The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion George Carlin loved colleges. Today, he wouldn’t even be welcome there.

George Carlin, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, arrives at the 15th American Comedy Awards at Universal City in Los Angeles in April 2001. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

While reading Kelly Carlin’s entertaining and enlightening new memoir, “A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up With George Carlin,” I was struck by something I hadn’t known about the famed stand-up comedian: he honed his edgier, post-Hippy-Dippy-Weatherman act not in the clubs and theaters he had grown accustomed to but on college campuses in the early 1970s.

“When Dad wasn’t on the road, he was in his office listening to albums, smoking weed … and working on new material,” Carlin writes. “It was something he now did with real fervor since he now had a new audience for it—college kids all across America.” I asked her over e-mail whether or not we would’ve seen the boundary-pushing jokester’s more critical work without these venues and she seemed almost confused by the question.

“Of course not,” she replied. “They gave him freedom. Before the change he felt he was entertaining the parents of the people he related to. It was a false self, doing material that wasn’t true to his own set of values. By 1969 he was already dying a slow death creatively. He knew there was an audience out there, they were listening to the music he did, smoking dope like him. They were the rock ‘n’ roll audiences.”

The sad irony today is that George Carlin’s “seven words” routine wouldn’t be about television anymore. It’d be about the college campuses he once toured. With the advent of cable TV and the Internet, the enfeebled FCC has given way to a new generation of censors: college kids. As Caitlin Flanagan recently noted in the Atlantic, the state of stand-up comedy on college campuses is increasingly dire. Writing from a convention where undergrads from all over the country congregate to determine how to spend their student activities fees, Flanagan finds an art form foundering on the rocks of political correctness.

“They wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free, comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student,” she writes. “They wanted comedy so thoroughly scrubbed of barb and aggression that if the most hypersensitive weirdo on campus mistakenly wandered into a performance, the words he would hear would fall on him like a soft rain, producing a gentle chuckle and encouraging him to toddle back to his dorm, tuck himself in, and commence a dreamless sleep—not text Mom and Dad that some monster had upset him with a joke.”

Flanagan highlights the work of Geoff King, one of the biggest acts on the campus comedy circuit, and notes some of the bits he performs at comedy clubs that he won’t do for students, such as jokes related to condom use and sex with David Copperfield. “Those jokes include observations about power and sex and even rape—and each, in its complicated way, addresses certain ugly and possibly immutable truths,” she writes. “But they are jokes, not lessons from the gender-studies classroom. Their first objective is to be funny, not to service any philosophical ideal.”

Nestled in Flanagan’s article is the idea that some of today’s students treat language as a form of violence. Comedians who make students uncomfortable with jokes they either don’t get or don’t approve of are considered to be contributing to an unsafe learning environment. The idea that speech that makes some people uncomfortable is akin to assault is one that Mick Hume (“Britain’s only libertarian Marxist newspaper columnist”) fleshes out more fully in his forceful new polemic, “Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

Hume recounts the efforts to get Bill Maher disinvited from Berkeley’s 2014 college commencement: “One of the organizers [of the movement to disinvite Maher] insisted, with the authentic voice of the free-speech fraud, that: ‘It’s not a matter of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate.’” Other implicit accusations of violence are leveled in the name of campus welfare: a debate at Oxford is called off because “such a debate would endanger the ‘mental safety’ of Oxford students and a feminist comedian is banned from Goldsmiths College because she isn’t sufficiently sensitive toward trans activists.

This sort of intolerance—this deliberate cocooning off from ideas that might provide offense on college campuses—can swing both ways. An incoming student at Duke University refused to read “Fun Home” because he considered its depiction of sexual activity to be “immoral.” The difference, of course, is that this unwilling individual isn’t trying to get the book banned from campus or using student-provided funds to prepare milquetoast entertainment for the childlike audiences who shuffle into college theaters.

Also writing in the Atlantic, sociologist Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff argue that far from helping students’ mental state, the atmosphere of censorship on college campuses is actively deleterious.

“This movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse,” they write. “But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.”

Will letting a few more risqué comedians on campus turn this trend around? Certainly not. But it might help those who have journeyed to our centers of learning remember that education often means leaving one’s comfort zone—experiencing new ideas in different ways. If you happen to get a chuckle in at the same time, well, what’s the harm?