First, a hat tip to NY Times culture writer Sopan Deb who highlighted this story on Twitter today. At Columbia University a group called the Asian American Alliance (AAA) holds an annual charity event called cultureSHOCK. This year the event featured Saturday Night Live writer Nimesh Patel, the first Indian-American writer on the show. But 30 minutes into Patel’s set on Friday night, the event organizers decided his material was racially offensive and shut him down. From the Columbia Spectator:
During the event, Patel’s performance featured commentary on his experience living in a diverse area of New York City—including a joke about a gay, black man in his neighborhood—which AAA officials deemed inappropriate. Patel joked that being gay cannot be a choice because “no one looks in the mirror and thinks, ‘this black thing is too easy, let me just add another thing to it.’”
About 30 minutes into Patel’s set, members of AAA interrupted the performance, denounced his jokes about racial identities and sexual orientation, and provided him with a few moments for closing remarks. Compared to his other jokes, ones specifically targeting sexual orientation audibly receive less laughter from the crowd.
Patel pushed back on the officials’ remarks, and said that while he stood in solidarity with Asian American identities, none of his remarks were offensive, and he was exposing the audience to ideas that would be found “in the real world.” Before he could finish, Patel’s microphone was cut from off-stage, and he proceeded to leave.
A sophomore wrote a piece about Patel’s set for the Spectator. She claims he stopped being funny in a few minutes and began lecturing the audience. She writes:
The news articles I’ve read give the impression that Patel told some controversial jokes that caused PC outrage, but the performance was just a trainwreck. While Patel started with strong laughs, he soon hit a controversial joke that earned mixed reactions. Instead of moving on, Patel warned us that he’s from an older generation (this guy is only 32), and then delivered the usual condescending and presumptuous spiel about how we need to learn about the “real world.”
And then came the bad joke:
The joke went like this: Patel came to the stellar realization that being gay can’t be a choice because “no one looks in the mirror and thinks, ‘this black thing is too easy, let me just add another thing to it.’” To a non-Black, non-queer person, it might be novel. But if you’re Black and gay, you don’t need a straight South Asian guy to point out that your life is hard because you’re Black and gay. That’s not insightful––it’s painfully unoriginal. “I wouldn’t choose to live with homophobia while facing racism,” has crossed the minds of queer Black people, probably in a moment of distress or when faced with homophobia in their own community.
This is the issue with telling jokes about other people’s identities: It’s hard to grasp the intricacies of a life you haven’t lived. Personally, I think comedians should be allowed to tell jokes about different communities, but they often end up falling into clichés, stereotypes, or just predictable material. Patel brought himself on stage to perform a tired joke, the punchline being marginalized struggles about which he has no true insight. Some may argue that he was making a comment on society’s racism and homophobia, but for whom? I watched a brown man use the experiences of Black people to make white people ponder and laugh while two of my gay Black friends cringed.
Patel’s mic wasn’t just cut off because he told offensive jokes to a sensitive, snowflake audience, which is the narrative that I see being talked about. He was booted off the stage because he sucked the energy out of an entire auditorium.
I’m so relieved this person thinks comedians should be “allowed” to tell jokes about other people. And yet, by the end of the same paragraph, I’m not sure she’s really that committed to allowing it. Simultaneously, the author is upset that people are calling the audience a bunch of snowflakes. That’s not fair, she says, because it was Patel who sucked all the positive energy out of the room. How did he do that? By telling not-terribly original jokes to an audience so sensitive that it felt the need to protest and shut down the person they’d hired for the gig.
NOW STOP CALLING US SNOWFLAKES!
Honestly, I’ve never heard of Patel before today. I watched a couple of YouTube videos. His material doesn’t seem that edgy to me, but then I am older than twenty.