The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival continued this week in Jamestown, NY, with outstanding stand-up comedy interspersed with great conversation and debate at the nearby Chautauqua Institution– a summer community devoted to immersion in art, culture, creativity, and philosophy. On Friday at the Chautauqua Pavilion, Kelly Carlin continued an “In Conversation” series- this time sitting down with comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff and Stephen J. Morrison, executive producer of CNN’s acclaimed History of Comedy series.
The conversation touched on a number of important subjects, including some incredible insight from Kelly about what it was like to grow up in the shadow of George Carlin which led to one of the most interesting conversations of the entire week– a debate about the merits of political correctness. The conversation left people talking all day following the panel discussion- as they left the theater, over lunch and into the night.
The ability to speak freely is a precious and sacred principle to everyone who performs comedy. Any threat to that right has historically resulted in strong backlash from comedians. But in the past two years, the debate has changed a bit. In 2015, Jerry Seinfeld complained about college campuses being “too-PC”, but since, there has been a growing minority speaking out in favor of political correctness, even in comedy.
Historian Kliph Nesteroff quickly got down to the heart of why the “PC” debate is changing. The phrase “political correctness,” he said, is being used too often, by too many people and they don’t use the phrase in the same way. Nesteroff said recent use of that phrase to justify hate has changed his opinion. The phrase “politically correct” has been co-opted, he explained, and “colored by the fascist movement,” who he argued is using the phrase to excuse bigotry. “I don’t want to complain about the same thing a racist group is complaining about,” he said. Kliph argued that it’s time to stop defending the right to be politically incorrect and suggested that perhaps the comedians who are complaining, are being too sensitive. “Yes, we want to preserve [free speech], but do we have a persecution complex?” he asked. “Comedians now are so defensive, they will respond as if they are under attack. Maybe the problem is the comedian’s ego.”
Morrison agreed that the PC debate is changing– and witnessed this first hand when conducting interviews for CNN’s History of Comedy. He said his opinion started to change after hearing comedians talk about their realizations about their own racially charged humor or gender slamming jokes. He gave the example of Sarah Silverman who argued that you have to listen to people on college campuses, who are often on the right side of history.
Kelly Carlin had a different take- noting that limiting speech has never been a good strategy to change behavior. She referred back to her father’s thoughts on the subject, arguing that his sentiments are still relevant today. “One of the reasons he didn’t like political correctness on campuses,” she said, “is because it’s a pernicious form of intolerance because it is disguised as tolerance.” George Carlin’s full quote that Kelly referenced was this: “political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.”
Carlin also quoted her father’s material on the softening of language– how the term “shell shock,” changed to “battle fatigue” which gave way to “post traumatic stress disorder.” Carlin said that soft language takes the life out of life. “Language should be honest,” she said, “and real. And not hiding behind something.”
The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival takes place every year in Jamestown, NY, with satellite programming at the Chautauqua Institute. For more information, visit lucycomedyfest.com.