Comedian Nimesh Patel got booted off stage during a performance at Columbia University event this past weekend. According to reports in the Columbia Spectator, Patel’s set was interrupted by the event organizers, told his material was inappropriate and asked to wrap up. Before he could finish closing remarks, his mic was cut off and he left the stage. They later released a long statement on Facebook apologizing to students for even inviting Patel to perform at the event.
The event, ironically, was titled “cultureSHOCK: Reclaim,” and was hosted by Columbia University’s Asian American Alliance last Friday night.
The joke that set off the the alliance and some audience members was about the difficulties of belonging to two minority classes- in this case the struggle of being both black and gay. The Alliance felt that his jokes about racial identities and sexual orientation were out of bounds and out of alignment with their mission of 100% inclusivity. The joke was about what it feels like to be excluded, not because of one group affiliation but two.
It’s an interesting case. Patel is not an out of touch white male too far removed from youth culture to be able to relate. He’s a 32 year old highly respected young comedian with major credentials, who is the first generation American son to Indian immigrant parents. He’s written for the Oscars– with Chris Rock. He’s opened for Rock on the road. He’s written for SNL, was chosen as a finalist in the highly respected New York’s Funniest competition, co-hosted one of NYC’s hottest bar shows at Bar Matchless with Mike Denny and Michael Che and he’s a killer on stage. A seemingly incredible “get” for a college festival.
Of course comedy is never about formula and there is no list of creds that fireproof you from pissing people off, telling a bad joke, or even just having a bad set. And colleges are notoriously treacherous stages to navigate in 2018. But nobody expected that the divide has gotten so cavernous that a 32 year old young, up and coming but highly respected comedian of Indian American descent could get kicked off stage at a festival celebrating Asian culture.
And from all descriptions, they didn’t just want him to stop telling jokes, they had to shut things down in a big hurry, not caring to hear Patel’s explanations for the type of material he performed after they asked him to wrap.
In their statement, the Alliance said Patel’s “remarks” did not align with the mission and message of Asian American Alliance and the cultureSHOCK festival, explaining that the “Asian American Alliance stands for the political, social, and personal empowerment of Asian Americans as well as other marginalized groups. We seek to explore and understand Asian Americans’ places within current and historical political discussions in order to organize in the most effective ways that we can. cultureSHOCK is a celebration of identity and a space of inclusion.” What about Patel’s right to be included and respected as a performer of Asian descent?
Well, they felt his remarks ran “counter to the inclusive spirit” of the event, and asked him to leave. “We acknowledge that discomfort and safety can coexist, however, the discomfort Patel caused was unproductive in this space. We ourselves are still processing the events of cultureSHOCK and maintain different perspectives on it even within our organization. We invite and welcome dialogue concerning his remarks and our actions.”
“We deeply apologize for inviting him in the first place,” the organization wrote, sounding not particularly inclusive of Patel’s perspective as an Asian American, and apologized for the “hurt his words caused.”
Facebook comments are overwhelmingly negative, feeling the AAA has missed the point about how to be inclusive. “Being offended is a choice,” one commenter wrote. “AAA: use this as a learning opportunity, your feelings do not preclude the right to force people to believe or do anything.”
The Alliance chalked the event a learning experience. But the lesson that they have learned seems to be that art should be monitored and carefully vetted to ensure that it is pleasing and comfortable to all, particularly on college campuses. #safetyfirst