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What I learned from teaching a standup comedy class to college students

Comedy is often found in a broken pattern.


Cece Lederer


Posted on Sep 12, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 12:02 am CDT

In June, Jerry Seinfeld caught heat for saying that comedians don’t like to perform at colleges because the institutions are too politically correct.

This summer, I spent a week at my alma mater, Williams College, teaching a weeklong workshop in standup comedy. With his words ringing in my head, I started class.

The first thing I did after asking students about their favorite comedians—a list that favored the relatively soft Robin Williams accompanied by the occasional “I don’t really watch standup”—was ask them for a story. I figured, even if classic Catskills-style joke-telling isn’t for everyone, something funny happened to them.

They were downright petrified of being offensive, especially when it came to talking about gender, sexuality, and dating. And I was surprised to find that a white male was most worried about potentially offending his audience.

He told a story about being cast in a co-ed play while attending a boys’ school, and asking a girl out. It’s a funny and relatable story about teen anxiety and how much it hurts when someone lets you down easy. The problem was, the storyteller was afraid of admitting he had sexual desire for this girl.

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We talked long about this hesitance and I’m not sure he would have believed me if I’d been a man telling him it was OK for him to have sexual desire. It was as if he needed permission from a woman to acknowledge his heterosexuality. He didn’t want to offend anyone because he didn’t want to be the sort of person who had offensive beliefs. It wasn’t that he was afraid of being labeled a misogynist just because he wanted a date with a girl—he was afraid his desire actually made him one.

Each day in class, this student told the story again and again. As we workshopped it, he found the confidence in its humor and in his right to be himself and tell the honest truth on stage. But from now on, when I hear someone say that political correctness doesn’t affect comedy, I will think of this funny story I almost never heard.

Standup comedy is a powerful art because there is no barrier between the artist and the audience. We laugh when we feel a connection with or relate to the person speaking, whether it’s a friend or a paid professional with sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden.

The antagonism between artists who work in the medium of honesty and audiences who want to make the world a better place is the perfect war for the Internet. The mob mentality allows factions to fight each other without having to listen to opponents. The secondhand information gleaned from 140-character retweets of something someone else is pissed about is all that’s needed to open the floodgates for an outpouring of the perfectly reasonable surfeit of rage felt by those who don’t enjoy living in a world where date rape is a frat ritual and black lives mattering is up for debate.

In a 2014 Vulture interview, Chris Rock told Frank Rich:

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, ‘Oh, I went too far,’ and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

Internet visibility of artists has created a backlash against the medium. Now instead of just telling a joke or slamming a heckler live, the comic can go online and tell their audience why they are wrong for not laughing. Audiences and performers are often at each other’s throats because the focus has moved away from communicating with and relating to each other and towards defensiveness and alienation.

A recent example of a comedian being taken down for working through an honest thought and turning it into a joke took place on Conan last month. Bill Burr was slammed as “hateful” and “transphobic” for his observation on Caitlyn Jenner: “You shave your beard off, people are like, ‘Oh my god, that’s your chin, wow.’ This guy walked out a dude, came back a woman, and you’re just supposed to be like, ‘Oh yeah, so anyways, Caitlyn, what I was saying….”

The hate and violence transgender people face isn’t funny, but in no way is Burr saying that it is.

Comedy is often found in a broken pattern. That minor cosmetic alterations like haircuts and weight gain are acceptable observations while the radical change of switching genders is off limits is funny. What’s happening when Burr talks about Jenner isn’t an attack on her. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent cisgender human being doing the work of understanding what it means to be trans.

Even when Burr slips and uses “he” rather than “she” and has to correct himself (“They really freak out about the pronouns,” he adds), he isn’t condemning or shaming Jenner. He isn’t saying she doesn’t have a right to live as female. Burr misspoke, acknowledged his mistake, and corrected it.

Attacking a comedian for something like this does more harm than good to equality and acceptance because it discourages people from thinking through their preconceived notions.

It’s a conversational medium. The performer succeeds when the audience feels they have been let inside the comedian’s mind. They tell and revise their jokes and stories again and again, looking for the moments that resonate with the audience. And they know what does or doesn’t. We’ll laugh or we won’t.

A comedian doesn’t need a Twitter horde to tell them their racist joke isn’t funny, or another telling those tweeters to STFU. They feel it in their bones when the look out at the silent scowls of the unamused.

Angry audiences like to claim that there are certain topics that are just not funny. This is empirically untrue. Anything that has ever caused the involuntary physical response of laughter has had power because the person laughing found it funny. That means on some level it is funny, even if only to assholes.

In the fight against hate, we are so eager to break down the doors of intolerance that sometimes we just start smashing whatever’s nearby. We see someone getting joy from a subject that doesn’t make us laugh and we want to attack that person for making us feel marginalized.

College kids are at a point where they’re deciding what to do with their lives. It’s a place of lofty goals and self-importance. A name makes it into the headlines associated with something approximating intolerance and people join the attack to feel like they are making a difference. They wield their pitchforks in the name of goodness, and think hashtags make the world a better place.

Caitlin Sullivan, director of the Williams College Summer Theater Lab, told me she’d overheard two students saying they thought standup “was just an excuse for ignorant asshole dudes to say mean shit.” I think that notion came from their prior experience of the medium: hearing about the celebrities off stage with very little exposure to the art itself.

Over the course of the class, these two young women struggled with the same thing. They talked fast, like they wanted to just hurry up and get off the stage, and they apologized a lot. A lot. It seemed to me they didn’t feel they had the right to be up there, saying whatever they thought was funny.

We’re all familiar with the wildly misogynist assertion that women can’t be funny, least of all pretty women. This rage-making claim has encouraged lots of great ladies to go out and be funny in public, but the less fortunate side effect is that it has made a lot of ladies afraid of not being funny.

For the first time, I could see why a co-ed would go online to rail against men who make bad jokes about socially relevant subjects. They felt ill equipped for or unwelcome in comedy, but instead of wanting to break down the walls keeping them out, they want to take down what’s behind those walls.

I don’t know that these two individuals ever tweeted anger at “ignorant asshole dudes” for their “mean shit,” but I certainly could see why they might want to and why doing so might make them or those like them feel less oppressed by the schmucks who’ve grown up thinking their shit is so hot that everyone will want to listen to whatever nonsense they feel like shouting at an audience.

Daniel Tosh, you know who you are.

After the class, I asked the students if they had anything further to say. One of the women wrote me, saying:

I’m guessing you may have already written things about how much women are or are not encouraged to speak, and how that manifests itself in standup. [We] were both very much impacted by what you said about having the same right to ‘tell long drawn-out stories.’ It’s just such a true way to put it. Ever since that day we’ve noticed more and more how we both apologize and speak quickly a lot, and we’ve attempted to correct it, not in a bad or punishing way, but in a kind way. I’ve become so much more aware of how my voice and others’ voices sound when telling stories. I always get all squeamish about ‘gendering’ things or whatever, but thinking about all of this has been very illuminating and helpful for me.

These women were fucking hilarious, but standup is a process. You throw a bunch of shit against a wall again and again and see what sticks. And it won’t all stick.

It isn’t that audiences are too sensitive or don’t have a sense of humor, rather that people who believe in racial equality, gender neutrality, and general non-violent kindness feel adrift in a sea of racists, rapists, and Goldman Sachs executives.

I say, let the rape jokes flow like wine. The laughs will let know if you’re funny, not the comments.

Illustration by Max Fleishman 

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*First Published: Sep 12, 2015, 10:00 am CDT