“Millennials Can’t Take a Joke” Is the New “Millennials Are Lazy”

Sometime in the last couple years, the generation gap thinkpiece entered a new stage in its evolution. Baby boomers, and even a few senior statesmen of Generation X, are still vocally displeased with their successors. But since 2013, the case against snake people has shifted from an economic argument — We’re lazy! We’re entitled! We’re responsible for the impact of the recession on our futures! — to a cultural one. And over at The AtlanticCaitlin Flanagan has delivered as explicit a case against the snake person sensibility we’ve seen yet.

Ostensibly, “That’s Not Funny!” is about the “censorship” of stand-up comedy on American college campuses, long an important source of income and exposure for performers trying to establish themselves. Flanagan immediately hamstrings her own argument, however, by fueling it with anecdotal evidence from a single weekend spent at the National Association for Campus Activities’ annual convention in Minneapolis. Given that Flanagan clearly had a preconceived notion of campus culture and its Stalinist tendencies before she arrived, however, even the scant evidence she offers is almost irrelevant.

Flanagan asserts that the students responsible for booking stand-up acts are using their buying power to silence performers who don’t share their militantly progressive beliefs. These innocent dupes of the social justice party line, Flanagan believes, are inadvertently repressing free speech in the name of tolerance. Her one-sentence summary of the dystopia we’ve found ourselves in? “As I listened to the kids hash out whom to invite, it became clear that to get work, a comic had to be at once funny — genuinely funny — and also deeply respectful of a particular set of beliefs.”

It might be worth debating whether this nightmare scenario is really all that nightmarish if Flanagan backed up her statements with, well, facts. She makes unprovable statements like “comics who even gestured toward the insensitive had been screened out [prior to the convention]” — if Flanagan knows any “insensitive” comics who were turned down from the talent showcase, she leaves this out — and some not-so-slightly racist ones: performers “whose racial or ethnic background contributed to the diversity of the slate had been given special consideration.” Does Flanagan know the ethnic makeup of the applicant pool? Does she know any white comics she considers more talented who were turned away? What’s logic when you can play off affirmative action panic?

Flanagan gets a few bookers to admit they didn’t hire an Asian-American comic whose act includes a song “about the close relationship that can develop between a gay man and his ‘sassy black friend'” on account of stereotypes, and another to state, ““We don’t want to sponsor an event that would offend anyone.” But her martyrs for free speech seem to turn out fine: the performer in question lands a solid 18 gigs, and she’s unable to prove others that came away with fewer bookings did so because they were more “offensive.” Ditto for her claim that “breakout star” Zoltan Kaszas represents a “victory for better-safe-than-sorry.” (Because Kaszas and I share a hometown, I happen to have seen him perform; I’d argue he did well because he’s just plain funny.)

But just like Jerry Seinfeld’s complaints that a joke comparing phone swiping to “a gay French king” didn’t land, Flanagan’s argument isn’t really about the state of stand-up. She didn’t choose to write about, say, the current second wave of the podcast boom, or a buzzworthy weekly show, or even any actual comedy clubs, the sensibility of which she learns about entirely from performers in lieu of visiting one herself. Instead, Flanagan wrote about campus politics, and the most telling passages of “That’s Not Funny” conflate what may or may not be happening to the college stand-up circuit with other campus controversies.

The “the flip side of this sensitivity is the savagery with which reputations and even academic careers can be destroyed by a single comment,” she writes, referencing in passing the belief, espoused by writers like Laura Kipnis, that concerns with safety and sensitivity constitute a threat to academic freedom. And then there’s this gem, which posits even outrage at frat culture’s excesses as inherently opposed to free expression: “Meanwhile — as obvious reaction to all of this — frat boys and other campus punksters regularly flout the thought police by staging events along elaborately racist themes, events that, while patently vile, are beginning to constitute the free-speech movement of our time.”

These asides reveal Flanagan’s fear to be not the declining state of comedy as an art form, but a generational sensibility that’s unrecognizable to her. And instead of recognizing that the “sassy black friend” is distasteful to 20somethings in the same way that any number of stereotypes and slurs are distasteful to their parents, some writers’ response is to balk at the unfamiliar.

Changes in campus culture signal changes in the culture at large: eventually, students will take their distaste for sassy black friend songs into the “real” world, and that’s precisely what Flanagan’s afraid of. The pervasiveness of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and bland, inoffensive comedy shows has yet to be established, but it doesn’t need to be: collectively, they form the boogeyman of the Humorless Millennial, spiritual cousin of the Entitled Millennial. And like all boogeymen, this one says more about its creator than the reality it claims to represent.