Colleges Are Intolerant About Comedy That Promotes Tolerance

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27:  Chris Rock performs at Laughter Is The Best Medecine II: The Comedy Gala at Allstream Centre on
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27: Chris Rock performs at Laughter Is The Best Medecine II: The Comedy Gala at Allstream Centre on September 27, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage)

Colleges used to be the place where trailblazing comedians like George Carlin and Mort Sahl found receptive audiences for their biting and bold comedy.

But as Chris Rock, whose new film Top Five opens December 12, told Frank Rich in New York Magazine this week, those days are over.

Rock told Rich, "I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they're way too conservative. 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."

Rock said he started noticing this "about eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing."

As a comedian who has performed at more than 75 colleges over the past 10 years with Muslim comedian Dean Obeidallah in our Standup for Peace show, I have personally been affected by the reluctance of many college organizations to book comedy shows they deem too controversial.

Even though our show is clean in language as well as subject matter, and is far from divisive with its message of tolerance, understanding and peace, Dean and I have noticed a dramatic drop in interest from colleges the past year. While the campus shows where we have been booked to perform have always been well-received with no confrontations of any kind, students and faculty advisors have lately been highly intolerant of a show that promotes tolerance.

And even when we perform at a college, there tends to be some skittishness on the part of administrators. At a recent show, the event coordinator saw me reading the campus newspaper(as I always do to make the show as specific to each school as possible), and asked me not to mention any of the campus news stories, so no one in the audience could possibly be offended.

You would think that a Jewish-Muslim comedy show that embraces tolerance at a time of increased anti-semitism and Islamophobia on campuses, would be sought after by college bookers as a means of reducing tension and bringing campuses together. And that was the case for nine years, as Jewish, Arab, Muslim and multicultural groups eagerly and enthusiastically reached out to us to bring Standup for Peace to their campuses. Several times in the past year, we received emails expressing great interest in our show only to abruptly hear a few days later that the school could not book our show. It seems as though nervous faculty advisors stepped in to not allow these students to pursue their interest in our show.

Until last year, promotional materials for Standup for Peace mentioned that Dean is Palestinian, and that one of our goals is to "promote a dialogue for a peaceful, political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." However, Hillel International, the umbrella organization for Jewish groups on campus, which had co-sponsored virtually all of our shows, issued guidelines that discouraged bringing to campus, groups that advocated a dialogue with Palestinians.

Campus Hillels should be wholeheartedly supporting our message, since Jews were in the forefront of the civil rights movement in America. Lately though, the interest we have received has come more from Muslim and multicultural student groups, and although there is clearly support among Jewish students for a comedy show that promotes tolerance, Jewish campus organizations have shown much less interest than they did during the first nine years we performed Standup for Peace.

If a simple message of tolerance, understanding and peace is deemed too controversial by many universities in this country, what message does that send to students?

The message it sends to me, Dean Obeidallah and our Standup for Peace show, is that smart, thoughtful and compassionate comedy about Jews and Muslims is not what colleges want their students to hear.