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John Cleese will avoid colleges: He says they’re too politically correct for comedy

John Cleese at a book signing for “So Anyway…” at Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly neighborhood on Oct. 9, 2014. (Anthony Harvey/ Getty Images)

Another comedian has called out college campuses for being humorless. John Cleese, the actor and writer who elevated silliness to an art form with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “Fawlty Towers” along with movies and books and all sorts of things, said recently that he’s been warned not to perform on university campuses. The students are too apt to take offense instead of giggling.

Jerry Seinfeld avoids colleges. Chris Rock said students are too worried about offending people.

At the University of California at Berkeley, thousands of students signed a petition last winter to stop Bill Maher from delivering the commencement address, saying he is “a blatant racist and a bigot” because of remarks he made about Islam. (For example, “If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe – and they do – that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS. It has too much in common with ISIS.”) (He spoke anyway.)

Berkeley won’t let students cancel Bill Maher commencement speech

Cleese (whose website proclaims “Writer, Actor & Tall Person” and features a dead parrot along with a cartoon of one of his most famous Monty Python sketches, “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” in which he plays a bureaucrat in a bowler hat using grant funding to create ridiculous gaits) was quite serious when talking about political correctness.

The five surviving members of the comedy group “Monty Python” bid an emotional farewell in what they say will be their final ever performance together after more than 50 years. (Video: Reuters)

His remarks reflect a campus culture that has drawn international attention recently with protests over social issues and hate speech at many colleges, such as student efforts to stop honoring ardent segregationists Woodrow Wilson and John Calhoun at Princeton and Yale, or to respond more forcefully to racism and homophobia at the University of Missouri. Students earnestly worked to raise awareness about the damaging effect of bigoted words, jokes and theme parties.

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But those kinds of demonstrations amplified students’ calls for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” so they could avoid ideas that might be upsetting — and led to both concern and derision from free-speech advocates.

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Of course, plenty of students still love to laugh — and can laugh off an edgy joke. At George Washington University, a spokesman countered that the school is hosting a comedian next week — Adam Devine will play Lisner Auditorium, something students had pushed for  — and that tickets for Jon Stewart sold out in minutes.

At the University of Maryland, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah got a standing ovation this fall from thousands of students, according to the student newspaper, the Diamondback.  “The constant flow of laughter was broken up occasionally by a gasp or two as Noah walked the PC wire in a way that would make [Jon] Stewart proud, talking about issues such as police brutality and Oscar Pistorius with enough intelligence and emotion to make a point.

“… A long joke about being pulled over by a cop on one of his first trips to the United States had the right mix of satire and silliness to make the crowd laugh and think.” The Diamondback quoted Naitik Thanki, Student Entertainment Events’s comedy director: “The material was original, and even with the controversial stuff, the students accepted it. The jokes were good enough for that.”

A spokesman for the student-run group did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Book review: “So, Anyway …” a memoir by John Cleese

Nor did Cleese, through his talent agency. But in an interview with Big Think, Cleese spoke in defense of offense.

“I’m offended every day. For example, the British newspapers every day offend me with their laziness, their nastiness, and their inaccuracy, but I’m not going to expect someone to stop that happening; I just simply speak out about it.

“… And, of course, as a former chairman of the BBC One said, ‘There are some people who I would wish to offend.’ And I think there’s truth in that too.

“So the idea that you have to be protected from any kind of uncomfortable emotion is what I absolutely do not subscribe to.”

He mentioned working with a well-known psychiatrist in London, Robin Skynner, with whom he he wrote two books, and something Skynner had told him. “He said, ‘If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behavior.’ And when you’re around super-sensitive people, you cannot relax and be spontaneous because you have no idea what’s going to upset them next.

“And that’s why I’ve been warned recently don’t go to most university campuses because the political correctness has been taken from being a good idea, which is let’s not be mean in particular to people who are not able to look after themselves very well — that’s a good idea — to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual or group could be labeled cruel.

“And the whole point about humor, the whole point about comedy, and believe you me I thought about this, is that all comedy is critical. … All humor is critical. If you start to say, ‘We mustn’t; we mustn’t criticize or offend them,’ then humor is gone. With humor goes a sense of proportion. And then as far as I’m concerned, you’re living in ‘1984.’”

In an interview in Vulture in 2014, Chris Rock said he had stopped playing colleges because “they’re way too conservative.

“… Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody,” he explained. “Kids raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’  Or just ignoring race to a fault.

“You can’t say ‘the black kid over there.’ No, it’s ‘the guy with the red shoes.’ You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”

Seinfeld told ESPN’s “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” this summer, “I don’t play colleges.

“… I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’” He mentioned his teenage daughter telling her mom she was being sexist, and said, “They just want to use these words. ‘That’s racist.’ ‘That’s sexist.’ ‘That’s prejudiced.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.”

[Cue Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition" sketch, in which 16th-century cardinals “torture" a dear old lady with cushions when she says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about."]

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