Parody flunks out

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  July 30, 2008

The producers of the 2006 stage show offered a public apology to those who were offended. It was “nobody’s intention to hurt those parodied,” they said, suggesting that even the parodists had lost sight of the function traditionally performed by parody — namely, ridicule directed to the object of scorn. “The Parody plans to take consideration of all suggestions in their re-examination of the Parody going forward,” the apology stated, “and plans to address any concerns brought up by the HLS community in the future.” As for the nature of the “future,” that was also made clear: “Many students commented on the need for greater discussions on race, gender, and sexuality at HLS beyond the Parody context, and this open forum was a starting point for productive discussions to come.” Sensitivity training, in other words, rather than biting political and social parody, was in the law school’s future.

All of this mush was coming from the university that, by siring the Harvard Lampoon — which in turn gave the world the National Lampoon (which begot Saturday Night Live), Conan O’Brien, and other comedic and satirical mainstays — arguably shaped American comedy as we know it today. Given the chilly reception to parody from both administrators and students on today’s college campuses, it is easy to see that many varieties of comedy — a treasured asset of American pop culture and a trusty tool in the crusade for free speech — could soon atrophy into irrelevancy.

The era of the Onion
In an age when theonion.com reportedly attracts more readers than Newsweek, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have become modern-day folk heroes, the political arts of parody and satire are, ironically, experiencing a renaissance among the young. But these parodies should come with a warning label to students: don’t try this on campus.

College students are encountering increasingly more trouble for using these time-tested, constitutionally protected, and, when done right, enormously effective literary devices. Students have been blacklisted by their peers, fired from campus jobs, and subjected to humiliating show trials before what can fairly be described as politicized kangaroo courts — all because of politically edgy attempts at humor that have violated the wrong person’s or group’s sacred cow.

In 2006, a number of students at Long Island University were fired from their resident-assistant positions because of a short film they posted on YouTube, in which they took hostage their dormitory’s unofficial mascot — a rubber ducky. According to news reports, the short film, which has since been removed from YouTube, parodied Al-Qaeda hostage-kidnapping films. After a Muslim student group complained and a local news channel ran the story, the provost decided that termination was appropriate.

At Brandeis University, the humor magazine Gravity was accused of racism when, in April 2007, it spoofed an ad campaign for Blackberry PDA electronic devices. In the parody, a man named “BlackJerry” offered his services for three-fifths the price of the mobile device — a heavy-handed reference to the legislative apportionment compromise in the Constitution that counted a slave as three-fifths of a person. During a confrontational and often-times emotional campus forum, students accused Gravity’s staff of making light of slavery, thereby inflicting emotional distress upon African-American schoolmates. The blindsided humorists at first defended the ad, explaining that it was intended as a populist critique of how slavery still exists in corporate America. When this explanation did little to stem the attacks, the editorial board issued an effusive apology and agreed to demands issued by the student government, including mandatory “diversity training” sessions and the resignation of the entire editorial board, save one remaining editor who pledged to implement “a more effective editorial hierarchy” in the future, according to an article in the Justice, the student newspaper.

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