Reconsidering the Humor of LSE Comedian

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Smith at the LSE in November. Photo by Allie Lee.

I know that, in Swarthmore time, the Fall LSE was a long time ago. To bring it up again now might seem odd. But I believe that the point I have to make is worth dredging up this ancient history.

Like everyone else I know who went to the LSE, I really enjoyed Girl Talk’s concert. And, like everyone else I know who was there, I was really uncomfortable during the entire opener. Comedian James Smith’s act was homophobic, racist, and extremely misogynistic. To hear such hateful and hurtful language at a Swarthmore event was surprising and disturbing to me and to others to whom I’ve spoken. I have not heard any controversy on whether or not Mr. Smith’s act was inappropriate for Swarthmore — it seems clear that it was. As such, I thought it would be an easy task to secure an acknowledgment of this impropriety from the LSE organizers and a commitment to a more thorough vetting process in the future to make sure that performers understand the ethos of our campus.

The day after the LSE, I e-mailed Paury Flowers and the former LSE coordinator to try to understand how and why Mr. Smith had been hired and solicit a public acknowledgment of the problematic nature of and apology for his act. Such a message has proved quite elusive. Over the past month, I’ve communicated with Dean Campbell and Dean Westphal, both of whom agree with me that Mr. Smith’s act was inappropriate. I’ve heard from Ms. Flowers, who suggested that if I did not like Mr. Smith’s act, I should join the LSE committee myself to make sure that the performers brought to campus live up to what seems to me to be the bare standard of not being blatantly offensive. Most upsetting, however, was the response I received from Yingjia Wang on behalf of the LSE committee, in which I was told that, “we believe that comedy is about exaggeration, shock value, and satire. Most times, comedians do not promote the view expressed in their acts, if these acts were to be taken literally…With that said, comedy is also very much in the eye of the beholder. Recognizing that what is funny and enabling for some can be disrespectful for others, we regret that you were offended by Smith’s show. When planning shows, we try to bring acts that will maximize the overall campus’s happiness.” It’s possible that Mr. Smith’s act was an extremely deadpan brand of satire that simply went over my head, but I doubt this is the case. I’ve seen enough stand-up comedy to tell the difference between a Michelle Obama joke that makes fun of the anxieties of others with regards to our First Lady and a Michelle Obama joke that clearly reveals the comic’s own anxieties regarding strong women of color. I find it puzzling, furthermore, that the committee seems to think the content of Mr. Smith’s act maximized the overall campus’ happiness, given that most Swarthmore students are people of color, queer, female, or some combination of the three, and Mr. Smith’s act consisted mostly of jokes at the expense of queer people, people of color, and especially women — and given that most of the reactions I heard to his act at the time were boos and catcalls.

I should say here that I do not blame the committee for bringing Mr. Smith. I was, early on in my e-mail quest, informed by Dean Campbell that nothing in Mr. Smith’s online portfolio suggested what the content of his act would be and that his management had misrepresented him. I researched him myself and, indeed, video clips of him online are unfunny perhaps but certainly not objectionable in the manner of his act at the LSE. I understand that the LSE committee is under significant constraints in terms of budget and scheduling and that finding both an appropriate main act and an opener are no mean feat, and I think they did a great job with the main act. That’s why I’m so puzzled over the committee’s response. I have been apologized to personally by Dean Campbell and Ms. Wang on behalf of the committee and appreciate the sentiment from both of them, but I am not seeking an apology to my sensibilities. The LSE should be a safe place for us to have a good time, and that can’t be the case if any Swattie is scared to go to an event for fear of hearing bigoted language. Mr. Smith was misrepresented — this has been corroborated by Ms. Flowers and Ms. Wang — and his act turned out to be objectionable. It was an honest mistake. Why is it a problem to acknowledge what happened to the student body at large?

-Ariel Horowitz ’10

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