Jerry Seinfeld recently sparked a lively debate with his assertion that college audiences are too PC, and that performing for them is no longer worthwhile. Actually, this was true as early as the 90's (if not earlier). But a few recent on-campus experiences have convinced me that PC is not the threat it once was to a great, on-campus, comedy event. Here are some 'insider' points that should be part of this national discussion:
The way MOST mainstream college students LOVE their politically-incorrect comedy, is...fully-caffeinated. What they hate are timid approaches to being politically incorrect. Black club audiences work the same way. When a white comic tiptoes around them, with liberal empathy, he soon finds himself dead in the water. But if a white boy "goes after them" with assertiveness and mockery (to "keep it real") he'll generate strong, supportive laughs.
In my experience, millenial audiences hurl the racist/sexist accusation more ironically than their boomers/Gens X & Y counterparts. Sure, they were raised on PC, but because of the times they were born into, they see concerns about racism and sexism as "so 2009". So when they hurl those highly-charged accusations, they often do so without any of the shaming, historically associated with such words. If they accuse you...call them on it. They'll buckle. Comedians deal with all types of overreactions. This is just one. My advice to comedians: Don't bring intensity to your 'correction', because they didn't.
To comedians, most college gigs are public venue shows. In most cases, outsiders are allowed to attend as long as they buy tickets. But a college student (often times without wheels) feels the same proprietary nature toward a show on his/her campus, just as an Elks brother feels about a show at his lodge. And so requiring a certain tone for a show feels like a justifiable request. If you agree that a college gig is a private group booking, then the students’ expectations are not any different than a church administrator asking a comic to "refrain from dropping F-bombs". Communities have a right to protect the tone of the community they're striving to build. If the comic (or representative) addresses those expectations in advance, much of the problem will disappear.
Comedians who pursue fame are strong-willed and therefore disinclined to ever think they are wrong. And it's understandable. They’re doing a highly-skilled and super-difficult job while being criticized by people who've never done the job (or at least never successfully). An artist's assertiveness and strength of character are a big part of their success. So they're not going to readily reflect on their own part in the mismatch-especially when so many other more tolerant/less controlling groups love what they do!
Unlike canvas, clay or poetry...comedy is an interactive art form where the audience/patrons have direct access to the artist and the unfinished work. The audience may not affect how the joke is told (though that would be a foolishly resistant approach by the comic, but they certainly CAN affect whether a comedian seeks out that flavor of audience ever again.
Respecting freedom means knowing when something is a personal assault and knowing when it is something you can walk away from (i.e., turn off or tune out). The most important thing is that adults make proportional responses. If a campus wants to issue a preemptive policy outlawing edgy comedy, that's their right and any comedian told in advance of the booking must honor their code or not take the gig. But if a comedian is already booked and if that same campus proclaims they are for freedom of speech, then students are wrong to boo (or behave in any other tyrannical way) just because someone disagrees with them or (more likely) has information they don't yet have.
Lastly, anyone easily offended should also consider that safe comedy is usually terrible and rarely more than an inch deep. Sure, some comedians can be transcendently strong without edge. But most 'edgeless' comics have nowhere else to stand but in the "corny field". So, take caution, you thought police...if you felt that 'edgy' comedy was painful...wait ‘til you sit through 60 minutes of olde-timey yuks. Yeesh!