In Defense of the Much-Maligned College Standup Gig

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On December 5th, Chris Rock unveiled a promotional image for his forthcoming Total Blackout tour, his first in nearly a decade. As venues are confirmed and details finalized, it appears Rock is upholding the promise he made two years ago: no more college campuses.

While promoting Top Five, Rock echoed the concerns of Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld, and Wanda Sykes about the overly conservative nature of colleges and the challenge it was presenting to working comedians:

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.

Having worked on campuses for a decade with the very students who book comedians on campus, I have spoken to fellow campus staff, comedians, and standup fans at length about this assumption. At every turn, the question presents itself: “Is Rock right?” Has the nature of college campuses made it too difficult to do comedy there? It’s a big question, and frankly too big to be answered when you consider how schools attract students, what they are and aren’t learning, and who gets to make the booking decisions. Whether or not Chris Rock is right is something of a secondary question.

Instead, I pose a different question: Is it worth it for comics to work in the college market? Given its challenges, the potential for controversy, and the feeling of being unable to get it right, is it worth the trouble? I’d argue it is. Performing on college campuses isn’t easy, but it can prove rewarding by helping to build a fanbase, gain exposure, and handle difficult audiences.

Different Arena (or Gym, or Cafeteria) with Different Rules

The dynamic of laughs on campus differs in a key way from that of clubs or arenas: you know, and often are in constant contact with, fellow audience members. Club-goers can react without worry that they’ll get judged for it, save that one obnoxious laugher or heckler that you can identify on the way out. But college students, who live, take classes, and work together, interact differently. Even if this was a comic they knew well and really enjoyed, their reaction could have changed in that new space, fraught with social minefields. What happens if you laugh at something and that new guy you might have a crush on didn’t? Or what if a joke that offended you had your roommate doubled over in laughter? Trying to laugh with tension filling the room is a massive task, and one I’d admittedly taken for granted.

With that said, I’ve also seen shows like this break ice for students who are having trouble connecting with people. In their own right, not knowing what to say, they clam up. Connecting through the words of someone else, especially if they both find it funny? To be the person whose jokes they bond over can be a meaningful opportunity — one that creates a pair or group of lifelong fans.

Reports Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Any discussion around why we’re not laughing will inevitably circle around to offense, and its close relative, the “trigger warning.” All comics have experience in a room where someone doesn’t find the joke funny; college campuses are no exception. But the criticism Rock, Sykes, Seinfeld, Maher, and more have levied assumes that the why of this silence matters.

Being hesitant to laugh, and being educated or trained not to laugh, are different. And what Rock, Maher, Sykes and others are likely seeing gets attributed to the second factor rather than the first. The Atlantic said similarly after a 2015 trip to the National Association for Campus Activities convention, where comics go with the express purpose of being booked by college students.

In my experience, what students find funny and unfunny has changed relatively little. I talk often with students about what comedians they’re enjoying, what shows or sketches they’ve liked, and what they find funny. If anything, the change is merely one of medium; we talk less about established TV shows, and more about web series or podcasts. What has changed significantly, however, is how they respond in mixed company. I’ve sat in countless shows where I’ll feel eyes on me as an uncomfortable or potentially offensive punchline lands — the eyes of people who want to know, based on my reaction, if it’s okay to laugh or not.

With that said, the lion’s share of audience members care very little. They’ll laugh or they won’t, respond or stay silent. And the social media outrage we’ve attributed to young folks? That can happen anywhere, after any show, from practically anyone. Widespread reports of the humorless college student have been greatly exaggerated. The benefits of playing to this subset of audiences, especially for comedians looking to build a name for themselves, far outweigh the disadvantages — and it’s worth noting that the most vocal opponents to college shows can literally and figuratively afford to take that stance. For the rest? It’s worth the “risk” of a potentially less responsive audience.

From Emcee to Marquee

Next month, comedian Roy Wood, Jr. will be honored by NACA with a Hall of Fame Award, recognizing his contribution to the campus activities market through years on the circuit. It’s an honor that’s previously been given to Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho, Retta, and Daniel Tosh. All these comics gained exposure through TV shows, standup specials, movie roles, and other displays of their work. But they also gained steam from college students who had seen them on campus, traveled home or to other places, and spread the word about these comics they’d seen. This phenomenon is invaluable to anyone looking to gain national recognition — and as Guster’s Ryan Miller (a different sort of entertainer helped by a similar dynamic) explained recently to Boston Public Radio, it is essential to longevity.

College gigs may not be the easiest ones to do, and rooms may be quieter than others one might perform in. And yes, on occasion students might complain or insist that certain jokes shouldn’t be made. Yet, for so many, they are an essential and invaluable part of the process of “making it.” So for those who don’t have sold out stadium tours in their immediate future, I wouldn’t count the college gig out.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

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