Student organizers at Columbia University kicked comedian Nimesh Patel off the stage just 30 minutes into his set last week because they felt that his jokes were too offensive.
According to Yahoo, the school’s Asian American Alliance had invited Patel to perform at its annual charity showcase, titled “cultureSHOCK,” on November 30. During his set, he told a joke about how being gay can’t be a choice because “no one looks in the mirror and thinks, ‘This black thing is too easy; let me just add another thing to it’” — and it was reportedly deemed both homophobic and racist.
“Patel’s performance featured commentary on his experience living in a diverse area of New York City — including a joke about a gay black man in his neighborhood — which AAA officials deemed inappropriate,” states an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator, a student newspaper.
Patel has insisted that none of his jokes were offensive, but AAA is standing by its decision.
“Patel’s remarks ran counter to the inclusive spirit and integrity of cultureSHOCK and as such, the choice was made to invite him to leave,” the group stated on Facebook. “We acknowledge that discomfort and safety can coexist, however, the discomfort Patel caused was unproductive in this space.”
“We deeply apologize for inviting him in the first place,” the statement added.
Honestly? If I could sum up my thoughts on this in a single sentence, it would be: “Give me a f****** break.”
First of all, the joke itself was clearly not offensive. The entire point behind it was to convey the idea that the black and gay communities both face difficulties and oppression simply because they are members of those communities. That’s not an offensive joke by any means — in fact, it’s actually a progressive one. Unfortunately, these students have so completely lost their damn minds that they apparently just heard the words “gay” and “black” and their inner microaggression detectors went off, telling them that they must immediately move to stop the speech without actually putting any thought into why they needed to stop it.
Here’s the thing, though: Even if the joke were a little offensive — it clearly wasn’t, but even if it were — it would still have been the wrong move to force him off the stage. Why? Because it’s comedy, and sometimes, comedy gets to be a little offensive. As I’ve explained before, the standards of “acceptable” are different for comedy than they are for other forms of speech. This is something that should be obvious. Comedy, after all, is its own art form. That’s why we have a separate word for it, because it’s a separate thing. Think about it. Would you expect to hear the exact same thing whether you were going to hear a pastor deliver a sermon or going to see a standup comic perform a set? No, you wouldn’t, of course . . . because the two have different standards. This was a standup set, not inclusivity training, and these student leaders should have acted in accordance with those facts.
What’s more, it’s actually important for comedians to be allowed to be offensive sometimes — there’s a reason why that is one of the art’s standards. After all, one of the greatest things that comedy can do for us is make us laugh even when we’re faced with the truly terrible things in the world, which can lead us to feel better about them. If we make the mistake of sanitizing comedy to only mentions of gender-inclusive puppies and intersectional rainbows, we are going to miss out on its healing powers.
With comedy, offending people is going to happen. That’s because with comedy, it is actually impossible to know whether a joke is going to land until you tell it. When something is so strictly trial-and-error, it’s completely unavoidable that there is going to be some error. Comedians are sometimes going to tell some jokes that miss the mark. But the truth is, we shouldn’t be running out comedians for telling a distasteful joke any more than we should ban a baseball player who strikes out sometimes. That’s all part of the process of the art, and we need to make sure that they have the freedom to mess up a little sometimes — or else they might be so afraid they’ll stop telling jokes altogether.