Sarah Komanapalli | Editor-in-chief
Last Saturday, hundreds of Purdue students walked out of a performance by comedian Andy Gross at the Boiler Gold Rush closing ceremony. The inciting incident was a portion of Gross’ performance that involved a student volunteer named Julia Conversa. Matthew Byrn, a freshman at Purdue, stated that the show started out fine. However, Gross then “called a girl on stage and said horrible things.” Byrn continued by saying, “He joked about getting an erection and even had her place her hand on his leg. He then purposely picked the wrong card and said, ‘well at least I got a free feel out of it.’” Byrn described the event as “very disturbing” and said that he “walked out because I did not want to support what he [Gross] was doing.” Julia Conversa was visibly upset after the interaction and felt harassed.
The Purdue Student Government issued a statement Monday condemning “the actions of Andy Gross and any statements/actions that make light of sexual harassment.” Purdue University sought and has received a full refund from Gross’ booking agency. Byrn suggested that the university could have done more, though. “They could have turned off his mic or pulled him off stage but they just let him keep going,” he said.
Later, on Monday, Gross’ agent, Rebecca Kaufman, released a statement from Gross.
“Andy Gross is profoundly sorry that students at Purdue University were offended during his show this past weekend. Andy has performed all segments of last weekend’s act for many years without complaint, including in venues such as the Laugh Factory, the Comedy Store, the Improv, and dozens of venues throughout the United States and abroad. Andy has never before been accused of sexual misconduct or harassment.
“Andy was oblivious and naive about the current environment on college campuses, and he sincerely regrets causing any offense or discomfort to any student participating. Andy has chosen to no longer perform on college campuses in the future. Further, he plans to change the parts that upset Purdue’s students.
“Again, Andy Gross sincerely regrets causing offense or discomfort.”
The comic’s jokes were perhaps more incendiary considering what preceded the performance. Paulina Karbowski shared her sexual assault experience to fellow students. On Twitter, she expressed her shock at the events following her story. “I shared my experience with sexual assault in front of 7000 new students at Purdue,” tweeted Karbowski. “Moments later, I watched my friend get sexually harassed by Andy Gross on the same stage.”
Gross’ actions come at a time when cases of sexual harassment and assault are being publicly denounced after decades of being ignored. Efforts like the #MeToo movement give individuals the opportunity to speak out about their experiences. Sexual assault on college campuses is a widespread issue that different universities handle with varying degrees of tact. In light of changing attitudes, the jokes came across as insensitive and damaging. The physical element of the joke (pressing the student to touch Gross’ thigh) exacerbated the situation.
The performance and student body reaction raise questions regarding comedy’s place on college campuses. In May, Vice News did a piece on whether colleges are becoming too politically correct regarding comedy. Michael Moynihan from Vice News interviewed individuals who are tasked with booking comedians for their respective universities. They discussed what goes into their decisions. For example, they make it clear to potential performers that they do not tolerate jokes that make light of sexual harassment. They may watch comedians’ previous acts and ask them to remove certain jokes.
Some comedians, however, assert that this kind of editing holds back comedy. In the Vice News piece mentioned above, legendary comic Judy Gold frustratedly asks “Why is it that everyone has to adjust to everyone else?” Later she says, “The joke is not about you. You need to learn how to be in this world.” Just a few years ago, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld were expressing similar sentiments. They said comedians should not perform at college campuses because students are too ‘conservative’ or ‘P.C.’. A 2015 article published in The Atlantic argued that while the intention to create respective environments is admirable, it hides students from a range of challenging perspectives.
Purdue’s own comedy troupe, The Crazy Monkeys, has a different perspective on the issue. The club’s president, Duncan Moran, weighed in during an email correspondence. He said, “On Purdue’s campus, we know where we are about to perform and conduct ourselves accordingly.” Moran continued, stating “We won’t arrive to a show for a young audience and talk about sex in a college dorm; that’s not censorship. We don’t feel burdened by it; we just know that that’s not what that audience wants to hear.”
Moran made it clear that The Crazy Monkeys do not support Gross’ behavior, “especially when an audience volunteer is involved.” However, he mentioned that Purdue could have done more to ensure the performance was appropriate. “Perhaps the event staff of BGR should have done their research into this comedian, one who probably does this set all the time, before hiring him for an almost mandatory event with our youngest students,” said Moran. “You can’t act surprised when the horse you bought does horse things.”
The debate surrounding comedy and inclusion will continue, but the performance at Elliott Hall of Music seems to have crossed a line. The Atlantic article speaks of comedians who did well at colleges with jokes involving race. A few students expressed discomfort, but the vast majority were unphased. Gross’ actions were received negatively by hundreds of students, which tells a very different story. Fortunately, students could take comfort in the support and encouragement they received from their peers.