Why Chris Rock won't perform on college campuses

In an interview with Vulture, Chris Rock said college students don't appreciate racy humor. But some students say the problem lies elsewhere. 

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/File
Chris Rock accepts the Hollywood comedy film award on stage at the Hollywood Film Awards at the Palladium on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Performing in campus auditoriums isn’t on the horizon for comedian Chris Rock. College students, he says in a recent interview with Frank Rich published in Vulture on Sunday, are “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.

Mr. Rock says he began to notice this eight years ago, when he began to think, “this is not as much fun as it used to be.”

Mr. Rich asked Rock specifically about comedian Bill Maher’s confrontation with University of California at Berkeley students. In response to Mr. Maher’s critical remarks about Islam, nearly 6,000 people signed an online petition that asked administrators to bar Maher from speaking at the university’s December graduation.

But the institution did not rescind the invitation, issuing a statement that Berkeley will not shy away “from hosting speakers who some deem provocative.”

Is Chris Rock right? Comedians often test the boundaries of offensiveness with blunt observations. Are college students becoming less tolerant of raw "truth" and more politically correct than in years past? Or are they simply less tolerant of racial, ethnic, or sexually offensive humor? When other comedians and college comedy players are asked about Chris Rock's perspective, most say they've observed a similar phenomenon. 

Dan Selinger, a 2013 Northwestern University graduate, says his peers were tough crowds in college — and they remain so even in New York City, where he now performs and watches stand up. He sees that some of his friends won’t respond positively to edgier jokes.

Today, Mr. Selinger, who co-founded campus stand-up group Comedy Forum, says he’s surprised when a comic get a good reaction from 20-somethings using material about race.

“Your mild-mannered liberal arts degree-getting students aren’t always open to that kind of humor or dialogue,” he says.

And part of this, he says, could be a departure from what he sees as the traditional honesty of comedy.

“In one way, you could say that the bar is being raised — a comic has to earn it to talk about these issues,” he says. “But it feels like a comic can only go so far. A comic can only talk about these issues in a way that is cute and clever and still pleasant, maybe not in a way that the comic feels is honest.”

Ian Davis, a senior at the University of California at Santa Barbara, says he wonders if college students today are different because they're not used to live comedy shows — this type of performance, he says, differs greatly from what they see on television.

“This is the first time they’re hearing anything that’s not intensely filtered or censored,” he says.

Mr. Davis is the president of Laughology, the campus’s weekly stand up comedy show, which he says attracts more than 250 people to campus each Saturday night. Noting administrative and peer pressure, he says that the group books local comics and headliners to the center of campus, and he says he has to spell out rules for young comics — certain topics, he says, are just off limits.

“I don’t want to censor them in any way, but they have to realize that they’re only five minutes of the show,” he says. “More often than not, heavy topics bum out the rest of the show, and we have to be so conscious of that.”

Is this heightened sensitivity a bad thing? Perhaps not, Selinger says. 

"I don't totally mind people being more sensitive to these issues," he says, later adding that a higher bar for edgy jokes would mean that only the more meaningful material would be performed.

Campuses like UCSB “are places in our society where there is a heightened sensitivity to offensive speech,” UCSB geography prof. Dan Montello writes in an email.

Professor Montello notes, however, that “this does not apply as readily” to speech that could potentially offend those in positions of power — white people, men, and Christians, for example. Montello is the adviser of record for Laughology but says he is not actively involved with the group — he does not attend events.

“[It’s] mildly hypocritical, if not more so, insofar as universities are supposed to be special bastions of free expression,” he writes. “In other words, contrary to Mr. Rock, I would say that students are willing to offend certain types of people.”

Comedians are by no means being singled out for censorship — a May editorial from the Washington Post noted that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, among others, had commencement invitations rescinded based on their political activity.

The editorial criticized student activists for these campaigns.

“Should we be encouraged that Harvard is turning out future educational leaders who take pride in blocking speech with which they might disagree?” the board asks. “Commencement addresses should not be limited to quotations from Dr. Seuss and unremarkable advice to which no one could possibly object.”

Objectionable, maybe. But for Marisa Guarino, a senior in Emory University improv group Rathskellar, some of the jokes Rock thinks will cause tension —jokes about sex, for example, she says — simply aren’t funny.

“A lot of students on college campuses aren’t generally interested in this humor, not because it’s offensive, but I think it’s because low-hanging fruit,” she says.

Rathskellar has a “no smut” policy for improv shows. The policy has led to tension within the group, she says. While some think off-color jokes may be cheap shots, “others believe that humans are basic, primitive beings, who find the obvious and basic funny even if it’s toilet humor or sexual,” she says.

But mostly, she says, the group toes the line based on how characters are received. One student who is from a Korean background, Ms. Guarino says, tried out a “crude" and "stereotypical” Asian American accent.

It was not received well, she says, and “if a joke isn’t funny, that thing isn’t going to be kept.”

Rock agrees.

“An audience that’s not laughing is the biggest indictment that something’s too far,” he says in the Vulture interview. “No comedian’s ever done a joke that bombs all the time and kept doing it. Nobody in the history of stand-up. Not one guy.”

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