Brian Volk-Weiss is the President of Comedy Dynamics, the largest independent producer and distributor of recorded comedy in North America. In our monthly series with Volk Weiss, we discuss issues that impact the comedy industry. This month, Brian wanted to talk about the issue of political correctness on college campuses. You can read our past columns with Brian Volk Weiss, “The State of Comedy in 2016: Is Comedy in a Diamond Age” and “Comedy Insiders: Recording a Comedy Special, When Is It Time?”
“A lot of very big comedians are no longer doing colleges,” Brian Volk Weiss says. And he blames a purple pretend dinosaur.
His statement echoes the comments of many comics in the business, most notably Jerry Seinfeld, who sparked some major debate last spring when he complained that the environment at colleges was becoming too politically correct for comedy.
Brian has been observing and affecting comedy for over twenty years. Before he started producing and distributing albums and specials for some of the best comedians in North America with Comedy Dynamics, Brian was a manager, and frequently toured with his clients. So he’s had the opportunity to observe changes in the business from the front row, literally and metaphorically. Volk Weiss believes we are in a diamond age of comedy, but the political correctness problem that exists on college campuses threatens the future of the business.
Brian first became aware of the problem about two and a half years ago, while getting some late night breakfast with a bunch of comedians at the IHOP on Sunset. Some of the comics were about to go on the road touring colleges… and dreading it. “I’ve been sitting at tables listening to comedians talk getting on two decades and I’d never heard it before so I just started listening. I’m like what are you talking about? People always love doing colleges. It’s fun, the money is good, there’s always a good crowd. It’s always fun after the show as well, sometimes you go out drinking with the kids.” But this time, he said, every comedian who had been doing colleges regularly, had been getting complaints after doing shows. “This was two and a half years ago, I’m sure it’s even worse now,” he said. All of the comics said they would almost always get criticism on Facebook, or their agent had received a call, within 48 hours of a college show. “It was to the point where they were like, oh did I have a bad show? Nobody is complaining.” When Brian was managing comics, he’d regularly have somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 clients on the road at any given time. “In a bad year, we’d get maybe three complaints. Total. From all of my clients over the course of 48 to 50 weeks.” And even those few complaints usually had nothing to do with their show or their material.
But it was Seinfeld’s declaration that really put the issue in focus for him. “I realized if Jerry was saying what he was saying, it was way worse than I thought.” Not because Seinfeld is the most famous comedian on the planet- but because he’s not exactly known for causing controversy. So if Seinfeld thought there was a problem, there was a problem.
The complaints cover many topics, he said, with the themes of race, sexuality and gender creating the most discord, but Volk Weiss says any joke that appears to attack anyone at all causes problems. For example, if a comic takes a shot at Obama, or a celebrity, or teachers, or even boy bands– anything confrontational seems to trigger anger.
Brian doesn’t blame the internet, or social media for the problem. He blames “the Barnification of America” for the hostile environment people see on college campuses.
“It used to be the whole idea was you go to the show and you would laugh, and a comedy show was an event where you would hear people talk and say things that you obviously wouldn’t hear at a dinner table… you wouldn’t hear on TV, you wouldn’t hear on the subway. That was the whole idea and it was expected. And you were supposed to wince. You were supposed to be like ‘oh man that was bad, that was tough.’ But now there’s this, what I would say Barnified environment- and yes I’m referring to the purple dinosaur.” He blames the “you love me I love you” indoctrination that today’s college students grew up with, and says “that’s not good for comedy.” Kids who are 18-22 years old grew up on the purple dino, and are now in college, watching comedy, and complaining. And comedians who operate under the “I love you, you love me” parameters put on “a very boring shitty show,” Brian says.
He uses pop music to make an apt comparison. “If you made fun of the Backstreet Boys in 2005– even if you were a huge Backstreet Boys fan– that was part of the show.” You might love the Backstreet Boys, but could still find it funny to laugh at them. But in 2016, if you make fun of One Direction, [the response is]- I can’t believe you’re attacking One Direction.”
If it sounds harmless to you, Volk Weiss disagrees. There is an effect to this cause that goes beyond performers being irritated by the bitching. The complaints, affect booking. The bookers at the colleges get in trouble when there’s an uproar, and potentially lose their jobs when something goes wrong, he said. And comedians, who depend on the income from college tours also become averse to taking risks, and change their material. “My fear is that will literally change the course of comedy in this country, anywhere from three to five years from now on,” he said. “So yeah, if there’s a comedian that’s very safe and that comedian gets the shit booked out of him, and then you have a comedian that’s very risky and edgy, and they can’t get booked, that will change what is being done in comedy clubs five years from now and what specials are being made.”
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this. I’m worried about this. I’m very very worried about it.”
I feel like if comedy’s edginess and comedy’s tip of the spear dialog is rounded and sanded and made less edgy, I just think, and I think it hurts the national dialogue and I think it will slow down our progress.
Brian says he has a solution, but knows it’s probably not possible. “I would say overall this should be done nationwide on 100 different topics. I think the schools, when they put out fliers and they put out social media messaging saying that ‘comedian John Doe or Jane Doe is coming, come to the show’, there should be an asterisk that says, *by the way, don’t be a fucking baby. If you’re looking for Barney, this is not the show for you. So don’t come if you’re going to be complaining and be a baby. That’s really what I think should be done. I think it probably needs to be done for four years so that an entire generation of college kids gets the message and I think that could put things back to where they were.”
Of course Brian says, this won’t happen. “If some teacher is walking by and the head of the school is walking by and they see a poster or a pamphlet for a show that says don’t be a fucking baby, that’s a great way to lose your job. So I don’t know if what I think needs to happen can happen. I don’t think it can, unfortunately.”
So that leaves him with an uncertain future, and the big question. If the audiences change, and prefer a more politically correct version of comedy, will his company follow suit to keep up with consumer tastes? Even now he can’t always do specials with comics he loves, because they aren’t marketable enough. “There are certain comedians whose names I won’t even mention who probably can’t sell more than 25 to 30 tickets that hurt their own careers because of how edgy they are but they make me laugh and I love them. I haven’t done specials with them, just to make sure everyone knows I’m a hypocrite- but that’s what I love about comedy and that’s what drives me and drives our whole company.”
How much he’s willing to bend is a tough question, and Volk Weiss admits he doesn’t know the answer. “My job is largely to make sure I’m not acting as a gatekeeper and keeping popular successful comedians away from the population. So, if five to ten years from now- I feel there’s a very good chance that my taste and your taste will be completely out of sync with the majority of the comedy paying public. And I will have to make the choice- do I ignore my taste and book what America wants to see? Or do I follow my tastes and make less money, have less success, take bigger risks? Or do I just stop doing it all together and say I don’t like comedy the way it is now– I’m not part of the Barney generation, this is what people are paying for, it’s not for me. I would say those are the three options and at this point in time I have absolutely no idea which door I’d go through.”
But he acknowledges that it will be tough to keep going if the “Barney generation” starts to dominate the material. “The thing that always attracted me to comedy is the edginess and the brilliance that the comedians use in tackling different subjects and, forwarding the national conversation about things you didn’t hear about on sitcoms, or in dramas or even in movies. Comedy five years from now, ten years from now is this whole, I love you, you love me generation. I think I’m the old man at that point that says this doesn’t excite me anymore. I love the edginess of comedy. It’s my favorite part of it.”