Comedians Dump Campus Gigs: When Did Colleges Lose Their Sense of Humor?

A new era of political correctness combined with social media is causing comedians to steer clear of edgy jokes — and university bookings

After comedian Carlos Mencia did his standup act at Rutgers University’s Homecoming last September, a student activist complained that the routine was littered with racial and sexual epithets. Mencia was pleasantly surprised when the students and administration of the diverse Newark, N.J., campus opted to support him.

“I personally thought I was a huge success in the fact that, for the first time, somebody pointed out that the exception was the exception and not the rule,” Mencia told TheWrap. “It wasn’t, ‘We’re going to take this one person’s complaints and turn it into, ‘This is how everybody else felt,’ it was, ‘This is one person’s complaint.’”

But for edgy comics like the former “Mind of Mencia” star whose material delves into racial and societal issues, run-ins with political correctness don’t always go so smoothly. Last December, Bill Maher was the subject of a petition drive at the University of California Berkeley by activists opposed to his speaking at winter commencement because of his past remarks criticizing Muslims.

Across the United States, high-profile comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry the Cable Guy and Chris Rock have said they are avoiding campuses because of student hypersensitivity. “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘They’re so PC,’” Seinfeld famously told ESPN’s Colin Cowherd in June. “[Young people] just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice.’ … They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

In recent weeks, TheWrap has discussed the issue with at least a dozen comedians, many of whom lamented that the fun of performing for young audiences has been diluted by a combination of extreme cultural sensitivity and the power of social media.

“We are in an age of faux outrage,” incoming “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah told TheWrap. “Sometimes people don’t even know why they’re angry, they just jump on the bandwagon — they don’t even do the research. The most brilliant example of that for me was Patton Oswalt, who sent out a series of tweets apologizing for nothing — and people lambasted him for it.”

Noah knows from experience — within hours after he was named to replace Jon Stewart, the South African native was called out on social media for edgy tweets about “fat chicks” and Jews that he had posted years ago. “That’s the age we live in. We don’t want to read anymore, we don’t want to find out why, we just go, are people angry? I want to be angry,” he said. “And it’s a mob mentality that’s not progressive and it’s not conducive to us getting to the truth of anything.”

Still, others have pointed out that college bookings offer lucrative opportunities — “cash grabs,” as veteran comic Loni Love called them — to performers who may sometimes be asked to soften the language or edginess of their acts to satisfy college audiences (or administrators).

To many, it may seem counterintuitive that college campuses — institutions meant to foster a vigorous exchange of views and ideas — should be the very place where expression is deemed unacceptable.

“For society at large, political correctness is kind of good. People are being considerate of everybody else. There’s something enlightened about that,” said Peter Mehlman, a “Seinfeld” writer and producer who now does standup. “But when it comes to entertainment, it’s just chilling it.” He continued: “When you think about Jerry Seinfeld not being willing to do college campuses because of political correctness — I think you got a real problem. I could understand Bill Maher. But Jerry?”

Maher, a long-time avatar of politically edgy humor since his days hosting “Politically Incorrect,” has been quick to defend Seinfeld and to take digs at students who have called on comics to take a more progressive approach to controversial topics. “Stupid though I was in 1976, I wouldn’t have presumed to lecture George Carlin on comedy,” said Maher, who did indeed appear at Berkeley, despite the protests.

To Loni Love, comedian and host of BET talk show “The Real,” students aren’t the ones to blame. Until recently, Love performed standup at approximately 35 colleges per year and found that students generally want to hear jokes about grades, sex and cafeteria food. Succeeding in a college environment is about understanding the college audience and adjusting the act accordingly.

“The truth of the matter is, [Seinfeld] is not the type of comic that should be hitting up colleges,” Love told TheWrap. “As far as your point of view about some things, you can save it for your hour special. You can save it for your YouTube or your main fandom.”

Mencia disagreed, saying college students should be exposed to topics that push them to think and even feel uncomfortable. “Look, this is the real world. If these are the things that are going to bother you, you need to grow up a little bit,” he said. “I’m going to do ‘those’ [college-themed] jokes, but I’m also going to mix in a sense of truth that exists outside of this little microcosm of your university. I enjoy making people laugh outside of their comfort zone.”

Getty Images
Getty Images

Mehlman said he recently did a joke about how proud he was of Caitlyn Jenner for not keeping the same initials when taking a new name. “Usually transgender people keep their initials,” he told the audience. “I’m willing to swap out my genitalia, but those towels — forget it.”

He observed: “I got a little bit of a boo from an audience.”

Diana Blaine, professor of writing and gender studies at the University of Southern California, empathizes with the comedians. “I don’t think campuses are aggressively liberal,” she told TheWrap. “For the most part, the students are more than happy to learn about these ideologies that have perhaps caused them to be more hateful or small-minded. There are times, I will tell you, when I hesitate to express opinions in certain ways because of the politics of the country and the world, and I’m always sorry about that.”

campus-comedy-pull-quotes-trevorEven young people themselves are concerned about a quashing of vigorous thought and contrarian views.

“Jokes make me uncomfortable — that’s almost a positive thing,” Avan Jogia, the 22-year-old “Tut” actor, told TheWrap at a recent red-carpet event. “For the longest time, whether it’s George Carlin or Louis C.K. now, comedians make us observe the things about a society that make us uncomfortable and makes it OK to laugh about them. That’s kind of the thing that goes over the heads of most people my age that are outraged at comics who do college shows.”

Love recognizes that college campuses have become more liberal since she started her standup career performing at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University in Texas. She also noted that comics are not the final arbiters for what jokes work.

“I do think the audiences have a right to judge what they feel is offensive and not,” Love said. “I appreciate the audience for checking us as comics.”

And since comics can make up to $30,000 per night for a college booking, she added, they should expect to make the same sort of accommodations that they would for corporate or charitable events. Performers unwilling to adjust their acts should skip college tours, she said.

For Horatio Sanz, a veteran of eight seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” the trick is to tailor jokes to meet audience expectations. “If something is offensive, I want you to think about that,” he told TheWrap. “I’m not just saying something offensive to be like, ‘Isn’t that funny?’”

Sanz recalled one joke that required some additional rejiggering to land with certain crowds. “I had Bill Cosby raping Harry Caray, the Cubs announcer,” he said, “and sometimes I have to think, ‘Is it OK to joke about rape, is the context correct, are we making more fun of Cosby than the idea of rape?’”

Carlos-MenciaThese days, Mencia has mostly graduated from doing college gigs, dropping from 20 campus shows per year to about five. If an administrator tells him to “keep it PG-13,” he abides. However, Mencia won’t compromise his material’s message for the sake of appeasing the easily offended.

“What I won’t do is sacrifice the content of what I’m saying,” Mencia said. “I’m not going to cater to you and only do a joke about bong hits and smoking weed and showing up to class late and getting a B because you crammed for two days. I’m going to challenge you. I’m going to make you think about what you’re laughing at.”

Said Sanz: “The truth is, audiences have changed. And in a way, that’s good. If that’s the trade so that we don’t have a bunch of racist kids watching us at shows, that’s OK, I’ll take it.”

Tony Maglio and Sharon Waxman contributed reporting to this story.

Coming Tuesday: Comedians Scrub Their Shows Clean to Make Big Bucks on Campus, Win Social Media

Read more of TheWrap’s “Comedians on Campus” Series:

15 Comedians Who Were Under Fire Over Jokes: Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and Amy Schumer