First they came for the 7-Eleven bits…

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on November 10th, 2006

The folks in Ithaca College’s Comedy Club are upset. With good reason.

The club is a regular meeting of a bunch of campus cut-ups (not a “club” in the sense of a bricks-and-mortar building) who get together to work on the funny. Apparently, during a recent meeting, one of them made a “joke about lynching” (no details available) during an improv exercise.

In last week’s issue of the Ithacan (the campus newspaper), is a story about how the African-Latino Society was alarmed about “six bias-related incidents,” in recent months on campus, incidents like the “destruction of a Jewish student’s mezuzah prayer scroll” and “swastikas drawn in Emerson Hall.” Lumped in with the rest of the incidents was a “racist joke about lynching” made by a member of the IC Comedy Club.

The club members are pretty steamed.

When it comes to jokes in our meetings, everything is fair game. Our meetings are hallowed ground for any kind of joke, and once someone declares a topic off-limits, then a bias is created…

Equating us with the other events in the article is ludicrous. Racism is a deep-seated mentality that manifests itself in worse ways than an off-the-cuff remark.

They have a point. Of course, since comedians (especially beginners) aren’t accorded the usual status of other artists whose purpose is to shock, to stretch the boundaries of human experience, to experiment, etc., anything we say can and will be used against us. Other spoken word artists can say all manner of vile things about any person or group– it’s exciting, it’s art, it lays bare the listeners’ prejudices and biases, it’s an agent for social change because it makes the recipient of the message look inward.

When a comedian says something that’s slightly off-kilter, the reaction among the academics and the media is to immediately suspect that something is wrong with the soul of the bearer of the message. “It is indicative of a deep-seated opinion or long-held belief,” is the usual diagnosis.

We were going through some old floppy disks (the 3.5-inch kind that nobody uses any more) and we came across this quote from a book called “Hate Crimes– The rising tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed” (Plenum Press 1993, Jack Levin & Jack McDevitt):

In sharp contrast, modern “attack” comics like Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, Bobcat Godlthwait and Jay Charboneau make no pretense of having some higher purpose.”

That’s right. In 1993, in a book about bigotry and bloodshed, the connection was made between horrific violence against a person based on race, creed or color and “attack comics.” None of the comics named had, to the trained eye of the academic, busy-body authors, a “pretense of having some higher purpose.” So the ground rules are clear: The Comic had better justify his every utterance with a “pretense of having some higher purpose” lest the intellectuals mount a campaign against him.

It is worth noting that this was published near the very bottom of the Comedy Bust. We have always maintained that a significant contributing factor to the crash of comedy was the pall cast over the land by political correctness. In an atmosphere where a couple of Boston eggheads can make even the faintest connection between Kinison, Clay, Goldthwait, et al, and bigorty and bloodshed, it is hardly a wonder that comedians of all stripes felt embattled, stifled, undervalued.

Unique among artists, the comedian is ajudged to harbor the very prejudices he seeks to destroy. Wes Craven is not thought to secretly want to dance around the corpse of a freshly killed innocent. Brett Easton Ellis writes “American Psycho” and it is said that he “imagintavely explores the incomprehensible depths of madness and captures the insanity of violence in our time.” No one would put forth the notion that Ellis secretly wants to saw off his ex-girlfriend’s head.

We see echoes of such anti-comedian bias frequently. And we see echoes of it in the Ithacan piece. Some might say we identify this bias a bit too frequently. However, if you’re at all familiar with the piece upon which the title of this post is somewhat facetiously based, you’ll know that we’re deadly serious about fending off any curtailment of our artistic freedom this time around.