As Jerry Seinfeld might say: “Hey, what’s the deal with college campuses?”
Except he wouldn’t say it. At least not on college campuses, because Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t perform there anymore. Nor does Chris Rock. Nor does Larry the Cable Guy. Other comedians still do colleges but much less frequently; Carlos Mencia, for example, has cut back from about 20 gigs per year to five.
So what’s the deal? Are comedians “going Galt”? Are we witnessing the genesis of a new Randian opus, Satirists Shrugged?
According to the comedians, stand-up just isn’t the same laughing matter it once was. The problem is that political correctness has made the young into judgmental censors.
I don’t play colleges…I hear a lot of people tell me, “Don’t go near colleges, they’re so PC.” I’ll give you an example: My daughter’s 14. My wife says to her, “Well, you know, in the next couple of years, I think maybe you’re going to want to hang around the city more on the weekends so you can see boys.” My daughter says, “That’s sexist.” They just want to use these words. “That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice.” They don’t even know what they’re talking about.
Chris Rock complains:
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.
Now some might say that a shortage of edgy comedy is probably the least of modern academia’s problems. After all, what does stand-up comedy contribute to education? Listen to the routines long enough, and they tend to sound tiredly predictable. In ethnic routines, all black people are hip, all white people are dull and privileged. Hispanics are violent, Asians are smart, and Jews are smart and also wealthy. And when stand-up comedians push the envelope, more often than not, they do so to challenge basic notions of good taste rather than political correctness. For example, some comics seem to have decided that pedophilia is funny. (Example: “I’ll say this for child molesters: at least they slow down when driving through school zones.”)
But here’s the deal: The departure of stand-up comedy does matter. Comedians are the modern equivalent of jesters, and jesters have always had an important — one might say, seriously important — role to play in human events.
Throughout history, in civilizations and locales as diverse as Europe, China, Persia, Africa, and Native America, jesters have counseled and criticized the powerful. And they have done so with an audacity no others dared match. One such character, familiar to Western audiences, is the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Long before that monarch is brought to ruin by his unwise decision to divide his possessions among his daughters, the Fool already realizes his master’s folly and calls him on it.
Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.
Kent: This is not altogether fool, my lord.
The impudence of Lear’s Fool is replicated in other lands and times. In the Persian court, when the Shah asked whether there was a shortage of food, his jester answered: “Yes, I see Your Majesty is eating only five times a day.” In Germany, when the Duke of Würtemburg invited Paul Wüst to be his jester, he replied: “My father sired his own fool; if you want one too, then go and sire one for yourself.”
These episodes — gathered by Beatrice K. Otto, author of Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World — illustrate the historic role of the jester: he sits close to the ruler and says whatever comes into his head, however irreverent or roguish. She notes:
It is in the nature of jesters to speak their minds when the mood takes them, regardless of the consequences. They are neither calculating nor circumspect, and this may account for the “foolishness” often ascribed to them. Jesters…are peripheral to the game of politics, and this can reassure a king that their words are unlikely to be geared to their own advancement. Jesters are not noted for flattery or fawning.
Stand-up comedians play a similar role, whether they are performing in trendy nightclubs or college campuses. They do not flatter or fawn over their audiences. More often, they insult them. And just as jesters, through humor, helped monarchs see the error of their ways, comedians help their listeners detect the idiocy of their ideas.
The ruling orthodoxy on college campuses these days is political correctness. Universities have become incubators of intellectual uniformity. Many elite colleges seem determined to eliminate any Republican or conservative influence from their faculty lounges. As this blog has previously reported, 96 percent of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees in the last election went to Barack Obama. At Princeton, according to an analysis by the university newspaper, only one faculty member and a janitor donated to the campaign of Mitt Romney. At Bowdoin, a top liberal arts institution, 100% of the donations went to Obama. And the trend cannot be explained as support just for the nation’s first black President. It is wider than that. Federal Election Commission data for the period of 2011 to 2014 shows that 99% of the political donations of Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences went to liberal campaigns.
To put this in perspective, compare Cornell to Kazakhstan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that nation has been ruled by one man, Nursultan Nazarbayev. He has a perfect electoral record. After his reelection last April with over 97% of the vote, Nazarbayev felt compelled to publicly apologize for his margin: “I apologize that for super-democratic states such figures are unacceptable: 95 percent participation and more than 97 percent [of ballots cast for him]. But I could do nothing. If I had interfered, I would have been undemocratic.”
So the odds of finding a conservative faculty member at Cornell are slightly less than the odds of finding any opposition to Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. Sacha Baron Cohen made a funny movie (Borat) about Kazakhstan. Couldn’t we also use a satire about Cornell?
That’s why stand-up comedy is vital to college campuses. Stand-up comedians, like medieval jesters, are needed to ridicule the regnant political orthodoxy, to disclose its contradictions, and to pierce its sanctimony. Faculty members won’t do so, because they are the advocates of that orthodoxy. Administrators won’t because they either advocate it, or lack the spine to oppose it.
That leaves it up to Jerry Seinfeld and company. But many of them have gone on strike. Hey, what’s the deal with John Galt?