Comedians, Professors, and Changing Audience Expectations

by Neil H. Buchanan

Even before Roseanne Barr's spectacular flame-out this week, I had been planning to write a piece about the unfairness purportedly suffered by entertainers who must navigate the ever-changing terrain of audience expectations.  With Barr's bizarre career suicide and after-death whining about her supposedly unfair treatment at the hands of Hollywood liberals, the timing could not be better.

A bit more than a month ago, I wrote a series of columns (one on Verdict and two here on Dorf on Law) in which I discussed the controversies that were then brewing about the successful reboot of Barr's 1990's TV sitcom as well as the offensive response by the creators of "The Simpsons" to complaints about their offensive "brownface" stereotyping of South Asians through the character Apu.

One of my themes in those columns was that entertainers should shut up about their audiences' supposed touchiness and try to write better jokes.  In one column, I noted that the actor who voices Apu actually stars in a sitcom in which a South Asian actor not only is treated as a fully human being but in which the writers brilliantly and hilariously mock casual white racism.  The humor in "Brockmire" is so raw (especially about sex) that the show will never go mainstream, but the show proves that it is possible to be funny without being racist -- and even to be funny about racism.

Even so, I want to use the rest of my column today to think about a passing comment that I made in my April Verdict column.  Within my discussion about changing audience expectations -- with, say, jokes about buck-toothed "orientals" going from mainstream to unthinkable over time -- I confidently wrote this sentence: "Walking this line is surely awkward and frustrating for artists, but that is the profession they have chosen."

Easy for me to say, right?  Should I have been more empathetic?  Maybe, but ultimately, I am willing to hold myself to the same standard.

Back when I was an economics professor, my introduction to macroeconomics course naturally included a discussion about unemployment.  Using what was in no way a unique approach, I would begin by discussing the various consequences of unemployment that have been identified and quantified by researchers.  In addition to lost economic productivity, my list included increases in "crime," "suicide," "spousal and child abuse," and other social ills.

During the year that I was a visiting professor at Barnard College, I was surprised when one of my star students angrily stopped me at that point and said, "Spousal and child abuse are crimes!"  I responded, "Yes, they are.  I was referring to crimes like robbery, murder, and so on.  What is your point?"  "Well, you're saying that there is 'crime' and there is 'spousal and child abuse,' which says that they are not the same."  "I see.  Would it be better if I said, 'Crime, including property crimes and violent crimes such as murder and spousal and child abuse'?"  "Yes, that would be better."

This was 1997, and I had already taught that course more than a dozen times in my career, but that was the first time that anyone had objected to my framing of that set of problems.  I could have responded by saying, "I'm so tired of people policing my word choices!  If you want to read ill intent into my failure to word this exactly as you'd like me to word things, too bad for you.  I have better things to worry about."

Indeed, given the relative aggressiveness of that student's challenge to me, it would have been easy (and, to be honest with myself, not completely out of character) to dig in my heels and become defiant and contrary.  But the fact was that she was right, and her suggested change most definitely framed the issues in a way that improved what I was trying to teach.  I have never forgotten that incident, because it so easily could have gone badly.  I certainly have seen professors handle such things in ways that needlessly created problems.

But how is this analogous to "The Simpsons" or any of the multitude of comedians who are complaining about "political correctness"?  In the end, professors are entertainers, too.  We are trying to gain and hold the attention of an audience, and even though that audience is in some sense captive, we do face a bleak future if our audience deems us to be unacceptable.

I am one of those professors who fancies himself not merely to be a competent performer in the strictest sense of that term -- performing my job adequately -- but as actually entertaining in some nontrivial sense.  I admit that I am probably fooling myself, but when one teaches tax law (or, as above, economics), even a few relatively failed attempts at humor can go a long way.

And even in the context of a law classroom, the nature of the joking must change over time.  One of the more memorable cases in my basic income taxation class involves a tawdry story about beautiful twin sisters who each become sexually involved with a rich old man who gives them large sums of money while professing his love for both of them.  The appellate court that wrote the opinion (addressing the question of whether the money counted as gifts or income to the sisters, who were wrongly imprisoned for criminal tax evasion) revels in the details of the sexual aspects of the relationship, using plenty of arched-eyebrow word choices (describing evidence as "scanty") and obviously having a good time while writing an opinion that was needlessly long and detailed.

In the fifteen years that I have been teaching that case, students have always found it to be giggle-inducing and fun.  Even so, the way I teach the class has changed over time, as it must.  Only a few years ago, I channeled Michael Scott from "The Office" by responding to a student's inadvertently loaded comment with, "That's what she said!"  Even though no one complained, I would never do that today.  Making fun of a situation that people now more readily understand as troubling and exploitative no longer makes sense, and professors must adapt.

I am not saying that I am now dour and refuse to acknowledge the uniquely lascivious nature of that case, of course.  My point is simply that the way that I deal with issues of sex has changed, just as professors have changed the way they talk about race, homosexuality, and other issues.  It is not a matter of being bullied by some imagined Thought Police but simply of trying to engage with my students/audience in a way that will actually advance the ultimate goal of teaching them (which necessarily involves keeping them awake).

I do, of course, have the advantage of tenure, which is not available in the original "gig economy" of actors, comedians, musicians, writers, and so on.  But even with tenure, it makes no sense for me to be unwilling to adjust my teaching as time passes.  Those who do refuse to change are generally free to piss off their students, but (as one of my first-year professors in law school discovered, as he continued to make sexist comments in class) their students are free to complain to deans and other professors and to confront the professor directly.  Even retreating to a completely bland style has its costs.  (If I had to "play it straight" in class every day, I would go crazy.)

And if I did not have tenure, I would be even more likely to respond to the changing expectations of the people who ultimately pay my bills.  If I decide to respond to those changes by complaining about them — but my students still for some reason decide to pay me while I tell them that they are too touchy — then that is a neat trick.  On the other hand, I can decide to figure out what my audience actually wants now, and adapt my behavior to it.

Big-name comedians, however, have complained bitterly about changing expectations.  Apparently, some of them have decided to stop doing stand-up shows on college campuses.  (I am not going to check the internet, but my recollection over the last ten or fifteen years is that people like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have at least hinted that they have "had enough" with college shows.)  They are free to do so, of course, which opens the door for other comedians who are willing to do what comedians have always done -- figure out what an audience thinks is funny and then try to make a living from it.

When Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer on "Seinfeld") self-immolated a number of years ago in a racist tirade that was caught on (then-uncommon) audience video, much of the talk by other comedians was about how "difficult" it had become to workshop their material without being assailed by oh-so-touchy audience members who failed to understand the comedic process.  How that was relevant to Richards's rant was a mystery, but the sense of victimhood on the part of comedians (including Jon Stewart, who complained about that supposed problem on his show) was palpable.

It is not literally true that no one likes change, of course, but even people who consider themselves to be quite edgy can be put off by unexpectedly hostile responses and new circumstances.  I understand why that is an uncomfortable feeling, and I do sympathize up to a point.  If I had to significantly (and frequently) change the way I do my job because of changes that I do not fully understand (or, as I suspect is the case with many of these comedians, because of changes in attitudes that they affirmatively reject), that would be annoying or worse.  But no career is guaranteed, and people who try to make money by guessing what other people will find entertaining enough to justify a ticket purchase (or a video subscription) should be the last ones to be offended when audience tastes change.

Of course, this brings us back to Roseanne Barr, who predictably complains about so-called political correctness.  It is notable that the political right in this country tries to pretend that the problem with political correctness is blurry lines, such as the idea that "no one can keep up with whether 'Indian' or ‘Native American' is currently acceptable, or why we now talk about 'little people' rather than midgets and dwarfs," yet people like Barr are nowhere near those gray areas.  Likening African-Americans to apes has been offensive for quite some time, and it is miles away from the hard-to-define line of acceptability.

One of the best pieces that I have read about the falseness of the political correctness trope was written by Professor Dorf on this blog last May.  I recommend it in its entirety.  More recently, The New York Times published an excellent op-ed this week by Lindy West, the key paragraph of which reads:
"The term 'political correctness' (much like the slimy 'pro-life') is a right-wing neologism, a tactical bending of reality, an attempt to colonize the playing field, a bluff to lure dupes into dignifying propaganda. True to form, the credulous left adopted it wholesale in the early ’90s, electively embroiling us in three decades of bad-faith 'debate' over whether discouraging white people from using racial slurs constitutes government censorship. Of course it doesn’t. Debate over. Treating anti-P.C. arguments as anything but a shell game props up the lie that it is somehow unfair to identify and point out racism, let alone fight to eradicate it. Pointing out and fighting to eradicate racism is how we build the racism-free world that all but racists profess to want."
(Note especially her description of the role of the "credulous left."  There is much more to be written about that subject, and I plan to get to it soon.)

In this context, grousing by comedians is a sideshow, but not a minor one.  No one has an inalienable right to make a living as a comedian, a screenwriter, or a professor.  There are ways in which losing one's living can feel abrupt and unfair, but especially in the entertainment "industry," blaming one's audience is not just cheap but self-defeating.

Plenty of wannabe entertainers complain that "people just don't get me," and they are right.  That is why they are not being paid to entertain.  And if some once-successful people are no longer being paid to do so because people no longer want to hear "jokes" about people who are at long last becoming empowered, then the market has spoken.  Is that not capitalism at its best?