Sara Schaefer performs at Notre Dame.
Photo: Legends of Notre Dame Nightclub/Courtesy of Sara Schaefer
A few years ago, some of our comedy heroes began grumbling that a college campus is a terrible place to perform. Chris Rock told an interviewer that performing stand-up at a college is “not as much fun as it used to be,” and Jerry Seinfeld said he avoids playing at colleges because “They’re so PC.” As is the norm in today’s culture wars, political pundits calcified these passing thoughts into the hard proof they needed to argue that yes, modern college students, as a whole, are fragile snowflakes in need of safe spaces, hell-bent on ruining comedy (and freedom itself). I disagree.
When this conversation ignited, I had just started performing heavily at colleges. By the end of this year, I will have performed at over 50 campuses across almost all 50 states. I’ve done big state schools with 30,000 students and tiny schools with only several hundred. I’ve performed for city kids, farmer kids, special-needs students, science nerds, and jocks. One time, a school insisted on dramatically raising me up out of an orchestra pit through a cloud of smoke, after which I absolutely killed for an hour to one of the best audiences I’ve ever had. Another time, it was just me in an almost empty student lounge trying to shout over the blaring TVs (because the moody student assigned to me “didn’t know” how to turn them off). I’ve pretty much seen it all at this point.
When I started performing at colleges, I’d heard rumors that performing for these overly sensitive thought cops was going to force me to water down my material. But that’s not what happened. On my travels, I’ve observed that yes, students are sensitive, but not in the way the free-speech warriors might have you think. When I started touring universities, my first impression was not Wow, these softies can’t take a joke! It was Oh dear God, they are so young! When campuses provide free entertainment for students, it usually attracts the first- or second-year students, who aren’t old enough to drink and definitely don’t know where the lit off-campus parties are. Some of them are only 17. A lot of them are virgins.
For many of my student audience members, it’s the first time they’ve seen comedy in person. It is actually kind of scary for them: What is this strange adult woman going to do? Is she going to point me out and embarrass me in front of my hallmates? Live comedy is intimate and raw. Even the words “intimate” and “raw” make 18-year-olds uncomfortable. A comedian who wants to have fun performing on campus should be ready for this awkwardness and use it to their advantage. I have never had to “water down” my material (and almost never been asked by a school to refrain from certain types of jokes), but I have adjusted my set to feel more connected to this young audience.
There are some who assert that a comedian should never adapt to their audience, as if a comedian is a steel column of jokes immovable by the fickle tastes of the crowd. There are certainly comedians who come to the stage ready for combat. But even for those types, each time they perform, the audience will be different, and even the same room will have a different vibe from one show to the next. Every comedian adjusts to the circumstances, and a skilled comedian has enough material to not panic if they suddenly realize that their chunk on Whole Foods isn’t playing to the Walmart crowd in rural Idaho. It’s part of what makes live comedy so compelling to watch: How will this comedian connect with this particular crowd in this particular moment? How will they lasso the present and unite a room of strangers?
Now, I must concede that I am not the type of comedian who goes out onstage intentionally trying to offend. I can imagine college shows could be difficult for that type of comic. But I do wonder if that is the result of “PC culture” or just simply the nature of youth. “The line” — that boundary of acceptable language — has been moving for all of history, and, whether you think this is a bad thing or not, young adults are hyperaware of it. For today’s students, the world is different from the one that existed when I attended school. (For instance, when I was in school, I never once worried about being shot in a classroom.) They are operating in a new normal, with a new vocabulary. They aren’t as shocked by someone coming out as transgender as an older generation would be, so perhaps what a comedian might consider an edgy, shocking joke about gender just doesn’t even register that way for them — and yes, it might come off as offensive, or more likely, simply out of touch. There is some comedy that transcends time, but a whole lot of it is reliant on context, and you can’t play with your audience’s expectations if you don’t know who they are.
Performing at colleges has made me a better comedian. I am more nimble, focused, and far better equipped to handle the hypersensitive adult audiences I’ve been encountering in Trump’s America. Ironically enough, the most offended people at my shows these days are usually older white dudes who are angry I made a joke about men.