By Isaac Fornarola
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled “For Stand-Up Comedians, Shows On Campus Are Often No Joke,” reports the growing tension between comedians and young audiences, with big name comics such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld issuing statements that college audiences are simply too squeamish and sensitive for their material. Seinfeld recently stated on Colin Cowherd’s The Herdthat he avoids playing college campuses because of what he perceives as over-sensitivity of the audience. But aging comics that are reacting to a “PC culture” aren’t getting a poor reaction because their audience is offended. They’re getting a poor reaction because they’re simply not funny.
As an avid fan of stand-up comedy, I’ve been especially captivated by the growing tensions between comics and social justice movements. Every outlet, from CNN to The Huffington Post, has been shedding light on the issue. So when I went to see Comedy Central Live! Brooklyn at the recently refurbished Kings Theatre, I tried to view the performance through every one of my lenses: as someone actively involved in social justice movements, aware of the real dangers of censorship, a dedicated fan of provocative comedy, and a guy who’s not offended by much. Would the material at the showcase make me feel unsafe or uncomfortable, as so many of these articles have suggested? What I mean to say is, instead of enjoying myself, I engaged in critical analysis of the implications of social justice movements and theoretical constructs of political correctness for the freedom of artistic expression for nearly 3-and-a-half hours (don’t worry, I also drank whiskey.)
First and foremost, the show featuring headliner Hannibal Buress along with Nathan Fielder, Jeff Ross, Nick Kroll and John Mulaney as “Oh, Hello“, and a surprise set by new host of The Daily Show Trevor Noah, was a far cry from provocative, offensive or inventive. In fact, everything at Kings Theatre that night was tremendously boring: from the bland, conservative audience to the comedians themselves. Whether this can be attributed to a culture of young people wanting to play it artistically safe for the sake of inoffensiveness isn’t clear, but one thing is certain: that show was boring. Like, I-wasn’t-planning-on- drinking-that-much-whiskey boring.
There is perhaps nothing more exemplary of our growing appreciation for a Culture Of Boring than the 30-or-so minutes that Nathan Fielder took the stage to promote his show Nathan For You, a docu-reality show currently in the middle of its third season on Comedy Central. Fielder is the kind of comic that relies heavily on the everydayness of his character. This is a persona comics have had a great deal of success with, but in Fielder’s case, it’s more forgettable than endearing — think Demetri Martin minus the wit, Mike Birbiglia minus the intellectual self-reflection. But Fielder took the stage to surprisingly uproarious applause, so I was intent on finding out why, regardless of how irksome I found his practiced bashfulness (“Oops, I’m kind of shy. Sorry,” said Fielder, with a rehearsed trip over the microphone stand. We know, Fielder. We get it. You’re shy.)
The most notable thing about Fielder’s set was that absolutely nothing happened: in fact, in the 30-or-so minutes that Fielder was on stage, he didn’t tell a single joke. He spent the first half of his time setting up the preview of a clip from Nathan For You. Instead of using that time to tell a few jokes and show us that he was, you know, funny, Fielder launched into a painfully pre-written disclaimer in which he warned the audience that if anyone was to film the highly exclusive and extremely important clip from his show, they would be doused by a fire extinguisher. He proceeded to find an audience volunteer, bring him onstage, and “demonstrate” what would happen if anyone should try and record the clip and leak it later. I glanced woefully at the price listed on my ticket. My girlfriend got up to go to the bathroom, muttering, “I should just run there now, this is going to take a while.”
How funny can spraying someone in the face with water really be, especially if it takes 20 minutes? This joke is unfunny for reasons far beyond the slapstick — it was long, tedious, and functioned under the assumption that anyone would care enough about a clip from Nathan For You to film it and then leak the thing.
Still, the fact that a faux-demure, monotone 30-something can get through an entire set on a massive stage for the biggest comedy network in the world without telling a single joke is intriguing from a cultural perspective. If there’s any truth to stand-up comedy’s accusation that a culture of political correctness is negatively affecting the art form, it’s evidenced in the drab banality of Fielder’s brand. Watching Fielder and his volunteer banter miserably, I imagined that the experience was not totally unlike watching two awkward law students figure out how to use a fire extinguisher.
The most challenging (or maybe just aggressive?) material came from Jeff Ross, whom you know from his recurring role as “Roastmaster General“ on the Comedy Central celebrity roasts. Ross stayed where he was comfortable in terms of material, selecting around 10 audience members to come up on stage to be voluntarily “roasted” (Ross’ funniest moment was when he remarked, as the participants filed on stage, that all of the volunteers looked exactly the same, making the task of improvising insults much more difficult.)
As Ross roasted the volunteers, I listened carefully for the microaggression and insensitivity that was supposed to rile me. But Ross’ go at the one person of color on stage was something about “going back to a call center”, followed by a weirdly outdated reference to Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.
Perhaps the reason these jokes are unappealing to young audiences is not so much that they’re offensive but that they are tremendously uncreative and, more simply, just not very funny. The closest Ross came to actually offending or unsettling me was when he talked about gun control (“How many people own a gun? I own one!”) and the only reason this seemed inappropriate was because there was an actual massacre by gunfire underway in Paris that night in a theatre not unlike Kings Theatre, about which Ross must have been either oblivious or unmoved.
Social justice is not a threat to stand-up comedy. Avid fans of the art form know just how integral stand-up is to any countercultural movement, and true believers in the artform don’t want to censor jokes about race, gender, sexuality, or any charged political issue. Stand-up has historically provided a necessary space in which witty and engaging writers can push boundaries, and that pushing of boundaries is inseparable from the form. But as audiences become more aware of important issues, the jokes have to keep up too. Evolve with the audience, write smarter. The call is not for censorship. The call is for better jokes. Harold and Kumar? There’s got to be a better way to do that.