Current Events

When working with and interviewing comedians during my broadcast news career, the very first thing I learned was “Don’t EVER try to upstage the comic. THEY are the professionals and you’re just the guy holding a mic or sitting in the host chair. Let THEM deal in being funny”. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson most interviewers and even people in the street either ignore or think they’re “the exception to the rule”.

I could retire if I had that literal nickel for every person who thinks they’re funny and tries to show the comic they’ve “got the chops”. Sometimes, depending on the comedian, that person might just be in for a good chopping down to size in front of everyone. In a lot of ways, it’s insulting to try and be funny when it’s not your gig.

In sports, it was always the tough guy who tried to show they could also hit a baseball 400 feet or throw a football 50 yards while in front of the athlete. A lot of those moments wound up on the cutting room floor, when we HAD a cutting room floor, because it was just too embarrassing.

Which brings us to the tale of David Rancourt, a former political lobbyist now the Dean of Student Affairs at tiny “New College of Florida”, a public liberal-arts college in Sarasota. It has the smallest population of students in the State University System at just under 700. It’s also where Florida Governor Ron DeSantis led an overhaul of the Board of Trustees, with the aim of turning the school into a, and this is their set of words not mine, “beacon of Conservative values”. Since that time, nearly 40% of the of the faculty has resigned. 

This is not a post about politics, so the preceding was entered for the purpose of clarity.

The schools website lists Rancourt for his position, but has no bio. A little digging, and Rancourt has no experience as an educator. His major claim to fame in being named to the role is as former Deputy Chief of Staff to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Rancourt opted to take the stage as part of a New College-sanctioned group comedy class that was hosted in downtown Sarasota. The video was posted to YouTube on January 25th. 

In the performance, as noted by “The Daily Beast”, Rancourt “joked about exposing himself to a fellow child—who he calls a bitch at one point—when he was in elementary school, a drill sergeant sticking a baton up his butt, and his Peace Corp battalion being raped by native men in the Amazon. He also spoke about his love for sex and beer.”

Now then, let’s deal in comedy.

The routine was sprinkled with plenty of allusions to homophobia, rape, racism and death. The President of the College did not disavow the routine, and there were no apologies despite concern from a number of groups at the school regarding what they viewed as a hostile atmosphere. All of which, in the scope of comedy, begs a few questions.

As comedy, was it really over-the-top? If one were to go to a comedy show from certain performers, what was said at this event would be considered rather tame. Plenty of professional comics deal in such issues, and while some in the audience may stifle a groan here and there, we can all raise our hands and say we’ve heard jokes like these that engendered a lot of laughter. That’s what comedy does. It often leaves us uncomfortable in facing certain social and moral issues.

Therein lies some of the rub. This was not a professional comedy show, instead a “performance” authored by a school administrator at a private event. Rancourt doesn’t tell jokes for a living, and thus the show itself can be considered a serious commentary instead of a gag. Also, as someone who is part of the college administration, one can see why there would be good reason for some people to feel uncomfortable.

However, does not edgy comedy make some people uncomfortable when performed at a paying venue? Is it not the aim of some comedians to push those envelopes and make people feel a little uneasy? Is that not exactly what some comics are hired to do?

While neither condoning nor slamming the performance, you can see why it has created a furor. One side will claim that it’s insulting, harmful and damaging for someone who isn’t a paid professional comic to recant jokes such as these. The other side can claim this is all about comedy being a work of art, with free speech and free expression something that cannot and should not be limited just because someone is not being paid to perform what would then be considered an act.

So then, there’s the question everyone should consider as paramount.

Where is the line for comedy, and who sets that line?

Comedy is so very subjective, so is it possible that the line is an ever-floating one that is in the eye and ear of the beholder? Or are there simply some things that should never be considered, end of story?

Either one brings with it a level of responsibility for both the teller of the joke, and the recipient. And in the end, are they not the ones who decide the line instead of some group or organization?

The mic is yours.