This week, left-wing critics in the media condemned comedian Dave Chapelle’s latest comedy special, calling it “homophobic” and “transphobic.” But just over a decade ago, the left celebrated this same kind of off-color humor.
Avenue Q, a musical that has been performed over 2,500 times on the Broadway stage, continues to make audiences laugh today with its off-color humor, almost 15 years after its original debut.
But could a show like Avenue Q open on Broadway in 2017?
Avenue Q, a coming-of-age musical about a group of Sesame Street-like puppets that live in an “outer-outer borough” of New York City, premiered on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre in 2003 to rave reviews. Ben Brantley of The New York Times called the show “eminently likable” and its songs “unfailingly tuneful and disgustingly irresistible.” It won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2004, edging out the massively successful musical Wicked, which has netted over $1 billion since it opened.
I’ve seen Avenue Q twice since it first opening in 2003. Since then, the left has noticeably increased their efforts to place restrictions on comedy. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Larry the Cable Guy refuse to perform on college campuses over concerns that their material will be falsely labeled as “racist” or “sexist.” Just this past week, popular comedian Dave Chapelle was labeled “homophobic” and “transphobic” over jokes made in his recent Netflix special.
The rise of progressive fundamentalism — the unflinchingly-held belief that the prevailing vision of the left’s elitist planners is the one and only path to justice in American society — is largely behind these increased attempts to intimidate comedians into watering-down their material.
Avenue Q’s success was largely driven by the same kind of off-color humor that has gotten comedians like Chapelle in deep trouble with liberal institutions now. The song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is a favorite amongst fans. The character Rod, a closeted Republican investment banker, secretly longs to tell his roommate Nicky that he has feelings for him. A Japanese character named Christmas Eve, a therapist with no clients, speaks with a stereotypical, perhaps even offensive, accent. For example, she pronounces “racist” as “lacist.”
In 2003, Brantley simply claimed that Christmas Eve had “not quite mastered English.” But in the past few years, liberals in the theater community have started to find the character, as well as the show, “problematic.” Writing in the theater blog Howlround, Stephen Quigley expressed his concerns about the effect that the Christmas Eve character had on an Asian-American woman seated near him in the audience at a regional production’s performance of Avenue Q:
Coincidentally, I sat ten feet away from the one woman of Asian descent in the audience, about the same age as Christmas Eve. Instead of watching Christmas Eve sing-song her parts on the stage, I found myself watching this audience member and how she reacted to “Evelyone’s a rittre bit lacist!” and “I know you are no intending to be, but carring me ‘Olientarr’… offensive to me!” Yes, this audience member did smile and nod at some of the jokes, but there was also a great discomfort about her as well, and at times she looked away or failed to laugh—perhaps a realization that she was the Other in the room. The joke was on her.
It’s concerning that Quigley, a white male, bases his argument about the problematic nature of the racial jokes in Avenue Q on an attempt to read the body language of one Asian woman that sat ten feet away from him in a dark theater at some regional production of the show in Greenville, South Carolina. His use of this cloudy anecdote begs an important question: what actual harm has Avenue Q and its politically-incorrect jokes done over the course of its 14-year-run and thousands of performances around the country?
Has the show and its message emboldened actual racists? Or had a negative influence on America’s attitude towards multiculturalism? Even Quigley would likely admit that the answer to these questions is an emphatic, “no.”
In the first act, the characters sing a song called “Everyone’s a Little Racist.”
“Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes. Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes. Look around and you will find, no one’s really color blind. Maybe it’s a fact, we all should face, everyone makes judgments based on race,” characters Princeton and Kate Monster sing together.
This song, perhaps more than anything else in the show, reveals the recent evolution of American liberalism. Since 2003, the sociological definition of “racism” has evolved to mean “prejudice plus power,” meaning that members of minority groups can’t be racist. Like a broken record, liberal influencers in the media and academia have repeated this refrain over the past few years, arguing for the necessity of a distinction between “prejudice” and “racism.”
Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang claimed in a blog post that he when he first saw Avenue Q he thought it was a work of “satirical brilliance.” But when revisiting the show in 2013, Yang claimed that he was disturbed by “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Further revealing the evolution of American liberalism, Yang called it “a handy theme song” for “those seeking to dismissively minimize acts of racial insensitivity,” a concern he suggests he didn’t have when he was first exposed to the show.
The song argues that if “everyone stopped being so PC (politically correct), maybe we could live in – harmony!” This line almost serves as a preemptive lampooning of critics like Quigley and Yang, whose dogmatic quest for social justice will blind them to the song’s real message about recognizing everyone’s common humanity, regardless of identity.
During the show’s closing number, “For Now,” the residents of Avenue Q sing about how the struggles and stresses they are facing in their lives are fleeting and temporary. To accomplish the show’s goal of offending just about everyone, the song lambasts different facets of American conservatism. When the show opened in 2003, the song featured the line, “George Bush is only for now.” Over the years, “George Bush” was replaced with Fox News, Chick Fil A, Glenn Beck, and Prop 8. Now, the show’s cast sings, “Donald Trump is only for now.”
I’ll make my third visit to see the residents of Avenue Q this Sunday, this time at their new off-Broadway home at the New World Stage in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Again, it’ll serve as a cathartic experience to get lost for a few hours in a world where a show like Avenue Q, as it was first performed in 2003, could be written for the progressive Broadway audience.
And perhaps it’ll serve as a reminder that, hopefully, political correctness is only for now.
Tom Ciccotta is a libertarian who writes about education and social justice for Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @tciccotta or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org