UNCLARITY OF PURPOSE: THE NATURE OF COMEDY AND THE ENDURING APPEAL OF ‘PCU’ (1995)

“The strange thing about Political Correctness,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 1994 review of PCU, “is that it seems to have many opponents and no supporters. No one ever describes themselves as Politically Correct, and yet the movement thrives.”

Much like I just did, the movie PCU starts off with something cribbed from more talented people. The movie, released in 1995, rehashes the premise of Animal House almost exactly: a frat house filled with rude, hard-partying goons, a rival frat house filled with stuck-up, rich “fancy lads” who bizarrely wear suits at all times, and a conspiracy between the “richies” and the college leadership using skullduggery to ship the party animals off campus. The principal innovation of PCU is that the dirty fun-lovers of “The Pit” are not only under assault from their humorless college president Ms. Garcia-Thompson (Jessica Walter) and the upper-crust Balls & Shaft Society (led by David Spade), but also under the strangling, censorious glare of Political Correctness.

According to seven-year senior Droz (Jeremy Piven), “it’s not just politics – it’s what you eat, what you wear, and what you say.” Political Correctness manifests itself in a variety of ways: a group of humorless “Womynists” who police misogynistic language, a group of black nationalists who constantly accuse people of being CIA-sponsored white supremacists, a group of gay male activists who make histrionic criticisms of peoples’ fashion choices, and a group of “Cause-Heads” who pick a different left-wing crusade every week. These groups police every aspect of life on campus and police behavior by filing complaints of insensitivity and by picketing anyone who challenges liberal orthodoxy.

They do this with the help of their hyper-PC college president Ms. Garcia-Thompson, whose devotion to sensitivity has, it is implied, caused a serious downgrade to the school’s reputation for academic rigor: a senior is able to B.S. his way into a thesis that involves watching television 24 hours a day, and Garcia-Thompson openly muses of bulldozing a science building to make way for “Bisexual Asian Studies.”

Thus begins PCU, a skewed look at the modern college campus – which Ebert described as having a great premise, but lacking the satirical chops to fully follow through. Although it was critically panned upon its release and underperformed at the box office, PCU nonetheless managed to acquire a substantial cult following in the intervening two and a half decades. Many of the movie’s fans contend that writer Zak Penn predicted the hyper-PC craziness of today’s college campus, but I think the movie is a lot more valuable as a cultural artifact, showing how our cultural ideas of what comedy is have changed.

The cultural era in which PCU arose was interesting to say the least: The sunny puritanism of the Reagan years engendered a backlash of cynicism, which manifested itself in the comedy world as a phenomenon I like to call the “equal-opportunity offender.” This was a vein of comedy which stood in stark contrast to the squeaky-clean Tipper Gore milieu of the ‘80s, which made a virtue of being deliberately provocative and shocking: pushing the envelope of foul language and sexual/scatological humor, willfully making jokes at the expense of every conceivable minority group, political affiliation, and body type, and just generally spitting on the entire notion of good taste. The 1990s gave us the shock-jock antics of Howard Stern, the animated shenanigans of Beavis and Butt-head, Family Guy, and South Park, and stand-up comedians with self-described “asshole” personas like Andrew Dice Clay and Denis Leary.

PCU fits neatly into that tradition. It’s a very lowbrow movie, juvenile, if you will, but comedy has long had a reputation for catering to our most immature instincts. It’s not seen as a very “elevated” art form–at least not until a comedic work reaches a certain age, by which point that the cultural context has changed so much that it’s no longer even remotely funny. People have long noted that comedy movies rarely get nominated for Oscars, or for any other award that doesn’t have a category specifically devoted to comedy. An affinity for comedy isn’t seen as very worthy of an adult somehow. Why might that be? Comedy seeks to make people laugh. And laughing is a physiological reaction to absurdity. Children do it more often than adults in their everyday lives because everything is absurd to them–they have no frame of reference for how anything really goes, and so nearly everything can be silly in context.

And nothing is more silly than when someone does something naughty that they’re not supposed to do. Manners, morals, codes of conduct, taboos, social rituals, courtesies– these are things that kids are forgiven for not knowing, but which we’re supposed to have a good grasp of them by the time we’re adults. And the very arbitrariness of these various rules, and the vast emotional energy invested into maintaining their observances, has made them fertile targets for comedy since time immemorial. From Chauncer’s tales of swiving the miller’s daughter, to the Marx brothers’ failing to treat a rich old lady with appropriate deference, acting disrespectfully has always equaled comedy gold. Because what is more absurd than an adult who willfully does what they know they shouldn’t do?

For this reason, it used to be taken more or less for granted that comedy would have an immature, sophomoric undercurrent–no one expected any different of it. The act of thumbing one’s nose at particular codes of behavior was assumed to be an integral component of comedy, one of particular interest to kids and people with child-like minds. The urge to offend, to transgress, to sling mud for no other reason than to see it splatter has long been considered a uniquely juvenile pursuit. The closest thing PCU gets to a thematic core is when Droz observes that the “womynists” picketing The Pit’s party are young, just like they are–they have all that irrepressible youthful energy, the deep-seated desire to get loaded and out of control, but this energy has been sublimated by the forces of political correctness, and harnessed in an effort to better control the student body.

Some of these jokes that PCU, and other “equal opportunity offenders” traffic in are considered to have a juvenile basis because they make sense according to a very juvenile worldview, one that lacks perspective and empathy. We’re supposed to know better than to make jokes at the expense of minority groups, people who have been through a lot, and still experience plenty of difficulty, and it’s not nice to make light of their struggles. This is the basis of appeals to “politically correct” decorum, and that’s what it is at its core, decorum: a set of manners. A guide to use when interacting with people. The kind of thing you’re supposed to know as an adult who has to interact with people in polite society.

As noted above, it’s never been popular, for the same reason cops and hall monitors and people obsessed with etiquette have never been popular, and the term “politically correct” has therefore been mostly used in a derogatory fashion. Today, of course, such a person is just as likely to be called a “social justice warrior” which is a label slightly more palatable, but unfortunately even vaguer, or “woke” which has a slightly more racialized dimension (arising as it did from Black slang) but is vaguest of all.

The idea behind the press for more inclusive language, as it applies to college activities and comedy alike, is that these institutions were historically dominated by white males. Pretty hard to argue that point–pretty much everything was, by legal proscription or social convention or both. White men dominated these institutions for so long that the culture surrounding these institutions developed a language, a way of doing things, that had the effect of perpetuating the culture of white maleness even after other groups of people gained mainstream access to them. If one wants to make the experience of these institutions less white and male, they have to modify this language to accommodate them. Part of being an adult who participates in these institutions is keeping this historical reality in mind. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t come naturally to kids; it’s a process involving higher-order moral reasoning, functional empathy, and control over one’s behavior.

This also applies to comedy as a profession, but when applied to the actual practice of comedy, social justice decorum has other applications. A big thing in the comedy world recently is “punching-up vs. punching down” discourse. It’s long been observed that people belonging to a certain in-group use humor to signal their own group allegiance and values amongst themselves. The kinds of things that it is acceptable to poke fun at, and the ways in which you do it, reflects a certain worldview, culture, and value system. This value system can either reinforce old hierarchies, or subvert them. When you make a joke at the expense of a person or group, it can either punch up, i.e. take aim at the groups who have traditionally had a lot of power in society, or punch down, and take aim at those groups who have already been historically downtrodden. There’s an acceptable way to make these kinds of jokes, and it’s by doing more of the former and less of the latter. When you don’t, you signal to people within the downtrodden groups that you don’t care about their struggle. At least, that’s the theory.

Once could argue that the social function of humor ought not to be conflated with its cultural function. That is, in a social setting, such as a workplace, jokes can and will be used as “virtue signals” to police conformity and establish in-group boundaries, but when a comedy movie is released to the public at large, it doesn’t necessarily have the same implication. Here, jokes function more as a safe release valve, letting people play around with transgressive and antisocial emotions. A “safe space,” if you will. A place and time to laugh at the things we’re too decent to laugh at if they were happening right in front of us.

This argument only takes us so far, however. It’s tempting to treat jokes as if they’re nothing more than fun nonsense, something to tickle your id and provoke a primal reaction from you, just as a horror movie does by other means, but humor doesn’t follow quite the same rules. As film critic William Bibbiani pointed out, the effect that is produced by a good joke arises from the discovery of some kind of truth, which the joke teller is making you arrive at in a backwards fashion, through absurdity. In a tweet thread, he deconstructed a famous piece of humor that many people seem to believe is entirely frivolous and doesn’t mean anything: the famous Saturday Night Live “cowbell” sketch from 2000. He points out that the humor in the sketch comes from the audience’s realization that the cowbell is a very silly instrument, and that it’s crazy that there’s a cowbell in one of the most popular songs of all time and yet no one ever seems to notice, and the cowbell had to get in the song somehow, and there must be some story behind the cowbell being into the song but no one can even guess at how that happened. If there really were no logical conclusion behind it, you wouldn’t laugh, you’d be confused.

So what kinds of essential truths is PCU trying to communicate to us? What is it trying to say? It would help if the movie would define “political correctness” just a little bit. Droz and the rest of the Pit buddies don’t have any discernible ideology, and neither do the “PC” people. The characters shown are sketched a little bit too thinly to carry much political weight. The one thing that draws them all together is that they’re all horrible. Just mean-spirited, spiteful people. The womynists are all sour and freely pepper any white man they see with verbal abuse. The black activists are defensive and paranoid, and blame all manner of unlikely things on the white man’s perfidy. The gays are fey and mostly concerned with frivolous fashion things. The “cause-heads” sneer at the Pit members and steal their property. They’re all stuck-up and hostile, something the movie suggests is due to their inability to cut loose and have a good time like they’re supposed to do in college.

The essence of satire is exaggeration – drawing attention to the flaws of someone or something by exaggerating its characteristics to the point of absurdity. This is the means by which satire reveals truth. So what does PCU choose to exaggerate? What truths is it trying to reveal about contemporary campus life? The only common thread running through all of the Pit’s interactions with the PC groups is that the latter feel no compunction about shouting at the former, calling them all manner of vile names, judging others for hanging out with them – in short, displaying intolerance. The point they seem to be trying to get across is that, far from promoting tolerance, the regime of Garcia-Thompson is merely identifying a target that it is acceptable to be intolerant toward. Except – what group would that be referring to? The jokey answer is “white men,” but that doesn’t describe everyone who lives in the Pit. They have women in the Pit, they have a black guy – the Pit doesn’t seem to conform to a single identity group.

David Spade’s loathsome rich chode character, Rand McPherson, brings us closer to an answer.

Probably the most over-the-top character in the entire movie, played with every crumb of sarcasm in David Spade’s ample repertoire, Rand hates the various identity groups on campus – the hippies are losers, the minorities are whiny, the gays are disgusting, and the womynists need to shut up and spread their legs. He and the rest of the Balls and Shaft society are antagonistic to nearly everyone, and like the Pit, want the fraternity system to be brought back, but they don’t attract the same ire as the Pit does. President Garcia-Thompson, even though she loathes Rand personally, is more than willing to accept him as a lesser evil and get involved with schemes with him against their mutual enemies in The Pit. Why? Because Rand, along with the rest of the Balls and Shaft society, is rich. That’s what connects the two. He constantly insults the Pit members as “poor” (poor compared to him, although anyone who can stay at college for seven years without graduating, as Droz does, obviously isn’t hurting financially). The rich kids, as we’re made aware, hate all the other identity groups on campus, but are able, thanks to their finishing-school breeding and schmoozing instincts, to hide this fact from the general public. The Pit crew, with their lack of fancylad manners, tend to stick out as PC targets.

This has long been a criticism of “political correctness” – that this push for inclusive language doesn’t actually promote equity or understanding among identity groups, but merely establishes a social script for use among the educated upper class, which they can use to bludgeon those uppity poors without the benefit of such finishing-school niceties. If this is what PCU is trying to say, one thing complicating the message is that the Pit engages in a lot of the same behavior as the villains, and in places are painted in ways just as unsympathetic. Their pranks are as cruel as anything Balls & Shaft might do. Garcia-Thompson’s many PC activities threatening the academic rigor of the school might be on target if any of the Pit members seemed to care about academics at all. We’re meant to look down on Rand for engaging in cop behavior – conspiring with school leadership to get rid of the Pit – but Droz’s ultimately successful plan to oust Garcia-Thompson hinges on precisely this (conspiring with the board of directors, who need a reason to vote to remove Garcia-Thompson).

But again, in those days, comedy didn’t necessarily need to try and promote a coherent worldview. That was a more recent invention. The makers of these “equal-opportunity offender” comedies usually made a big point of keeping their work apolitical. They mocked everyone opportunistically, punched left and right, no one was off-limits. The nothing-sacred attitude waned in popularity after 9/11, which “killed irony” as commentators were fond of saying, and in the wake of the increasing political polarization of the ‘00s and ‘10s, the “apolitical” argument stopped cutting ice with many mainstream critics and commentators, who decried these types of comedies as “nihilistic.” They argued that, far from being apolitical, mocking pretty much anyone who cared about anything at all put these comedies on the side of the status quo and thus made them inherently conservative.

The newer comedies coming into being around this time challenged the notion that comedy necessarily had to be juvenile (at least, in the same way that PCU is juvenile) and that it couldn’t promote any constructive lessons. The makers of these comedies argued that jokes, far from being just frivolous diversions, wielded enormous sociocultural power. The shift could, at least in part, be attributable to the success of The Daily Show during the Bush years, which, though a comedy program and not an actual news source, often provided more accurate information and more clearheaded takes about the Iraq fiasco than the major newspapers and cable networks were doing. Suddenly, comedy could be a force for good.

I don’t know if it’s possible to assign a definite tipping point to this cultural shift, but I first took notice of it in 2012 in the aftermath of the infamous Daniel Tosh rape joke. Stand-up comedian Daniel Tosh, well known for his outrageous and offensive act, got heckled onstage while telling a rape joke, by a woman who yelled “Actually, rape is never funny.” As comedians have been doing for decades, he shut down his heckler with a snappy retort: “Wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped by like five guys right now?” There’d been comparable incidents before – Michael Richards’ cancellation comes to mind – but this set off a firestorm of debate about what comedy was supposed to look like in the 21st century.

Earlier, I explained the difference between the social and cultural aspects of comedy. Some people came to Tosh’s defense, appealing to the latter definition: saying, essentially, that nothing he said in his capacity as a performer should be taken seriously. The prevailing consensus, however, seemed to take the former approach: commentators said that for Tosh, as a man, to make these kinds of jokes was an invocation of his status and an endorsement of rape culture. Some people actually suggested that he was slyly inviting some man or men to come and rape this woman.

Now, Tosh clearly did not want this woman to get violated. He was only saying what he thought would be the funniest thing to say in that moment. But neither do I think that was a good response, from a craft perspective if not a moral one. Remember what I said about jokes always pointing you toward some truth? This means that, to perform comedy effectively you need to have some handle on what’s actually true. What brought this to mind while rewatching PCU is the scene at the Pit’s big party, where a couple of womynists are approached by some guys. They, in character, sneer and insult the boys, but as it turns out, the jocks only want to offer them a couple of drinks. A eureka look crosses both the womynists’ faces. “It’s like…if you’re nice to them…they bring you things,” one says, as if this had never crossed her mind before. It’s a super cringey scene. It fails because it has no truth in it at all. No woman ever became a man-hater simply because it hadn’t occurred to her that she could be nice instead. This simply isn’t a thing that could happen. The scene’s punchline makes it sound like women have nothing real to be suspicious of men about, and the fact that they – on a college campus – are made to look like fools for being suspicious of a couple of dudes who offer to fetch them drinks, as if rape and date rape especially weren’t already a massive problem on college campus when the movie came out. There’s exaggeration to make a point, and then there’s complete detachment from reality.

The Tosh incident blurred the line between the social and cultural aspects of comedy, but it had been heading in that direction for some time, and got more blurry since. These days, mainstream comedy is all about making jokes about the right things, the right people – it’s pure death to even look like you’re using humor to uphold systemic privilege. One of the most active comedy producers in Hollywood, Michael Schur, uses his platform running shows like Parks & Recreation and The Good Place to promote optimistic themes, characters who grow as people, and small-minded figures getting their comeuppance. Adult animation, long the province of Family Guy and South Park-type “nihilism” is now dominated by shows like Bojack Horseman and Big Mouth which use humor to expound on issues like mental illness, toxic masculinity, and queer identities. And since Trump, most mainstream stand-up comedians are either whole-hog into liberal partisan politics or avoid the topic like a Tupperware full of rotten food in the fridge.

No one wants to look reactionary, so everyone either avoids political humor or couches it in the clearest possible terms so no one can accuse them of promoting what they mean to mock. The problem is, comedy can’t flourish if it’s not allowed any ambiguity. Humor inherently operates within irony, absurdity, multiple layers of meaning. The modern dictum is “satire requires a clarity of purpose, lest it be mistaken for that which it intends to criticize.” But who decides if its purpose is clear or not? Someone is always going to misinterpret anything, no matter how clear it is. A work of comedy can’t be any good if its makers are always gearing their jokes toward their stupidest or most bad-faith viewers. Some of the most incisive comedies of all time have some of the most “problematic” content, and the monthly rounds of online discourse are never going to let us forget it. One of the most anti-racist movies of all time, Blazing Saddles, is regularly called out for featuring racial slurs and stereotypes. Even works from this century, such as the adult puppet sketch comedy Wonder Showzen, (barely fifteen years old!) are given the can-you-believe-they-did-this-back-then treatment.

This trend ironically drives the modern cult of movies like PCU. Certainly it appeals to some people on political grounds – conservatives do tend to like PCU – but the discourse around political correctness on college campuses hasn’t really changed much in 30 years or so. For others, the appeal lies in a comedy that hadn’t made up your mind for you. The self-serious didacticism that characterizes mainstream comedy in 2021 makes people yearn for a simpler-times movie, which said to hell with “clarity of purpose,” where the characters weren’t role models, no particular behavior was endorsed, jokes were broad and flew freely, and nothing really meant anything. PCU isn’t really a good movie, but its freewheeling approach has the seeds of sublimity in it that you just can’t find much of anymore.