Comedians 'appalled' by humorless college students

A feature documentary delving into the intersection of comedy and free speech traces the origins of the outrage culture against offensive comedians directly to college campuses.

Comedian Karith Foster told Campus Reform that she has been "appalled" by the inability of today's college students to find humor in difficult concepts, because without humor, "communication comes to a halt."

A feature documentary delving into the intersection of comedy and free speech traces the origins of the outrage culture against offensive comedians directly to college campuses.

Nearly 400 people attended an advanced screening of Can We Take a Joke? Tuesday night at the Newseum in Washington, DC, which was sponsored by a diverse array of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Charles Koch Institute, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Flying Dog Brewery, and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

The screening was followed by a Q&A panel with the producers and director of the film, comedians Gilbert Gottfried and Karith Foster, and free speech lawyers and activists.

The film traces the silencing of “offensive” comedians, from the jailing and death of Lenny Bruce to Jimmy Kimmel being forced to apologize for an off-color racial joke. Such outrage culture, the film says, often begins on college campuses where students try to avoid hearing ideas they don’t like.

Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of FIRE, said during the panel that he is “appalled” by the things he sees on college campuses.

“People are not able to be’s growth stunting,” he stated, “We have to realize there’s value to being offended.”

Multiple poignant examples of chilling speech on college campuses are displayed in the film. In one instance, Washington State University administrators paid students to attend another student’s comedy show so they could purposefully interrupt the performance.

Chris Lee, a black student comedian who created the show “Passion of the Musical” said the entire point was “to offend was satire.” Lee eventually earned the title “Black Hitler” among his peers and on the internet for continuing the show and refusing to apologize.

Karith Foster, a comedian featured in the film, told Campus Reform, “I had such an amazing experience in college, it was a learning experience and I grew so much, so when I started hearing about my friends who were comics who were told they couldn’t do certain jokes...I was appalled.”

Ironically enough, Can We Take a Joke? was itself subjected to campus outrage culture. During the panel, director Ted Balaker noted that he has toured about 250 college campuses for pre-screenings and discussion panels, but said the reception is not always friendly, claiming that students have ripped down film posters on multiple campuses, and that one student even pulled a fire alarm during a Q&A panel.

What these students don’t understand, he explained, is that “free speech fuels human progress.”

Foster seemed to agree with that sentiment.

“As someone who has performed on college campuses, both doing comedy and I also have a diversity engagement program called Stereotyped 101, I recognize just how incredibly important it is for people to be able to have a voice,” she asserted. “Without that ability, communication comes to a halt. And when that happens, there is a breakdown in society.”

One audience member, while posing a question to the panel, seemed baffled by the willingness of students to constantly be offended and censor ideas they don’t agree with.

“For the first 17 years of my life I lived in a third-world country, and people would tell me that being attacked means getting aborted or raped or killed,” she explained. “But then, I came to the United States for college, and I was told you can feel attacked in a classroom if somebody presents a dissenting point of view. And I was like…’that’s bullshit.’”

Indeed, those who offend or “attack” others with opinions can be subjected to intense consequences, which the film demonstrates by highlighting the stories of college students across the country who have been suspended or expelled for writing salacious April Fool's Day articles in their student newspapers.

“Comedy is subjective,” Foster told Campus Reform. “That’s the beauty of it and the curse of it. So not everybody is going to find everything funny.”

Foster also believes that students have shunned personal responsibility when it comes to hearing things they don’t like—rather than asking themselves why they respond in a certain way, they would rather punish the person who offends them.

“Everyone wants to play the blame game. So-and-so made me feel this way because they said, nobody made you do anything,” Foster asserted. “You did that yourself. You have to own that.”

Can We Take a Joke? ultimately recognizes that the chilling of speech in the United States parallels a breakdown of society.

“The remedy for speech is more speech,” argued Scott Michelman, an ACLU attorney who served on the panel. “You have to hear those fallacies in the discourse to be able to respond to them. We need to understand that folks are out there with those views and that’s why it’s so important to hear both sides of all debates.”

Despite the relatively gloomy outlook for public discourse presented in the film, panel members expressed optimism for the future of free speech because of the large number of advocates who attended the screening, not to mention the hilarity and relentlessness of the many comedians featured in Can We Take a Joke?

“Free speech is extremely important because, me being a Jew, I don’t want to have to pay for speech,” Gilbert Gottfried jests in the film.

And if that joke is offensive, Gottfried doesn’t care.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @amber_athey