The quickest way to find out what college kids care about these days is to listen to what they're laughing about. And on a recent Friday night, nine Brown University students who make up The Brown Stand-up Comics were drawing laughs from some 200 of their schoolmates who had paid $1 each to crowd into a basement lecture hall on the Providence campus to hear jokes about race, sex, pop culture and their generation's ambivalent feelings about current events. "My friends are fasting for Darfur, and I'm like, is that like Ramadan?" riffed Christine Sunu, 19, a pre-med student. "Free Tibet? Did it cost anything?"
O.K., Sunu and her troupemates may not be ready for Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, but groups like The Brown Standup Comics are playing a lead role in the vibrant comedy scene that is springing up on college campuses around the country. Stand-up comics, sketch comedy troupes and improv groups are performing in packed auditoriums, dormitory lounges and cafeteria halls at their own schools and occasionally taking their shows on the road to other campuses. Some colleges have even begun offering stand-up comedy courses. "The stand-up comedy movement on campuses is blossoming," says Doug Holsclaw, whose stand-up comedy class at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has had a waiting list for three consecutive years. "The thing about comedy is that it's very empowering. A lot of these kids are on their own for the first time. Comedy helps them realize they have a point of view. They can just get up and express it, and all they need is a mike."
And, of course, comedy is a language that's already very familiar to them. "We're the first generation to grow up with an all-comedy TV channel Comedy Central," says Grace Parra, 21, who is president of Columbia University's Fruit Paunch improv group. "We grew up watching Nickelodeon at Night. We saw kids doing comedy for kids. That kind of stuff sticks with you." Their sense of entitlement to humor was honed further by shows like The Simpsons, South Park and the improv series Who's Line Is It Anyway? as well as by edgy comics like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock.
But while the style of campus comedy may be similar to those role models (and yes, that means a lavish use of profanity), its subject matter tends to be considerably less angry and less political than, say, Rock's or South Park's. Instead, student stand-ups prefer to riff on more personal themes like their obsession with pop culture (from Brown's Dustin Foley: "You know who I think is having an affair? Waldo and Carmen San Diego. Has anyone seen either of them lately?") or their dating habits (from Kenyon College's Rubin Miller: "Girls always say they want a man who speaks his mind. But I have a friend back home who has Tourette's, and he hasn't been laid in years").
Thornier social and political issues such as the war and abortion are handled with a lighter touch,much in the manner ofThe Daily Show's Jon Stewart, the undisputed hero among college comics. "Normal news can depress you," says Elise Webb, 20, who performs with two different groups at Loyola University in Chicago. "We need some way to cope. Jon Stewart doesn't take anything too seriously. It's easier to take someone joking about a situation." When Chowdah, one of four established comedy groups at Columbia University in New York City, decided to make fun of America's anti-French sentiment at the beginning of the Iraq War, it presented a sketch about a son coming out to his parents that he wants to be French. "It was one of our best-received sketches," says Chowdah's Dave Verbitsky, 21.
But some campus groups steer clear of political commentary. Members of Two Drink Minimum, a stand-up troupe formed three years ago at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, say their primary comic mission is to get laughs by exploring the daily lives of their fellow students. "Being on a liberal campus, it would be far too easy to do a Bush bash," says Davy Andrews, 22, co-president of the troupe. "We've taken our shots at authority, but being funny is by far our first concern."
Being funny is also a way for some students to ease into life at college. Max Reisman, a freshman at Kenyon, joined Two Drink Minimum during orientation week because he had performed stand-up in high school."I met a lot of people who I had something in common with through the group," says Reisman, 19. They all know the value of a good laugh.