Comedians on Campus: TheWrap Examines New Political Correctness and Consequences for Entertainment and Media

We think of universities as the place for edgy ideas and vigorous debate. Not for comics these days, TheWrap finds

As college students head back to campus, TheWrap launches a five-part series over three days examining a new environment of political correctness that is discouraging stand-up comedians from performing on campus, as well as impacting vigorous debate in journalism schools.

The series kicks off with “Comedians Avoiding Campus: When Did Colleges Lose Their Sense of Humor?” along with a video (see below) featuring the voices of multiple comedians on the subject and a sidebar detailing the kind of humor that gets comics in trouble.

The series describes a new wave of political correctness that has sparked a backlash against comics who joke about hot button topics like rape, Islam, Ferguson or any particular ethnicity.

Comedians including Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock say they now steer clear of university campuses while outspoken comics like Bill Maher are actively shunned. Meanwhile professors and students say they self-censor their non-“correct” views for fear of being pilloried in public
and on social media.

The trend is worrying to observe among young people in the midst of forming opinions on important social and political topics. The “problem” of free speech is a topic more suited to conservative radio hosts than the open debate we expect at our national universities. College campuses are also where comedians grow their fan bases, and where networks from Comedy Central to Vice cultivate the next generation of politically aware audiences.

TheWrap interviewed more than a dozen comedians about the issue including Trevor Noah, Carlos Mencia, Peter Mehlman and Loni Love, many of whom lamented that they feel the fun of performing for young audiences has been diluted by extreme cultural sensitivity.

“We are in an age of faux outrage,” the newly-minted “Daily Show” host Noah told TheWrap. Noah attracted criticism for some of his past tweeted jokes about women and Jews. “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 continued: “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.”

Other comedians were caught between admiring how students have evolved and worrying that the sensitivity is leading to intolerance of opposing points of view. “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 “Seinfield” writer and producer who now does stand up. “But when it comes to entertainment, it’s just chilling it.”

He added: “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?”

The series continues with examining media studies, specifically how journalism professors are dealing with the new wave of political correctness on campus as they seek to teach students to think critically and challenge convention.

University of Maryland Journalism professor Mark Feldstein was surprised at the response of his students when he led a heated debate about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and whether media outlets should show the publication’s controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Many of Feldstein’s students argued, “‘If you’re going to upset people, why do it?’” he recalled.

Said Columbia Journalism Professor John Dinges: “Someone was suggesting we post a sign at the gate of Columbia University and say, ‘Warning: If you enter here you might be exposed to ideas that may trigger any number of emotional reactions,’” he said. “That’s what education is all about.”