Cue the lights. Actors dressed in all-black dart back and forth onstage as the audience members sit and watch sketch after sketch from the comedy group Chowdah. Loie Plautz, a Barnard senior and president of Chowdah, is commanding the stage, until they’re not.
“Dumb bitch.” The audience noticeably tenses up as a character onstage complains about his friend’s wife. Plautz, playing the friend, responds, “Hey, don’t talk about my dumb bitch wife like that.” The audience collectively breathes a sigh of relief. This subversion of a stereotype or trope, in an attempt to dismantle a preconception or an existing structure, is central to the comedy work that Chowdah does on campus. Plautz describes this as “punching up.” This joke flips the dynamic on its head and mocks the offensive use of “bitch” to describe someone’s wife. The concept of “punching up” comes up again and again as I speak to student leaders in the comedy scene across campus.
If you search “Columbia University comedy,” you’ll find pages and pages of op-eds and articles detailing the perceived sensitive nature of Columbia students and the “P.C. culture” that dominates this urban, liberal campus. What you won’t find immediately are the dozens of student leaders and comedy groups on campus who work to shape and define comedy at Columbia. But student leaders are split on not only what comedy should be, but also the way others respond to it on campus. Despite the overly sensitive reputation of Columbia students, the diversity of thought among students and student leaders regarding comedy on campus contradicts this perception. There is no uniform consensus and certainly not one that falls in line with what these front-page articles are claiming.
At the end of last fall, the Columbia University Asian American Alliance invited Nimesh Patel, a comedian and writer on Saturday Night Live, to perform at its annual event, “cultureSHOCK.” The event was designed to celebrate Asian-American identities and promote unity. During Patel’s set, organizers went onstage and asked Patel to leave. An op-ed written by the group’s former president described the way Patel’s performance was demeaning to members of the audience.
I sit down with Kyoko Hirose, a Columbia College sophomore, and Arwa Adib, a Barnard sophomore, two organizers of the event, for a long discussion about the night and their public interaction with comedy on campus. Adib tells me the comedy routine was concerning from the moment the show began.
“[Patel] steps on and he immediately refers to women as bitches and we're like, ‘Oh, what is going on here?’” she remembers. “We were texting our friends in the audience to gauge how they felt in the beginning—people really did laugh. They really did enjoy it. But then after a while, there were a lot of characteristics and mannerisms to his humor that was like, this is not what we're [Asian American Alliance] aligned with.”
Hundreds of op-eds and tweets followed from people like Mike Cernovich and Clyde Haberman, among many others, lamenting how sensitive Columbia students are. There was, once again, a national outcry that Columbia students do not understand how to enjoy comedy.
Plautz says this perception of Columbia students simply isn’t true. They tell me that they dislike Chowdah being grouped in with the trope that politically correct culture is limiting comedy on college campuses, because they see Chowdah’s comedy as boundless. The group is constantly receiving feedback from its audiences and learning from those criticisms. For Plautz, the most important thing is learning from people calling you out, and knowing that the more people reviewing the joke, the better the effort is in ensuring as many perspectives as possible are accounted for.
This subversion of the typical power structure is what Plautz says punching up is supposed to do. They tell me, "We can play with that tension when you can also nod to the audience. Like, don't worry, were making fun of this asshole position.”
Hirose tells me, although not in those exact terms, that Patel failed to “punch up” and instead targeted disenfranchised groups as the punchline of his routine. “It's one thing to make fun of yourself and the stereotypes that you experienced through satire, and through being sarcastic or playing into them. It's another thing to target a group that is more marginalized than yourself.”
Amy Mueller and Marco Balestri, Columbia College sophomores and co-presidents of Columbia University Sketch Show, an online comedy sketch group, described how their comedy aims to dismantle the power structures put into place at Columbia and in society at large. When writing their jokes, they tell me they take into account who the joke might offend or target.
Most of CUSS’s comedy is absurdist, intended to make people laugh when they’re working on that last problem set in Butler late on a Sunday night. Mueller described one sketch that CUSS previously produced, in which students are trying to complete an interview but continuously fall down the stairs, toppling over one another.
CUSS has its own unique way of flagging content that might be offensive or harmful; during meetings, in which writers and staffers go over and read the pitches, they can yell out “DangerCuss”—code for saying that the pitch contained offensive material they should consider cutting. However, the co-presidents admit that this code is hardly ever used.
Mueller described the only time that she had heard the phrase used since joining freshman year, saying that the issue was addressed and then resolved immediately as the writer agreed instantly to writing a different, less inflammatory line.
Jacob Kaplan, a junior in Columbia College and president of Third Wheel Improv as well as a writer for this year’s Varsity Show, expresses the difficulties he’s faced writing comedy on Columbia’s campus.
Kaplan believes the intention of a joke must be taken into account before a joke can be deemed offensive. He remembers one year when the Varsity Show was trying to critique the way that Columbia’s administration handles mental health on campus by depicting the office staff as incompetent; to do so, the writers wrote a song about Counseling and Psychological Services and mental health. However, comments on a review of the show accused the writers of making light about the mental health crisis on campus, despite the song’s comedic intention of mocking the structure that they felt perpetuates it.
Kaplan is also a member of the Columbia Kingsmen, an acapella group, and says that people often jump to conclusions about the promotional event flyers the group hangs up across campus. The neon posters can be seen all over campus promoting the group’s satirical and often controversial humour. Kaplan describes one instance in particular, in which he was putting up flyers in Carman Hall that said that the Kingsmen were “the worst thing to happen to intersectional feminism since Taylor Swift.”
According to Kaplan, it’s not rare for Columbia students to criticize Kingsmen’s posters, tear them down, or even scribble across them. But he believes that if people took the time to think about them, they would see that the intention is not to reinforce sexist perceptions in society, but to mock those who oppress others.
Kaplan, unlike Plautz, Mueller, and Balestri, believes that your identity and your experiences should not determine what jokes you tell—as long as you are doing it in a way that dismantles a social hierarchy.
“I think that you can say anything,” he says. “I think you also have to be prepared for the consequences of saying whatever that thing is.”
But Adib tells me that your identity is central to the jokes you can and can’t tell. She says that one of the fundamental issues with Patel’s routine was that he was using another’s personal experience as his own punchline, without having lived it. “I think the biggest issue that I personally had was that he was kind of harping on the black experience, and trying to relate that to himself as an Asian American, where it's like, yes, there is solidarity within communities of color, but … there's also a distinct difference.”
Alex White, a sophomore in SEAS, and Dallas Koelling, a junior in Columbia College, the co-presidents of Memento Mori and also stand-up comedians, say that when it comes to the intersection of identity and comedy, the line can be blurry.
When I walk into the crypt space in St. Paul's Cathedral, known as Postcrypt, I am greeted by the sound of the Jonas Brothers song “S.O.S.” blaring through the speakers—not exactly what you’d expect when you walk through the doors of a church.
This is Memento Mori: a club on campus that hosts performances by stand-up comedians once a week. As I sit down, students continue to shuffle in until the seats in this tiny underground space are full. Then, White and Koelling take the stage. The music changes from early 2000s Disney pop hits to something instrumental that vaguely resembles game show music. White and Koelling begin their pre-show banter and welcome everyone to this space. They riff off one another for about five minutes, warming the audience up to the space before calling on the first of their several comedians for the night.
“If you're being funny, you can kind of say anything you want. It's like when comedians cross the line, it's also when they're bombing,” Koelling tells me. “You forget that it's supposed to be funny so you only feel offended.” For Koelling, the ability to tell a controversial joke without receiving backlash is directly proportional to the success of its landing.
But they do try to steer clear of political or controversial issues, emphasizing that the show never has a political theme. White says, “We steered clear of material, plotlines, things that would get us in trouble.” Instead, they stick to absurdist or non-confrontational topics, making light of living with gluten allergies, or a doing routine centering around a hair emporium and its marketing strategies.
The Columbia Marching Band, on the other hand, is no stranger to controversy surrounding its comedy. When I sit down to speak with members of the band, I am aware of its long history dealing with angry Columbia students or a disgruntled administration due to the political and often antagonistic nature of its jokes. The members tell me they’re working to change that.
Matt Coulson, a junior in General Studies and spirit manager of the band tells me that some of the band’s past members knew that their jokes were inappropriate, but would tell them anyway, regardless of the backlash they might receive. “It's a reputation we as an organization have to deal with consistently.”
Recently, CUMB added three designated rehearsals for Orgo Night with all the band members in which dozens of eyes will view the script in order to catch anything offensive or controversial. There has also been a shift in terms of the goals for its comedy.
Coulson defines this shift as a move from telling a controversial joke for the sake of being controversial to instead using humor to make a real impact.
Maria Pondikos, a Barnard first-year referred to as “minister of propaganda”—describes a poster CUMB made of George H.W. Bush criticizing him for the way his administration handled the AIDS epidemic. The band hasn’t shied away from these controversial topics in the past, covering everything from BDS to mental health. However, some people on campus assumed the intention of the poster was to poke fun at the AIDS crisis itself, reacting by tearing down posters and writing “Do Better” in bold lettering across them.
This criticism comes from both sides of the political spectrum. During one Orgo Night, the band made a joke in response to the recent rise of white supremacist groups in the United States by sarcastically stating that the only way to shut up Nazis was to punch them. After the joke, the crowd erupted into cheers. But when the joke caught the attention of several far-right media outlets, they claimed that the band was inciting violence.
But Coulson says that CUMB’s comedy is trying to encourage audience members to interrogate controversial topics, rather than mock sensitive issues.
Recently, the band made a joke at Orgo Night about the doctor at the Columbia University Medical Center accused of sexual assault: “Seventeen women are suing Columbia for protecting gynecologist Robert Hadden for 20 years even though they knew he was less ‘expert on the female gender’ and more ‘sex offender.’ Despite knowing he was guilty, Columbia hid his record like a thumbtack in Ferris potatoes. We haven’t seen such blatant disrespect for human dignity since Jeff Bezos bulldozed public housing in Queens to make room for his helipad.”
Josh Tate, a Columbia College first-year and “personnel manager” of the band, tells me this joke intends not to laugh at the victims of sexual assault, but rather, to unearth the failure of Columbia to address these crimes.
This shift in culture is something that even those outside of the comedy world has noticed. As Adib says, “Call it snowflake culture if you want. I see it as us reclaiming our stage and reclaiming our show.”
When I ask White and Koelling how they respond to the claim that college students are too sensitive for comedy, White tells me that he doesn’t think that this shift in campus culture “means that comedy is dead.”
“Your comedy should be current and part of current culture…” he says. “Where we're headed is towards a place of inclusivity and towards smarter jokes.”
Enjoy leafing through our eighth issue!