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The Statesman


Limiting offensive comedy isn’t funny anymore

Jerry Seinfeld, above, is one of the stand up comedians who will not perform at a college campus. PHOTO CREDIT: ALAN LIGHT/FLICKR
Jerry Seinfeld, above, is one of the stand up comedians who will not perform at a college campus.

A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center conveys an alarming message: 40 percent of millennials would be okay with the government limiting offensive speech aimed towards minority groups. While 40 percent is not a majority, it is certainly a significant portion of the age group and it corroborates with a notion that’s being force-fed down the throats of young people in high schools and universities in the United States.

When people list the things that make America great (it’s already great, Trump), they often reference the Bill of Rights. The notion of free speech was a foreign concept for long periods of history and as standup comedian Colin Quinn once said, “You boo’d the king and six archers would pull up their bows and arrows.” But in the United States, as part of your rights, you can boo the president all you want because you have the right to do so.

This brings me to something near and dear to my heart—comedy. This notion of limiting free speech amongst millennials dovetails with something else that is alarming: several stand-up comedians have come out this past year revealing why they don’t play at college campuses anymore. Jerry Seinfeld said that, “They just wanna use these words, that’s ‘racist,’ that’s ‘sexist,’ that’s ‘prejudice.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.” Chris Rock said he doesn’t play colleges anymore because “of their unwillingness to offend anyone,” and Larry the Cable Guy said that “it really is a shame that nobody can handle comedy anymore.”

One college student from San Diego State offered a rebuttal to Jerry Seinfeld’s point, and was given a forum to do so by the Huffington Post. The writer’s argument—that because millennials are more aware of the injustices perpetrated against minorities and women, there is no room for humor to be offensive solely to be offensive, and that comedians should spark social dialogue—misses the point of comedy. A comedian’s job, first and foremost, is to make the audience laugh, and it’s the job of academics and community leaders to have the uncomfortable conversations that are usually avoided.

If Dave Chappelle’s “Killing them Softly” came out today, people would shake in their boots when he started his opening bit:

“One thing I’m seeing, you ever be walking down the street see a group of black people walking down the street, not just any old black dudes. I’m talking about thugs, and in the group they got one or two or sometimes as many as three white guys in their group. Let me tell you something about those white guys, those are the most dangerous guys in those groups, there is no telling what they did to get those black dude’s respect.”

If Chappelle, who is undisputedly one of the best comics of all time, tried his race-centered act today, he’d be castigated by the public and there’d be cries of racism. The culture today has been so geared to avoid offending anyone that there is a total unwillingness to make certain jokes and it has permeated to the realm of universities—historical bastions of free speech.

What is seemingly lost on people is that this is comedy—it is not supposed to be taken seriously, but rather, enjoyed. When you start to approach the idea of limiting speech, you infringe upon something guaranteed to you as a citizen of the United States.

The way free speech works is a beautiful thing, and it must not be restricted in any way. Bill Maher, a staunch liberal on almost every issue, put it best when he said, “Opinions shouldn’t be illegal. Everyone can come up with a reason why the thing that bugs you should get a waiver. But free speech only works when there are no waivers.”

Maher was talking about the aftermath of the January terrorist attack aimed at the French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and his point was simple. Maher continued, “You’re just a baby who can’t stand to live in a world where you hear things that upset you.”

Featured image credit: Alan Light/Flickr 

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