthful rebelliousness or exploration of potentially dangerous or controversial ideas do not, it seems, befit the Millennials. The one age that many of today's college students do not act is their own.

James Altschul is a FIRE summer intern.