When I heard Chris Rock say, "I won't work colleges anymore, because they've gotten too conservative," I paused.
In his own words: "Not in their political views -- not like they're voting Republican -- but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of 'We're not going to keep score in the game because we don't want anybody to lose.' Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can't say 'the black kid over there.' No, it's 'the guy with the red shoes.' You can't even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive."
This frightened me. If an icon like Chris Rock has to be worried about content, what hope is there for a comedian of my stature?
It turns out, none.
I recently performed at a university, and it was an unmitigated disaster.
Or so I was told.
I thought I was receiving a typical college response; the instant the lights went down, I heard nothing but kids talking over me. When I said "Hello," approximately 3 of 150 people responded. The rest were in their own world, eating, talking, and posting selfies to Instagram.
I shrugged it off and barreled forward, because I was under contract. I had to sling jokes for thirty minutes, audience indifference be damned. It was with genuine surprise when, twenty-five minutes later, I was pulled from the stage and told I was being offensive.
I'm not dense. I knew I wasn't killing it. Had the apathy started half way through my set, I would have said, "I'm losing them!" Since disinterest was normal from the get go, I figured, "This is how it's going to be." But I never in a million years did I think I was shocking anyone.
I asked which of my comments were out of line, and the opening response was: "Off the top of my head? When you made fun of white people names."
Since it was obvious the students weren't going to pay attention to me telling jokes, I decided to do interactive material. For fifteen minutes I spoke with different tables, making light, situational jokes: "You only ate half a baby carrot? You were too full to finish a baby carrot?"
Groundbreaking? No. Safe? Yes. Hilarious? No. Chuckles from the six kids paying attention? Yes.
When I got to a table of Caucasian girls, I became more daring. And by "slightly," I mean .5 on a scale of 1-10.
"What's your name?" I asked the first.
"Rachel," she responded.
"Oh God..." I groaned, over-emphasizing my exasperation to show absurdity. "That is the whitest name, ever."
I heard giggles from the background, and the girls laughed, so all was well.
Or so I thought.
When that moment came back to bite me in the butt, I was floored. I asked for clarification -- how was it offensive? -- and was told, "The event is multicultural. Our goal is inclusivity." Pointing out any race, even my own, brought attention to that race, which automatically "made things uncomfortable."
I wanted to shout, "For who?"
I've been a comedian long enough to know the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable laughter, and what I heard was genuine.
The other "point of offense" is one I should have seen coming. Up front I wondered whether or not I should do a joke in support of marriage equality. After all, I know people hear trigger words and react to them, not context.
The joke itself is at the expense of bigots. I saw a website declaring the #1 threat to America was gay marriage. Not being able to wrap my head around such bigoted thinking, I wrote a joke mocking that viewpoint. It starts with: "I'll tell you this; I support marriage equality, and I don't understand the arguments against it."
I was told: "The problem is with you, a heterosexual male talking about gay marriage in the first place. You cannot determine how someone who is homosexual will react to your stance on their issue."
Hearing that, I was at a loss for words.
If my joke had been at the expense of homosexuality, then yes, it would have been out of line. But to say I cannot talk about it? That's nonsense. The LGBT community needs me to talk about it. Not as a comedian, as a straight person. The only way marriage equality will happen in America is by having straight people standing side-by-side with the LGBT community, championing their cause. The majority has to see and understand the plight of the minority in order to create change. If the LGBT community were to stand alone on this, legislation would stagnate, and the issue would be dismissed as "A gay problem." Just like AIDS was "A gay problem" in the 1980s, before straights started dying from it, too.
What's funny is that when I was removed from the stage, I had been talking about my kids for ten minutes. It's probably the safest material I have; there's nothing remotely controversial in there. In fact, it's deeply personal material, and at times empathetic. How often do you see a comedian tell an audience he and his wife are donating embryos to an infertile couple? I'm guessing never. I do, and it generally gets a nice pop of laughter at the end, too.
Unfortunately, no one had the wits about them to realize, "OK, he's transitioned. No more hot topics like 'gay marriage' or 'white people names.'" Likewise, no one had the decency or common sense to think, "You know what, he only has five minutes left, let him finish." Because when you're not paying attention to content and you're simply trying to indulge the delicate sensibilities of a society waiting to be outraged, you've already lost.
You cannot cater to everyone, and everyone is offended by something.
(Note: as I was writing this, Jerry Seinfield started trending across social media for this quote: "I don't play colleges but I hear a lot of people tell me, 'Don't go near colleges, they're so PC.' I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that," Seinfeld said. "But everyone else is kind of, with their calculating--is this the exact right mix? I think that's--to me it's anti-comedy. It's more about PC-nonsense."
Amen, brother. I think I'm in good company.)