Gaieties 2010: “The Last Temptation” or the Last Straw?

Gaieties celebrated its 99th birthday with its characteristic raunchy flare – combining traditional Cal-bashing with a roast of Stanford student groups in “The Last Temptation of Cal.” The show was, as usual, controversial: Jesus Christ appeared as a wide-eyed freshman lured into sin by Lucifer (a Cal professor). But this year, the performances were met with an unanticipated snag.

On November 19th, during its notable Friday night ‘freshman show,’ the residents and staff of Ujamaa walked out after four scenes. The incident, itself an act of political protest, raises the question of political correctness on college campuses.

By definition, Gaieties is “a politically incorrect, hilariously over-the-top musical extravaganza.” Does its self-proclaimed absurdity forgive the show’s potential to offend?

To Robbie Zimbroff ’12, an Ujamaa RA, the answer is no. He suggested that the idea for a walk-out began when his residents read the program before the show started. Students took offense at the stereotypical definitions applied to Muwekma, Testimony, and other campus groups.

“Our kids felt alone,” said Zimbroff. “They thought, ‘why are we the only ones who aren’t laughing at this?’”

Walking out was intended as a statement to other audience members.

“I’m proud of my kids for doing that and being that brave and that strong,” said Zimbroff.

The attack was not targeted toward Ram’s Head as much as toward Stanford’s relationship with diversity in general. “We see it as a symptom of a culture on campus that doesn’t necessarily educate all its students in how to use and handle the diversity that exists here,” he explained.

Ram’s Head took swift and immediate measures to mitigate the conflict, holding multiple discussions with offended student groups and scheduling a Town Hall meeting for January 20th.

In a letter from Ram’s Head, Executive Producer Michael Rooney ’11 wrote, “I want to reiterate that this year’s Gaieties was not inherently malicious…Unfortunately, we were oblivious to the potential impact of aspects of the production, and have since learned valuable lessons.”

The concern surrounding Gaieties this year is part of a broader debate surrounding both campus diversity and the nature of humor itself. Under what circumstances is offensive material funny? Is it perverse to enjoy a joke at another’s expense, or is it simply unnatural to be unable to laugh at oneself? What is the boundary line between art that is ‘edgy’ and art that is inappropriate?

On a college campus designed to simultaneously promote diversity and art, these questions are not insignificant – and, given the extremes of student reactions, they are not resolved, either. Responses to a Stanford Daily article on the topic ranged from the truly outraged – “I am so offended at Gaieties, I can barely control myself” – to the genuinely baffled – “Seriously, if you don’t have a sense of humor or if it just doesn’t appeal to you, then don’t go.”

Olivia Haas ’11, a member of the Ram’s Head Board, stated, “A discussion of humor on college campuses is definitely worthwhile and no small undertaking. “

Next year, Gaieties will seek collaboration with more student groups to avoid a repeat of the crisis this fall.

The director of this year’s show, Emily Goldwyn ’11, commented on the future of Gaieties.

“It’s important to ask ourselves: What is Gaieties trying to accomplish?” she said. “From that primary question, we can expand into a solution.”

In Goldwyn’s eyes, the purpose is to unite the campus against Cal before Big Game, and in the process, hold a mirror to Stanford that will allow students to laugh at themselves. To some, this ‘mirror’ is necessary stress-reliever in a tightly-wound, academic environment. To others, the mirror can only ever offer a distorted reflection of campus. It remains to be seen whether it is possible to preserve the spirit of the show while satisfying everyone.

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