Panel discusses political correctness and comedy culture

by Natalie Busch / Beacon Staff • November 18, 2015

Are millennials too concerned with being respectful of others, or are they simply refusing to stand for bigoted jokes? This was one of many questions explored in the Comedy and Campus Culture panel discussion held last Friday afternoon in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre.

The panel was organized by Martie Cook, professor and associate chair of the department of visual and media arts. Cook, who is also the creator of the new comedic arts program, said the talk launches a series of events designed to supplement the major.

“We wanted to kick off the new BFA [major] and celebrate it being the first of its kind in the nation,” Cook said.

When selecting panelists, Cook said she searched for a combination of scholars, stand-up comics, and television writers who varied in age and backgrounds. Cook brought in Sierra Katow, a Harvard student and stand-up comic; Paul Lewis, a professor of English and American Studies at Boston College; Sascha Cohen, a PhD candidate in history at Brandeis University; Corey Rodrigues, a comic; and Michael Loman, a professor of television at Boston University and former co-producer of Sesame Street.

According to Cook, roughly 70 people attended the free event.

Panelists discussed a wide range of topics and people, including racism in stand-up comedy, Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman, the television shows “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish,” and Emerson alum Norman Lear, ‘44. Ken Feil, a senior scholar-in-residence in the visual and media arts department, and Nick Liam Holmes, a senior performing arts major and comedy minor, moderated the panel.

Jerry Seinfeld’s refusal to perform at colleges was an issue of interest. The comedian said in an ESPN interview this summer that students are too “politically correct,” a phrase used to signify respectful or inoffensive attitudes. During the discussion, Lewis said that the term has lost its original meaning and become a weapon used against liberals.

“I wish we’d just do away with it in discourse because I really do feel as though it has become a cudgel that the right wing uses. They feast on it,” Lewis said. “So if you think that [someone] is being hypersensitive, say they’re being hypersensitive.”

Katow said that comedy is a dialogue where both the performer and the audience have responsibility. 

“As a comedian, you have to be able to realize, maybe it’s not that someone can’t take a joke, but maybe you’re actually perpetuating something [you’re not aware of],” Katow said. “But then on the listening end, you have to not shut down when you hear a word, because maybe the comedian is being subversive and introducing something you could agree with.”

Cohen said that the relationship between humor and status is important to consider when it comes to satire. She described the idea of “punching up or down” with a joke. 

“A person with less social power in our hegemony has the right to make fun of people above him or her,” Cohen said. “The people at the top with the most privileged are going to look tacky when they’re kicking the people on the ground.”

Cohen said offensive jokes, although detrimental to stand-up comedians’ careers, can spark community outrage and result in social change.

“I think the use or the purpose of this type of content is that it’s a catalyst or a trigger for activists to point out toxic cultural beliefs that are problematic,” Cohen said.

Danika Frank, a sophomore writing, literature and publishing major in attendance, said more students would have benefitted from analysing comedy.

“I think it’s really good that we’re having this conversation,” Frank said. “I think a lot of people—especially at Emerson—have a very strong opinion already and I liked to see that we [could] talk about [comedy] and actually discuss it.”  

As student moderator, Holmes said attendees were engaged and that students asked insightful questions.

“We had a good conversation and people actually took it in and had something in response,” Holmes said. “It wasn’t just students attending an event to get extra credit. [They came] because they were interested to know the future of comedy in colleges.” 

Afterward, the audience and panel participants had the opportunity to network over refreshments. Holmes said the panelists were receptive to other opinions on comedy.

“I found [they] recognized that comedy is something that should be taken seriously and talked about and dissected,” Holmes said.

Cook said that laughter can make a serious difference to society.

“I believe that comedy is the door to effecting social change,” Cook said. “I think it’s what starts those conversations that people don’t want to have. I think there are a lot of problems in this country that we need to fix. So if we can use comedy as the way in, I’m all for it.”