“I got married “old school” — to a woman.” It was my first college show and I didn’t want it to be my last. I had heard the war stories from my fellow comedians: preternaturally sensitive college students, indoctrinated by academic and administrative lifers who are liable to faint at the sight of a sombrero. American colleges, it seemed, comprised a continent-wide archipelago of young people with the kind of ideological fealty to authority one associates with North Koreans.
I got lucky, though, in that my college debut was at West Chester University’s Freshmen Orientation Day. Instead of being surrounded by note-taking faculty, these freshmen were seated with their parents and siblings, lending the show a relative air of fun and freedom. Everything, it seemed, has been turned upside down. Gone are the days when you monitored what you laugh at in the presence of your parents: Thanks to the fevered political climate that prevails on American campuses, the presence of parents was actually liberating.
At least, that’s what my comedy instincts told me, but I wouldn’t know for sure unless I used material like the “old school” line above. Would the joke — ahem — trigger the immediate, guttural laugh I’d learned to expect from normals? I decided to go for it. Happily, the laugh was explosive and long-drawn out, as if it were self-reinforcing. One exception was the burly African American father in the front row who was sitting between his wife and their two teenage sons. Instead of laughing, he slowly nodded in the affirmative as a beatific smile crossed his face that seemed to say “College can try to kidnap my kids’ values, but not today.” The response seemed to signal that my act was not going to be what many parents in the audience feared: a sampling of the political correctness and identity politics that their adult children would be immersed in over the next four-plus years.
The show went very well and my college agent and I were all pleased with the result. I would receive further college bookings in Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. These shows, I was delighted to learn, were fun.
What, then, went wrong with my budding career in the college market? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. In order to do college shows one must audition at college showcases where you inevitably find the soul-crushing, comedy-killing groupthink Caitlyn Flanagan describes in her excellent article in The Atlantic “That’s Not Funny! Today’s College Students Can’t Seem To Take A Joke.” Flanagan describes what she calls the “logic problem:”
Trying to explain to these kids any of the fundamental truths of stand-up – from why it’s not a good idea to hold a comedy show in the cafeteria during lunch hour, to why jokes involving gay people aren’t necessarily homophobic – is a nonstarter, and only serves to antagonize the customers… The logic problem is also responsible for the fact that many of the comics at the convention weren’t very funny, and several of those who were funny didn’t get much work, despite garnering huge laughs and even standing ovations.
This certainly describes the lay of the land at the showcases I attended, where performer after performer aggressively avoided violating the students’ twisted conception of tolerance. The showcase audiences are comprised of small teams of students assigned to take in several days of rock bands, comics, speakers, Muslims, and variety acts on behalf of their respective student bodies. Female students vastly outnumber male students. Various degrees of gender confusion are prevalent and, seemingly, reveled in. The emotional immaturity of students is striking, as if they’d be much more comfortable donning Mickey Mouse ears than, say, a military beret. This wasn’t Soft America, but Bounty Soft America.
As the gatekeepers to the college market, the showcases provided me something I hadn’t encountered in more than two decades of doing comedy: Audiences I didn’t like.
As for my fellow artists, many took time during their eight-minute sets to establish their victim bonafides, typically with some grievance against American society or living with a syndrome. The popular comic who closed the showcase, for example, departed from the apparently mundane task of making the audience laugh to open up about overcoming what he called “social anxiety disorder,” which I took to mean shyness. Another young woman — a speaker clad in high cut-off jeans — all but compared the frequency with which she was allegedly raped on campus to stubbing one’s toe.
Not surprisingly, booking safe bets at these events is the order of the day. By “safe bets” I don’t mean artists least likely to be unfunny or uninspiring but, rather, those who are in overt lockstep with the culture of grievance and victimhood. The showcases provided me with a firsthand glimpse of postmodern academic culture that on-campus shows did not. It was a parallel university that at no point intersected with the real universe.
Any hope one has that the fevered notions that prevail on campus will one day come in contact with reality is dashed with a visit to TheDemands.org, a leftwing website which has helpfully collated the clinically insane demands of America’s college students. Imagine dealing with, as administrators at Tufts University must, the demand that at least 13 percent of Tufts undergraduates identify as black.
Having performed at only two showcases, it’s tempting to think that I’m premature in turning my back on the college market altogether. Surely I can put “different eyebrows” on my act as I do for corporate audiences, for example. But standing in front of my college agent’s booth with her other clients after both my showcases was an experience as humiliating as it was indelible. While students lined up with giddy excitement to book various spoken-word artists (poets unshackled from the oppressive need to rhyme), I was left alone to nod and smile at passersby who politely smiled back as I battled the impulse to get drunk as quickly as possible.
Sour grapes? Absolutely. My experience doing college shows afforded me wonderful experiences and great memories. The flights, the rental cars, the sometimes less-than-ideal show settings didn’t bother me. I loved chatting with the locals at greasy spoons in small towns like Powell, Wyoming. The gorgeous posters created by the enthusiastic students to promote the shows adorn the walls of my home. The fantastic smell of old theaters made of heavy stone reminded me why I got into this business in the first place.
But, so long as the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA) continues to primarily serve the ideological rather than the entertainment needs of its clients, I’ll have to build on my success in other markets.