Nathaniel Kublin | Brown University
From napkins to the Toyota Scion, fabric softener to marriage, and the American Dream to brunch, Millennials have been accused of killing many staples of American culture and life. The 20-something-year-olds that have become notorious for upheaving the norm of everyday life are the recipients of a lot of accusations, but one of the most common, especially on college campuses, is that they are killing comedy. Jerry Seinfeld notoriously said that college campuses and the people that inhabit them are too PC, and look for excuses to drop keywords like “sexist” and “racist.” Chris Rock, Lisa Lampanelli, and Larry the Cable guy, just to name a few, have all also gone on record attacking the college comedy scene as being too sensitive to allow for humor.
Looking back to the history of comedy, some of the most iconic comedians have pushed the boundaries of society. George Carlin criticized everything from Vietnam, to the FCC, to religion, to climate change, to Capitalism. Lenny Bruce, known for his brash and outspoken nature, discussed Jewishness, morality, patriotism, and much, much more. Def Comedy Jam provided a voice to black comics, who said things about black culture that were never presented before on such a public scale. Beginning first in the 1950s and 60’s, the standup comedy scene exploded in the ‘70’s and continued raging through society for a couple decades due to one reason: people voiced their complaints and laughed collectively about them.
The reason that college campuses are attacked by comedians is that they are often thought of as breeding grounds for censorship. Rather than pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, Millennials seem to be making fewer topics open for discourse.
Although, it's not as simple as that.
We are on the verge of another boom in comedy. SNL’s presentation of Trump and his associates have mainstream appeal, late night talk show hosts get nationwide attention for their politically-fueled monologues, and Netflix is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new comedy specials. These phenomena don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen because there is an audience for them. Just like comedians in the 1970s, people in the late 2010s aren’t content with how the world works, and they are turning to comedy as a catharsis and as a way to voice their discomfort.
The real difference between the generations of comedy is in how people are voicing their discontent. In the past, comedians made the most of the first amendment, having the freedom of speech act as the foundation for an era of comedy. People were saying things that have never been said aloud, despite being felt by many. In the modern era, freedom of speech is the issue. What was once a comedians best friend, the right to say anything is being exploited and manipulated by a very vocal minority to spread hate.
Nowadays, comedians need to be careful with their word choice. Rather than saying something provocative for the shock value, comedians need to reveal truths about society and commonalities between people. In the past, Carlin’s bit about the 7 words you can’t say on TV was what people needed to hear, but today, people need to be taught that just because you can say something doesn’t mean that you should.
Take Dave Chappelle as an example. A comedian that began his work in the early 90’s and starred in Chappelle’s Show in the early 2000’s, Chappelle came back into the spotlight when he released two new standup specials on Netflix in early 2017. Unfortunately, his grand return was met with some criticism after a series of joke about trans people, homosexuality, and the Bill Cosby allegations. When discussing Trump’s recent military ban on transgender people, Chappelle said, “If I was in ISIS in the trenches fighting against the United States and all of the sudden I see a man with a beard and big D-cups titties just rushing my foxhole and shit, I’d be horrified.” Chappelle’s transphobic remarks were a reminder to many that even comedy legends have the potential to cross the line. His jokes were seemingly grounded in ignorance and came off as aggressive and spiteful rather than understanding and enlightening.
Looking at a younger talent, Bo Burnham, a 27-year-old musical comedian, released the song “From God’s Perspective,” where he sings the song from the perspective of God himself. As if that alone didn’t set up the potential for disaster, he goes on to discuss rape in the song too. Rather than face intense backlash, Burnham wrote it in a way such that the audience could appreciate his understanding of the issue. The lyric goes, “You shouldn't abstain from rape just cause you think that I want you to/ You shouldn't rape cause rape is a fucked up thing to do/ (Pretty obvious, just don't fucking rape people. Didn't think I had to write that one down for you.)” It is fairly common knowledge in the mainstream now that rape culture is a toxic, but real thing and Burnham approaches it from the point of view that it is despicable, and that it is absurd that it still exists. Rather than going on and on about the topic of rape, he makes a specific comment that highlights the horrors of it in a way that is easy to follow, but also impactful in its intent.
People like Hassan Minaj, Nikki Glaser, Donald Glover, and Bo Burnham are examples of younger comedians that speak for their generation, and as Millennials get older, we will see the shift towards precise, intentional comedy become even more apparent. There are older comedians, like Sarah Silverman, John Oliver, and Jimmy Kimmel, who have adjusted with the times and can still find mainstream appeal. Even comedians over 50 are adjusting, with Ellen Degeneres, Judd Apatow, and Jon Stewart making public impacts. Comedy is ageless.
Mainstream culture is always evolving, and today’s culture is highly involved in dealing with problems with race, gender, sexuality, and identity as a whole. If comedians from another era cannot adjust to what people care about today, then maybe it isn’t the Millennials fault for not laughing.