In 2011, the well-known host of Comedy Central’s Tosh.0, Daniel Tosh, performed at the Mount Baker Theatre. While he landed a spot on Forbes’ list of top-earning comedians of 2013 with a net worth of $11 million, AS Productions Special Events didn’t invite him to perform at Western. One of the reasons being for offensive trends in his performances.
Western has seen an array of comedy acts on campus, whether it’s a popular comedian welcomed by AS Productions Special Events, Special Events’ Last Comic Standing, Open Mic Night in the Underground Coffeehouse or even club-hosted performances.
Standup comedy is often offensive in nature, but the question at hand is how the campus community may respond to these performances and if Associated Students programming offices have responsibilities to curb offensive humor in accordance with the organization’s values on inclusion.
Last month, Saturday Night Live’s newest cast member, Sasheer Zamata, was brought to campus by AS Productions Special Events. Special Events has a history of bringing popular comedians such as Nick Offerman and John Oliver. Besides comedy, the program also hosts the annual VU Late Night, dances, laser light shows, laser tag competitions and an array of other “special events.”
Special Events Coordinator Darioush Mansourzadeh felt that Zamata was a great pick for Western’s student body, given the quality of her work, her escalating career and the fact that there’s no controversy surrounding her comedy.
“Booking comedy is hard because you don’t want to offend people and a lot of stand up is offensive,” he said. “There are a lot of shock comedians out there who find humor in things that are offensive. I don’t like that kind of comedy and majority of Western students don’t find humor in those kinds of jokes.”
Casey Hayden, Student Activities Adviser and staff adviser to AS Productions, said that AS Productions has never booked a comedian who uses shock value.
“We just try to book comedians who will fit okay with our community,” he said.
Hayden elaborated on the process of inviting performers to campus, including musicians and artists. In the brainstorming phase, AS Productions staff comes up with names for possible guests based on its annual Taste Test Survey which canvases students’ choices in entertainment, as well as Facebook and surveys collected at AS Productions events. The coordinators then view material online see how an artist performs and their values. In some cases, the team may contact other campuses that have hosted a performer to gather how students reacted, ease of working with them and if there were any remaining concerns.
In 2009, Special Events and the AS Sexual Awareness Center brought Sue Johanson, a well-known comedic sex educator. However, one of the concerns with the event was that she mostly used hetero-normative examples, focusing on mainly relationships between a man and a woman.
While this may not have been as bafflingly offensive as other performances, it wasn’t inclusive of many sexual identities, which falls outside the AS’s values on inclusion, diversity and respect.
Another tier of Western’s comedy is Special Events’ Last Comic Standing which takes place every fall. Typically 12-15 student comedians compete for the top spot to open for a popular comedian later in the year.
Current S.U.C.K. [Stand Up Comedy Klub] President and three time Last Comic Standing participant Jake Foerg said that although Special Events staff don’t censor performances, the event’s judges critique the performances based on a comedian’s ability to remain tasteful instead of depending on shock value.
“It’s hard to know what you’re going to get because we don’t have their set beforehand,” Hayden said. “It’s a bigger risk as an event planner, but we do have a meeting with all comics beforehand where we talk about the judging criteria.”
Mansourzadeh said that at this year’s performance, he warned the participants not to tread too far into controversial content.
“If [Last Comic Standing participants] want to win, they should be appealing to the judges and appealing to the crowd, not offending them,” Hayden said.
Aiming for the win, student comedians may sometimes use offensive material to increase their appeal and take risks.
“Comedians think it’s important to stand out from the crowd, and they will flirt with that line of good taste sometimes. We encourage them not to offend anyone,” Hayden said.
The winning student from this fall’s Last Comic Standing, Isaac Sommers, was the opening act for Zamata. Seattle comedian Michael Malone also opened for Zamata on her March 12 performance.
“The audience doesn’t know anything about you. They only know your set. They only know what you’re putting in front of them. If you’re putting material that’s objectionable in front of them, they are going to think you’re an objectionable person. It’s a natural consequence of how things work,” Sommers said. Sommers graduated last quarter and is the outgoing vice president of S.U.C.K.
“I also generally try to stay away from a joke that makes me uncomfortable. Because if I’m uncomfortable saying it, or even thinking it, then I don’t want to share it,” Sommers said.
Many of the members of S.U.C.K. perform at Open Mic Night at the Underground Coffeehouse, also hosted by AS Productions.
“Open Mic is probably the toughest crowd because people aren’t ready to be offended,” said John Lee, member of S.U.C.K. and winner of Last Comic Standing 2012.
Before Mansourzadeh was special events coordinator, he remembers watching comedians make fun of sensitive issues and fall flat at Open Mic Night, while the nature of the event is often performers testing the waters.
Lee said that most performers usually find where the lines of offensive content lie while performing on stage.
“You would think the audience just sitting there in silence would be convincing enough to that person to net tell those jokes anymore. But that’s not always the case,” he said.
“At a S.U.C.K. show, people are ready for comedy and ready for whatever material. At Open Mic, it’s like, ‘I’m here to see my friend cover Jason Mraz.’ Then a comedian gets on, and they are shocked and didn’t expect that,” Lee said.
Hayden mentioned the AS has standards in regards to physical risk management, but it lacks regulations toward emotional risk management.
Foerg said the club has two topics members aren’t encouraged to delve into: rape and race. Any content that disparages a community isn’t encouraged for S.U.C.K. members. Though comedians may be able to delve into sensitive topics in an intelligent way and bring joy to the audience regarding the issue, instead of perpetuating stereotypes and relying on shock value, Foerg said.
“I use comedy as a way to deal with things in my life, and those things are dark. You can still use comedy to explore that subject, but not to insult people within whatever group you’re talking about,” Foerg said.
Foerg once made a joke about how he felt he was a bad person for accidentally killing a covey of quail with his car and had no regrets. After his performance, an audience member approached him and expressed disgust with the line. Lee said that using more “clean” humor limits the material a comedian is able to share, but the trade-off is an expanded audience.
“If you’re going to a S.U.C.K. show, that’s inherently implying that there will be some content that might be found objectionable by some people,” Lee said.
Foerg, Sommers and Lee all feel they understand where lines are drawn when performing their jokes. Foerg and Sommers said they can feel the atmosphere change when the audience is offended.
At a recent S.U.C.K. show, a member crossed the club’s boundaries into distasteful content, which resulted in them being dismissed from future performances until they can demonstrate an ability to remain respectful and demonstrate taste.
If a S.U.C.K. member were to disobey club standards and use blatantly offensive content in their routine, Foerg said he would “absolutely” intervene on stage. Though if a performer “bombs” during their routine, he said it’s the job of the event’s emcee to tell a few jokes in between comics to lighten the crowd moral.
“I would like our club to be represented in a certain light, and sometimes people don’t perform within that range of representation. I’m not going to subdue anyone’s voice because it does bring up the subject of freedom of speech,” Foerg said.
Foerg said that S.U.C.K. strives to provide a safe environment for its members and even students interested in checking out their meetings.
“We’re all comedians and understand that jokes bombing and not working out is all part of the process,” he said.