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The unfunny business of college humor

Don’t blame students for boring mainstream culture

August 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

College students used to have a sense of humor, or so I’ve heard. Jerry Seinfeld started an important national conversation about jokes for young adults when he told an ESPN radio host on June 8 that he doesn’t do college shows anymore because the crowds are too “politically correct” these days. Then, for her article for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan visited the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA) convention, where performers go to peddle their acts to influential student bookers. These shows pay much better than the comedy club equivalents, and a performer who can book a full schedule can make a good living. But when it came to the content of the most in-demand acts, Flanagan was not impressed. “They liked their slam poets to deliver the goods in tones of the highest seriousness and on subjects of lunar bleakness,” she wrote. “They favored musicians who could turn out covers with cheerful precision, and they wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free.”

In offering an old narrative about oversensitive young people, Flanagan overlooked the most interesting part of the story: the money.

No one keeps track of how much money American colleges spend on arts and entertainment every year and how exactly they pay for it. The closest category we have is student activities, on which nonprofit higher-ed institutions spent $28 billion in 2013. To put that sum in perspective, it’s in the neighborhood of the annual gross domestic product of Paraguay. And it’s 200 times the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. Not all this money is going to comedians and poets and bands, of course, but it’s a huge pie, and even a small slice can support middlemen like the NACA.

Flanagan doesn’t get into how the association funds itself, but the Internet is full of gossips. In an e-book (PDF) from fellow industry player Gig Razor on college entertainment booking, author Dave McCubbin establishes two facts about the market: It’s lucrative and pay to play. The comedians Flanagan saw paid about $2,000 for the privilege. And those were the lucky ones; acceptance rates are in the single digits for the coveted showcase spots. Most of the selection is happening by agents and NACA evaluators long before any students get involved. If the acts are uninspired, blame the cartel first.

Thankfully, college students aren’t spending all their time (and student activity fees) on NACA-approved mediocrity. Many colleges are so big and diverse that they are practically towns. The NACA’s market is the kids who volunteer for the student government, the ones who spend their time on what’s in effect municipal entertainment programming, for free. Like any bureaucrats, they’re primarily concerned with not getting in trouble, and I believe Flanagan when she says their choices are dull. But a lot of student activity spending is done by smaller student groups, and the performers are markedly more interesting.

Young people with exciting taste probably don’t spend their time at the Minneapolis Convention Center reviewing selected comedians on behalf of their student government.

When I was a student at the University of Maryland, for instance, a conservative group brought a revisionist Civil War historian to lecture. Left-wing groups rerouted university funds to our anti-war activist friends in D.C. for talks. The Chicago rap group BBU (Bin Laden Blowin’ Up) slept in my living room post-performance. Cultural and religious groups promoted in-group acts — including comedians with racially charged acts. A packed auditorium greeted the Female Orgasm tour, a college sex-ed program that subsists on student activity fees.

The biggest controversy erupted when a conservative state senator (now U.S. representative), Andy Harris (no relation), threatened to pull the university’s funding if the school theater went ahead with a showing of a porn film. It was campus feminists who, despite their bad reputation, organized the protest screening. Radical thinkers, experimental bands, young filmmakers, avant-garde artists and performers of all sorts rely on college students a few hundred bucks at a time.

I don’t think colleges as they exist are a necessary precursor for a vibrant culture, but they’re certainly willing to spend some money on it. That spending includes a lot (too much, in my opinion) on safe, unimaginative dreck, but that’s a bigger problem. Focusing on students distracts from real cultural gatekeepers, like television networks, the MPAA and the NACA.

When it comes down to it, students are more or less regular cultural consumers. As an example of a joke college kids might find offensive, Seinfeld parodied an effeminate French royal scrolling on a phone. If young Americans no longer want weak gay jokes, that would be great, but it’s not true. It wasn’t so long ago that college students’ wolfish appetite for controversial race humor drove Dave Chappelle from the continent. College students support (with billions of dollars in debt and at a higher rate than their fellow citizens) the full range of American cultural content.

In 2011, when she was still a host at Fuse TV, comedian Amy Schumer talked to Splitsider in part about performing at colleges, which she did a lot early in her career. “I wonder what it would have been like to see comedy in college,” she told Joey Slamon. “I was, like, really not into joking about race at all. I might have been offended by my own act at the right age. But you know, kids are figuring it out.”

For cultural commentators, it’s important to remember kids are figuring it out under circumstances not of their own making. Bureaucrats in training have to learn to be inoffensive somewhere, and there are structures waiting to teach them. The truth is, young people with exciting taste probably don’t spend their time at the Minneapolis Convention Center reviewing selected comedians on behalf of their student government. Caitlin Flanagan is too busy hating the player to think about the game.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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