Caitlin Flanagan, who was part of the San Fernando Valley mafia t
hat dominated the back of the book of The Atlantic Monthly
before it switched to primarily clickbait, returns to The Atlantic
with a visit to the National Association of Campus Activities convention in Minneapolis in February to watch stand-up comics try out for gigs on the campus comedy circuit:
That’s Not Funny!
Today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke.… For the comics, the college circuit offers a lucrative alternative to Chuckle Hut gigs out on the pitiless road, spots that pay a couple hundred bucks and a free night in whatever squat the club owner uses to warehouse out-of-town talent. College gigs pay easily a grand a night—often much more—and they can come in a firecracker string, with relatively short drives between schools, each hour-long performance paid for (without a moment’s ugliness or hesitation) by a friendly student-activities kid holding out a check and hoping for a selfie.… and they wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free, comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student. They wanted comedy so thoroughly scrubbed of barb and aggression that if the most hypersensitive weirdo on campus mistakenly wandered into a performance, the words he would hear would fall on him like a soft rain, producing a gentle chuckle and encouraging him to toddle back to his dorm, tuck himself in, and commence a dreamless sleep—not text Mom and Dad that some monster had upset him with a joke.… When I attended the convention in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that [Chris] Rock and [Jerry] Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed. To understand this change, it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.But which jesters, which bards? Ones who can handle the challenge. Because when you put all of these forces together—political correctness, coddling, and the need to keep kids at once amused and unoffended (not to mention the absence of a two-drink minimum and its crowd-lubricating effect)—the black-box theater of an obscure liberal-arts college deep in flyover territory may just be the toughest comedy room in the country.… The kids in the audience belonged to their schools’ student-activities committees, and had thus been appointed the task of picking the paid entertainment for the next year. I found them, as a type, to be cheerful, helpful, rule-following, and nerdy. They were also—in the best sense of a loaded word—inclusive. “We don’t want to sponsor an event that would offend anyone,” Courtney Bennett, the incoming president of the student-activities board at Western Michigan University, told me. The NACA kids were impossible not to like, although nothing about them suggested a natural talent for identifying original forms of artistic expression. They would cluster around their grown-up advisers like flocks of ducklings to powwow about the performers they had seen. …O, Utopia. Why must your sweet governance always turn so quickly from the Edenic to the Stalinist? The college revolutions of the 1960s—the ones that gave rise to the social-justice warriors of today’s campuses—were fueled by free speech. But once you’ve won a culture war, free speech is a nuisance, and “eliminating” language becomes a necessity.
… As I listened to the kids hash out whom to invite, it became clear that to get work, a comic had to be at once funny—genuinely funny—and also deeply respectful of a particular set of beliefs. These beliefs included, but were in no way limited to, the following: women, as a group, should never be made to feel uncomfortable; people whose sexual orientation falls beyond the spectrum of heterosexuality must be reassured of their special value; racial injustice is best addressed in tones of bitter anguish or inspirational calls to action; Muslims are friendly helpers whom we should cherish; and belonging to any potentially “marginalized” community involves a crippling hypersensitivity that must always be respected.The students’ determination to avoid booking any acts that might conceivably hurt the feelings of a classmate was in its way quite admirable. They seemed wholly animated by kindness and by an open-mindedness to the many varieties of the human experience. But the flip side of this sensitivity is the savagery with which reputations and even academic careers can be destroyed by a single comment—perhaps thoughtless, perhaps misinterpreted, perhaps (God help you) intended as a joke—that violates the values of the herd.When you talk with college students outside of formal settings, many reveal nuanced opinions on the issues that NACA was so anxious to police. But almost all of them have internalized the code that you don’t laugh at politically incorrect statements; you complain about them. In part, this is because they are the inheritors of three decades of identity politics, which have come to be a central driver of attitudes on college campuses. But there’s more to it than that. These kids aren’t dummies; they look around their colleges and see that there are huge incentives to join the ideological bandwagon and harsh penalties for questioning the platform’s core ideas.Meanwhile—as obvious reaction to all of this—frat boys and other campus punksters regularly flout the thought police by staging events along elaborately racist themes, events that, while patently vile, are beginning to constitute the free-speech movement of our time. The closest you’re going to get to Mario Savio—sick at heart about the operation of the machine and willing to throw himself upon its gears and levers—is less the campus president of Human Rights Watch than the moron over at Phi Sigma Kappa who plans the Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos mixer.