Letter: PC comedy limits campus conversation

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Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have recently been speaking out against a “PC atmosphere” on college campuses that makes it difficult or impossible for comedians to do comedy on certain controversial subjects. This reminded me of an incident here at San Diego State that I think perfectly encapsulates the point he was trying to make.

As part of the Aztec Nights series during fall semester 2013, there was a comedy show with the comedian Hannibal Buress headlining. Being an aspiring comedian as well as fan of Hannibal, I decided to check it out. What I found was a gymnasium full of rowdy students on a Friday night — I thought this would be a great crowd to do comedy in front of. The first few comedians were well received by the audience, though I didn’t get it — to me they seemed to be speaking a foreign language. It really made me feel my age (almost 30).

Then the opener for Hannibal came on, an up-and-coming comedian named Byron Bowers. He is black, which I point out specifically because that night he did a racially charged joke about the black experience in America that got the crowd in such a frothing uproar that it completely ruined the rest of the show.

The joke opens with some lines (“I’m glad slavery happened. Before that, black people were in Africa, we weren’t doing shit”) that are meant to be a bit of a slap in the face for the audience. It’s meant to get people’s attention: it’s a device. The fact that the crowd reacted so harshly that night isn’t troubling because it ruined the rest of the comedy show, but more so because it showed that a good portion of the crowd had either no concept of satire (of course he’s not really glad slavery happened), an extremely short attention span, or both.

The joke goes on to make an interesting point on how black people, who as slaves were viewed as desirable possessions, became a nuisance in American society once they were no longer being treated as possessions, but as human beings. An observation like this is lost on an audience that is quick to point a finger at controversial material and say: “that’s racist.” That’s a pretty sad commentary about the state of free speech on college campuses, because an artistic outlet like comedy is exactly where these subjects need to be addressed. And that’s only because we’re so bad at doing it any other way.

 

Oren Rosenberg is a local comedian and a graduate student at SDSU.

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