Was Seinfeld right? Have college students lost their sense of humor?

The campus climate debate finds a new battleground

Kristin Tyndall, EAB Daily BriefingKristin Tyndall, associate editor

The fight over comedy on campus is starting to get serious.

Earlier this month, Jerry Seinfeld called today's college students "too PC" for comedy. After one student disagreed with Seinfeld, comedian Bill Maher mocked the student on his show last week.

It seems clear that comedy is becoming the most recent front in a larger war over political correctness on campus. Previous battle lines have been drawn around safe spaces, trigger warnings, professors' public writing, and student events.

Read more: Are safe spaces drowning out free speech on campus?

For example, Anthony Berteaux—the editor of San Diego State University's student newspaper and the student who was mocked by Maher—argues that today's college students are looking for a different kind of humor.

Jokes can "no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive," Berteaux writes in an open letter for the Huffington Post. Rather, he says, "there needs to be a message, a central truth behind comedy for it to work as humor."

Berteaux also defends provocative jokes, so long as they have an "underlying message," make social commentary, or open a dialogue in context.

Writing for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Jeff Charis-Carlson explains the nuances of both sides of the debate.

Many comedians, like professors, feel that students' demands for political correctness silence them. In some cases this is figurative, like when comic Tom Garland was told before a college event to avoid talking about race, religion, and other topics.

But in other cases, the silencing is more literal, as when Nathan Timmel was told to cut a recent campus show short because the audience was offended.

Some comedy experts on campus say young people simply have new tastes and expectations—as audiences have for generations.

"I categorically disagree that comedy can't work at a college," says Gavin Jerome, who co-teaches at the comedy college at Iowa State University.

In the past, he argues, comics could entertain by "pushing the envelope," engaging the counter culture through taboo language and topics. But millennials demand more. "The college audience today is simply different than it was in the 1960s and 1970s," Jerome says.

Doug Shaw, director of the University of Northern Iowa's comedy improv troupe, agrees that young people have new expectations.

But comedians still have a responsibility to engage the audience, he says.

Shaw, who is a 50-something himself, says he is embarrassed when he hears comedians of his generation blame students for their own inability to make a connection.

"This is not the death of comedy," says Shaw. "Comedy will always endure. If these older comedians are unable to connect with college audiences, then other comedians will take their place" (Berteaux, Huffington Post, 6/9; Jones, USA Today College, 6/22; Charis-Carlson, Iowa City Press-Citizen, 6/22).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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