A student club at the University of London has reportedly demanded that the five comedians who are scheduled to perform at a January charity event sign a “safe space” contract before doing so.
The contract — titled “Behavioural Agreement Form” — made news after one of the comedians, Konstantin Kisin, tweeted about his disgust with it.
I just received an invitation to perform *comedy* at a university…
— Konstantin Kisin (@KonstantinKisin) December 10, 2018
The contract states that the event aims to provide a “safe space” for all who attend.
This contract has been written to ensure an environment where joy, love and and [sic] acceptance is reciprocated by all. By signing this contract, you are agreeing to our no tolerance policy with regards to racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.
Kisin told PJ Media that he originally “couldn’t believe” the contents of the contract.
“But then I remembered the Nimesh Patel story from last week and Jerry Seinfeld saying he doesn’t play colleges and it started to make sense,” Kisin said
“Comedy isn’t about being ‘kind’ and ‘respectful’ and the only people who get to decide what comedians talk about on stage are . . . comedians,” Kisin continued. “Comedy is supposed to push boundaries and challenge people and comedians should be free to mock religion, atheism and a whole load of other things,” he added.
I’m all for being nice, but Kisin is absolutely right. As I’ve written countless times before, the best thing about comedy is that it has the power to make us laugh about even the worst things in society. Unfortunately, a great way to ensure that this power is diminished is to make comedians afraid to address those tough things.
Now, to be fair, the contract does state that the policy “does not mean that these topics can not be discussed,” only that “it must be done in a respectful and non-abusive way” — but that really doesn’t provide a comedian with as much freedom as you might think. Comedy, after all, is about taking risks. A joke that works in front of one audience — even if it’s a little edgy — might seem too disrespectful in front of another audience. Comedians have to have the power to try out jokes and see if they work, and forbidding them from doing so makes just about as much sense as forbidding a baseball player from ever striking out. Does giving them this power mean it’s impossible to guarantee that a comedy show will be a “safe space”? Yes, it absolutely does, but do you know what? That’s part of the art, and that’s perfectly okay.
What’s more, given the modern environment on college campuses, you have to remember that these students might consider more things to be racist or sexist or whatever-ist than you might imagine. For example, multiple schools have launched campaigns against the phrase “you guys,” claiming that it generalizes all people as men, which is offensive to women. Combining that sort of culture with this sort of contract makes it far from inconceivable that a comedian could walk up there and say, “How are you doing, guys?” and immediately have his or her mic cut. It goes far beyond “you guys,” too. Other things that college kids or administrators have deemed to be offensive in the past few years include the phrase “long time no see” (deemed racist against Asians), saying “God bless you” (apparently a microaggression against Muslims), and not liking pumpkin-spice lattes (considered sexist against women).
Make no mistake: If you’ve been even kind of following what campus culture is becoming in both the United States and the United Kingdom, you’d probably be worried about being able to perform a stand-up set that could be guaranteed to perfectly comply with this contract — and that’s a real shame. Comedy used to be fun precisely because it’s a place where the normal rules of society don’t apply. It’s a place where you get to hear things that you might not get to hear somewhere else. I’m a firm believer that absolutely anything, no matter how awful, can be funny if it’s handled in the right ways — and we shouldn’t be taking away the freedom of comedians to try out material until they find out what those ways are.