The Harvard Crimson

‘The Line’: Questions of Comedy, Speech, and Accountability

While maybe not popularly identified with “freedom of speech” concerns, comedy clubs on Harvard’s campus are still beholden to concerns about what might be appropriate to say and what might cross the line.
By Eileene J. Lee

‘The Line’: Questions of Comedy, Speech, and Accountability

While maybe not popularly identified with “freedom of speech” concerns, comedy clubs on Harvard’s campus are still beholden to concerns about what might be appropriate to say and what might cross the line.
By Abigail Chachkes and Thor N. Reimann

Kate Middleton had been missing for weeks.

The mystery over the Princess of Wales’s whereabouts — which had simmered since late last year — escalated in March when the press exposed the Royal Family for releasing a photoshopped image of Middleton with her children. Middleton took accountability for doctoring the photo in a stilted post on X March 11, claiming — as many princesses do — that she was experimenting with Photoshop.

On Thin Ice, a Harvard student improv troupe, couldn’t resist jumping into the speculation. They planned to do a Kate Middleton themed show on March 24, promising “authentic tea” and a “Kate Middleton Appearance???” in a pub email just a couple days before.

“where has she been?” read the pub email. “has she been recovering from a bbl?”

Then the news broke that the Princess had stepped back from the public eye to focus on actively recovering from her recent cancer diagnosis.

Reading the room, OTI was quick to change the approach of their show. In an email less than an hour after Middleton’s update, the group released a statement in a decidedly less jovial tone: “Due to the incredibly unfortunate news that we have received about Kate Middleton’s health condition, we will be changing the theme of this show. More information is to come.”

OTI is not alone in thinking about the appropriateness of their speech.

Concerns about campus speech are taking Harvard by storm. Given the “worst score ever,” by college free speech watchdog FIRE, Harvard’s administration has put together initiative after initiative to bolster open dialogue on campus.

While most of the dialogue around free speech on college campuses focuses on classroom culture and student groups in more overtly political protest spaces, the comedy scene has flown under the radar — despite the fact that comedy is often a means of self-expression amid times of social and political unrest.

However, comedy’s utility in mediating controversy is often informed by debates over just how far comics can go in joking about the issues of the day. While topics may be salient and rich for comedic interpretation, comics may get pushback if they “cross the line” on a controversial topic, depending upon the positioning of the audience. Thus “the line” plays a significant role in determining just what humor has a place amid social controversy.

OTI’s recent show change is just one example of this line shifting. While the jokes about Kate Middleton were perceived as fair game for OTI (and most of the Internet) when her whereabouts were unknown, upon publication of her health condition, the situation no longer felt appropriate to meme-ify. The context changed, and so did the group’s relationship to “the line.” As a result, the troupe ‘switcherooed’ the show theme… to “Switcheroo.”

While maybe not popularly identified with “freedom of speech” concerns, comedy clubs on Harvard’s campus are still beholden to concerns about what might be appropriate to say and what might cross the line.

Discourse of “the line” tends to focus on what an audience may tolerate, especially amid concerns that student bodies like Harvard’s have become unable to handle dissenting viewpoints. In reality, it’s negotiated between the audience and the performer. Comedic actors may choose to accept the line and its rules or to reject it and accept the consequences. From OTI to Harvard University Stand Up Comic Society (HUSUCS) and beyond, humor groups have different interpretations on how to approach the line — which says as much about the personality of the club as the audiences they engage with.

The Campus Comedy Scene

Harvard humor spans many forms. There is the Harvard Lampoon and Satire V publishing written comedy; OTI, Three Letter Acronym, and Instant Gratification Players doing improv; and HUSUCS doing stand-up. None of them quite agree on what doing comedy should look like.

HUSUCS prides itself on its inclusive approach to comedy. The stand up society welcomes all Harvard students at each step of the process: their meetings can be attended by any interested student, anyone with an approved set can perform at a show, and the shows themselves are free and open to all.

As presidents of HUSUCS, John “Jack” F. Griffin ’25 and Rave S. Andrews ’25 share the responsibility of determining the comedic limits within such a diverse set of comedians and spectators. To get approved to perform, a student must run their three minute set by leaders at pre-show office hours. Anyone is welcome to be at these office hours, ensuring transparency for their approval process.

When asked about the standards they use to judge the appropriateness of a set, Griffin emphasizes the anodyne phrase “happy, healthy, well.”

“The only time we ever say no to someone is if they bring us a set and we’re like, ‘you can’t perform that for a Harvard audience,’” says Griffin.

Griffin and Andrews did not explicitly define what a “Harvard audience” will tolerate. But, when asked about the guidelines they use, Andrews reiterated an approach of sensitivity. According to her, the priority of a show is to cultivate “a place where people can laugh and not feel afraid that they're being targeted for anything that's related to their identity, background, anything at all.”

“We just don’t want to make people uncomfortable,” Andrews says.

Despite the approval process, HUSUCS has not been free of controversy: during a fall 2022 show, a student reportedly performed a set that offended certain audience members. According to Griffin, a controversial set can happen when a student changes the set after office hours and has not run it by leaders. After this set, an addendum was added to HUSCUS rules that if a student goes rogue, then the leaders of HUSUCS are allowed to ban the student from the club for a semester.

Griffin and Andrews were not presidents at the time of the fall 2022 set, only having started their roles at the beginning of this past spring semester. When asked how the organization would respond to a controversial set if it were to happen again, Griffin explained that he and Andrews would “just go on stage” and cut the performer off.

HUSUCS presidents, John “Jack” F. Griffin ’25 and Rave S. Andrews ’25, lead a meeting for the stand-up group on March 30.
HUSUCS presidents, John “Jack” F. Griffin ’25 and Rave S. Andrews ’25, lead a meeting for the stand-up group on March 30. By A. Skye Schmiegelow

During the interview, Griffin and Andrews recited HUSUCS’ official statement on free speech, which they prepared before arriving at the interview. Speaking impressively in unison, like twins from The Shining, they shared:

For those truly voluntarily critical and meditative citizens commuting within the demarcations of this United civil identity, the simulacrum of free speech motivation assuaging the populace's penchant for unfettered speech absolute pales upon reflection of these aspirations base nature as pining for expressions of locutionary value. Free speech may sojourn with the metaphysical ambition of democracy but it nevertheless remains an ardor of capitalism. Discard the notion of the Founding Fathers' hawkish desire devoted thus to an unchained dictionary, else the declaration of this country's independence would be an artifact of dadaism. Thomas Jefferson liberates the inscribed language abstracted from its languageness, thus simply letters on lines, ink on page, resin upon carbon, inconceivable. Blood has never been shed to coo as a cherub does, but it will be drained for the right to language of profit. Freedom of speech aligns with democracy but supports the hierarchy of capitalism. Few and modern humor clamor for "free speech.” Fewer of those clamor for speech unfettered, instead blustering for scrutiny and the cybernetic attention economy with virulent languages attender. HUSUCS declines engagement with misaligned arguments contended by the flippant diametrically opposed adversaries.

Lauren A. Perl ’25, a member of HUSUCS, says that timing is a large consideration when it comes to the appropriateness of comedy, a sentiment that parallels the OTI incident. For example, after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Perl says that HUSUCS administration told performers to not address anything related to Israel and Palestine.

“They’re like, this is too tragic to be discussed right now,” Perl says.

Beyond HUSUCS, Perl has been involved with the comedy site Satire V, working as an editor during her sophomore year. The magazine does a range of Harvard-related humor (“BREAKING: Application Process to Most Prestigious Blocking Group in the Yard opens to First-Years”) and broadly topical comedy (“BREAKING: La La Land Voted Speaker of the House”). Perl explains that the organization has also prohibited a couple of her pitches because of timing.

In one case, Perl wanted to publish a piece on Amber Alerts for teenage girls after the release of artist Taylor Swift’s re-recorded version of the album Red. However, editors told Perl that this piece could not be published due to news about a female student at Princeton University who had just gone missing. When Perl expressed dismay at the article being rejected, her editor reassured her that, really, it’s all about timing. The piece, Perl was told, “could be published just a month from now.”

When considering Satire V’s overt sensitivity to timing when compared to other comedy organizations on campus, Perl suggests that it may be because there are more women involved in the editorial process, enabling a more thoughtful approach to propriety. She adds that the public and permanent nature of published comedy contributes to this caution.

“It’s published, it’s written down,” Perl explains.

When it comes to written comedy, over-cautiousness on campus may have its roots in a recent scandal with The Lampoon. In 2019, The Lampoon came under scrutiny when one of their publications included an image of Anne Frank’s head photoshopped onto the body of a bikini model.

A New York Times article about the image reported that the photo “was accompanied by the headline, ‘Gone Before Her Time: Virtual Aging Technology Shows Us What Anne Frank Would Have Looked Like if She Hadn’t Died.’” Further text read, “Add this to your list of reasons the Holocaust sucked.”

Following intense and widespread backlash from Harvard students, Harvard Hillel, and the larger press, The Lampoon ultimately pulled all magazines with this image from their distribution points and released an apology about the publication. In addition to denouncing antisemitism, the magazine also claimed that they were planning to reevaluate their current standard of “editorial oversight.”

“We are going to restructure our review process for issues to prevent the publication of content like this,” the statement promised.

The Lampoon did not respond to requests for comment on the incident and policy changes since.

‘It’s no longer about creating good comedy, but about exerting power’

The Anne Frank incident reflects the Lampoon’s uniquely free-wheeling style of comedy, one that is perhaps largely tolerated because of the social clout they have on campus. So to look at the evolution of Harvard’s comedy scene as it relates to controversial humor, you have to go to the Castle.

Founded in 1876, the Lampoon hasn’t always been the controversial sibling of the Harvard Comedy scene. In fact, for a long time it was more like an aloof only child.

When Daniel “Dan” A. McGrath ’86 recalls his days on campus, he notes that the Lampoon was really the only path for those looking to get into comedy: “There wasn't really a ‘scene’ surrounding comedy,” he wrote in an email. “It was more like just an eccentric thing that some of us just pursued for our own reasons.”

McGrath, who went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” and won an Emmy for an episode of “The Simpsons” in 1997, describes Lampoon culture-of-his-day as removed from social issues. At the time, he notes, the Lampoon specialized “in a very sort of abstract, ‘detached’ kind of comedy, not connected to real-life issues.”

McGrath’s pieces included works with titles like “Malthus Principle Comix!” and “Optimistic Millenarian Eschatology Comix!” As he describes, “going ‘too far’ in comedy” was “not a relevant question, because we were all so abstract that there wasn’t any ‘far’ to go.”

This was no doubt informed by a less political campus at the time — as McGrath recalls, a lack of “the hyper-politicalizing of every local personal matter, as one sees today.”

While McGrath points to this less politicized culture as part of the reason behind the Lampoon’s esoteric comedy of the day, that spirit of comedy irreverent of the times remains present in the Lampoon.

In 2018, then-President of the Lampoon Liana Spiro ’19 told CBS, “There’s a sense here that we are writing the magazine for ourselves and that no one is reading it. And that, I think actually, is one of the most beautiful things about the Lampoon. That we feel like no one is watching and we can just dance however we want.”

The Anne Frank scandal just a year later proved Spiro wrong — and Spiro, then acting as president emeritus, helped pen the Lampoon’s public comment taking accountability for the piece.

While the Lampoon may see itself as a stand-alone comic group, they are still situated in a broader campus, one that does take note of their content. Even as there has not been another public scandal since the Anne Frank incident — perhaps proof that any policy changes have been effective — they still face unfavorable views by large portions of the student body. According to The Crimson’s 2023 senior survey, 51 percent of respondents had unfavorable views of the magazine, and only 18 percent had favorable views.

It’s not that they have shied away from hard issues: just look at their May 2023 issue, which was loosely criminal-justice themed. Rather, they maintain their quirky and irreverent style with slightly less edge, a change that indicates the Lampoon may be capitulating to readers’ criticisms in determining the extent of their edgy comedy.

And as the Anne Frank incident makes clear, what the Lampoon publishes doesn’t just produce campus feedback, but has larger ramifications given the magazine’s national influence.

According to McGrath, there are two main reasons for the Lampoon’s pre-eminence on the comedy scene. One is that Harvard students tend to pull from wide bases of source material, which just makes for better comedy.

“If you know 50,000 related things, that makes you a college professor,” McGrath wrote, “but if you know 50,000 unrelated things, that makes you a comedy writer.”

The second is the legacy of Lampoon comedy writers, a professional network paved by James “Jim” M.W. Downey ’74, who was the first Harvard graduate to write at Saturday Night Live — and who went on to be the longest tenured writer in the show’s history. Today, Lampoon alumni are among some of the most prolific names in comedy. Conan C. O’Brien ’85, Colin K. Jost ’04, and B.J. M. Novak ’01 are among the household names who made their way through the Plympton Street castle.

As reported in the New York Times in 1987, the growth of the club’s professional clout “seems to surprise the first generation that made its way into the medium” of television — alumni that joined the Lampoon “because it was a cheeky thing to do and are now, to their chagrin, considered ‘established.'”

Critics of the Lampoon say that the organization’s prominence in national culture has made the quality of its comedy suffer. It’s now too concerned with ritual and its own cult-ish image, the irreverence gone too far into a self-serving ethos.

After the 2019 scandal, Catherine L. Zhang ’19, former head of Satire V, was quoted in Boston Magazine saying “When it’s saddled with so many other concerns, like ingratiating yourself to higher-ups or going through strange rituals, it’s no longer about creating good comedy, but about exerting power.”

In this light, Spiro’s comment that “we can just dance however we want” may speak less to a carefree approach towards comedy, and more to the privilege and protection that can come with being a part of a socially exclusive and secretive organization — privilege that might enable more controversial or edgy humor to be published with less attention towards their repercussions.

Regardless of how one feels about its work, the very-established Lampoon does have a reputation for being one of the most selective clubs on campus. Out of generally more than 100 compers, Sixty Minutes reported, admitted compers number in the single digits: “only the funniest survive.”

Student Discourse on Comedy

That scene isn’t for everyone.

“The Lampoon has this very prestigious feel to it,” says Raina D. Hofstede ’24, a member of HUSUCS and OTI. “And I appreciate that there are spaces that I can engage with comedy without feeling like I'm being prestigious.”

While individual comics on campus may defer to their respective organizations to define “the line,” they are not looking at these institutions to define their own sense of humor.

When asked about comedians like Dave Chappelle and the general subset of offensive humor, Hofstede explains that “this is America and there’s an audience for that.” However, this helps her articulate her own philosophy when it comes to crafting humor.

“I like to tailor my jokes toward people that are kind and not assholes,” she says frankly.

Some students find that smaller Harvard circle appealing. A tight-knit community can provide the same opportunity normally exclusive to celebrities: the ability to have and manipulate a reputation.

Perl explained how she uses her persona on campus to help shape her comedy. “All these people knew me as this nice Jewish girl,” she says with a smile. “And I’d get up there and say the raunchiest shit.”

For Perl, at its core, comedy is about its social capabilities. She remembers finding SNL at a young age and getting drawn to comedy’s political nature. Watching the late night comedy special led her to realize that humor can be used as a “really witty way to make people question their preconceived notions about the current world that they were living in,” she says.

Perl has found spaces on campus that share her approach to comedy. SatireV, for example, states that they “aim to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.” Their official motto is “holding a mirror to truth” — a reference to the name of the magazine being “veritas” backwards.

But not every student resonates with a challenge-the-status-quo approach to comedy. Jack Schwab ’25, who has previously done comedy shows with HUSUCS, diverges from Perl’s opinion.

“I’m not one of those people who thinks comedy is the last line of defense of free speech,” Schwab says. “I’m not trying to spread some higher message and point people toward a higher power.”

When describing his own start to comedy, Schwab spoke about the more straightforward approach of evoking laughter. To him, it all comes down to the fact that “making people laugh is fun.” Schwab does not relate to comedians who are preoccupied with comedy as a salient cultural mechanism.

“Come on, dude,” he says. “We’re all idiots. I just try to make people laugh.”

Something of merit can certainly be said of purely trying to elicit laughter from an audience. The New Yorker article “What Do We Want From Comedy?” likens comedy to pornography, as comedy is a “rare form that has a physical end, either achieved or not.” People will notice at a comedy show if they laughed, and will especially notice if they did not.

Schwab himself prefers the comedy that he does outside of campus. He performs stand-up in his home state of Hawaii and has opened for comedians such as Jo Koy and Jay Pharoah.

Part of the appeal for him is the distance from the Harvard name and from the pressure to represent a larger organization or community. On campus, he is performing for HUSUCS. At other stand up shows, the only thing he is attached to is his own name. “I’m just Jack Schwab, and I’m here telling these jokes about penises and whatever the hell,” he says. “I’m the only one held accountable.”

Schwab fell out of the Harvard comedy scene last year, which he attributes to his outside experience. “I'd say most of it was just my own ego,” he explains. “Like, here’s these guys who haven't even done comedy in a city.”

When asked if he still felt this way, Schwab said he doesn’t.

“I grew out of that,” he says.

‘The craft is the most important thing’

Comedy at Harvard doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The ways students think about comedy on campus is situated in considerations that the broader comedic world grapples with when thinking about their work.

Derek J. Robey and Nicole R. Letourneau are doctoral students in sociology who helped Sociology professor Michèle Lamont conduct research for her recent book, “Seeing Others: How to Recognition Works— And How It Can Heal a Divided World.” Robey and Letourneau interviewed 75 people working as writers, comics, stage hands, and other roles within professional comedy scenes. In the study, they looked at the ways in which these people in the comedy scene made sense of their work and lives.

While Letourneau and Robey describe the comedians they had talked to as diverse in perspective in many ways, the first concern was always the same: “I have to be funny.” In the heat of comedy and its role in social issues, Robey notes, “people can sort of forget that that’s all they really want to do is make people laugh and earn a living to pay the rent.”

As Robey noted, while being funny is the first directive for many comics, there are numerous second hand concerns. For some, it may be promoting a diverse viewpoint of the world while for others, it might be destigmatizing mental health, or some other concern. And each comic determines what style works best to convey that underlying truth. McGrath, for example, enjoys employing “a sort of Ionesco-like apparatus.”

Confused? Here’s an example he gave: “2 + 2 = mustard.”

But by and large, McGrath and Letourneau and Robey all agree: most people just try to be funny.

Robey says that nobody they had talked to had the ethos of using humor intentionally to offend people. Rather, comics were concerned about being taken out of context or simply having bad material put out there.

“I don't think it can be emphasized enough, honestly, that for comics, the comedy is absolutely the most important thing. The craft is the most important thing,” Letourneau says.

In the context of comedy on campus, this brings an interesting light to the harsh scrutiny that many Harvard student organizations face.

McGrath wrote that in his day, “if you want to be edgy and reeeally out-there, you can go do it on some stand-up stage in Cleveland, but if you want the big network TV dosh, then kindly paint within the lines.”

But what happens when even that stand-up stage in Cleveland, or that college magazine, gets scrutinized on the national scale? When it’s no longer just the “big network TV dosh” that gets scrutinized, but comedy in every arena?

‘You can't be held accountable for something if you're anonymous’

The Internet has changed the way comedy is consumed — and, in turn, the way comics view their art.

Letourneau notes that many comics described an anxiety about being recorded and “having this permanent record of your material being attached to you,” especially in a time when people can share that record and dissect it online. This anxiety often reflects two fears: the first, that sets or jokes find their way to the Internet before being properly workshopped and fine-tuned, or the second, that they are misunderstood.

The concern is “less about getting canceled and more about misrepresenting themselves in a way that they haven't had the opportunity to polish,” Letourneau says.

But when online platforms can afford anonymity, these fears no longer remain. The dynamics of how people navigate comedy once again shift: this time, to reflect the largely unrestrained nature of people’s speech.

At Harvard, this phenomenon unfolds on Sidechat, the anonymous chat board for college students that creates online spaces restricted to current students. First launched on campus spring of 2022, Sidechat is frequently a place for rants, jokes, and more, a place to get a pulse on undergrad thought.

For example, the most upvoted post on Sidechat as of writing is an oft meme-ified picture of former Harvard President Claudine Gay from her inauguration with the text “when they ask how my semester is going,” posted shortly after Gay’s resignation.

Sidechat is key to the ways in which students here engage in humor and banter about current campus events. In a sense, Sidechat creates a unified audience for any campus comedy that all people can relate to. It’s no surprise then, that the most popular jokes are about College administrators, Housing Day rivalries, and other standard college woes: things that everyone can agree on.

Still, Sidechat isn’t all just fun and gossip. This anonymity enables people to speak their minds on various topics, oftentimes serious ones, without concern about their opinions being attributed to them. When rumors circulated about a Sidechat leak after a freshman exposed rice purity test scores submitted to Datamatch in February, students on the app expressed concerns about their identities being tied to their jokes, indicating that perhaps the posts would not have been made had their names been attached to them from the start.

Sidechat is also often a place for discourse on current campus events. This commentary happens at breakneck speed. Indeed, it’s not uncommon on Sidechat to see screenshots of Crimson reporting, or other breaking news almost as soon as the event happens. Especially in a year marked by frequent Harvard headlines, Sidechat grants students a platform to share almost instantaneous commentary, without any accountability.

While enabling new forms of student communication, the anonymity on Sidechat can also pose problems. Hofstede says sidechat is “a fun place” but worries that it’s dangerous since “you can't be held accountable for something if you're anonymous.”

Indeed, Sidechat has also come under fire as being a breeding ground for anti-semitism after Oct. 7, with University officials asking Sidechat moderators to better enforce content moderation.

Thanks to this anonymity, Sidechat is as lawless as a ‘comedy club’ can get. Sure, there still exists a “line” via crowd response: controversial posts get downvoted, often getting deleted by their original posters, and those un-controversial posts bemoaning Harvard admin get upvoted. Additionally, Sidechat does have moderation policies, including not permitting posts that name students — with many posts just naming initials in response.

But those don’t necessarily stop people from posting, and posts don’t always get taken down before they are seen by moderators.

As such, Sidechat is about as close to a Millsian marketplace of ideas as possible, with full frontal views of the good and the bad: the humor and camaraderie that can coagulate out of Harvard’s broad campus community, and the rancor and divisiveness that plagues it on issues of social controversy.

A Marketplace of Ideas?

Whether in the hallowed halls of the Lampoon, on the stage of HUSUCS, the emails of OTI, or the message boards of Sidechat, it is clear that concerns over what can and should be said extend to the many comedy spaces that traverse Harvard.

While these groups pander to the same Harvard audience writ large, the diversity in approach to campus comedy may suggest that ‘the line’ doesn’t exist as popularly imagined. Rather, it may be an assumption about the tolerance level for controversy that these groups are making.

However, in a campus as weary of controversy as Harvard’s is now, these assumptions are understandable if not forgivable for comedy groups that need a modus operandi as it comes to including controversial routines or not. Must we necessarily provoke John Stuart Mill every time a comic opens their mouth?

Viewed from not within or beyond this ‘line’ of comedy, but from above it, normal positive statements lose their value. Is the Lampoon pushing too far or are they heroes for telling the jokes that nobody else will? Is HUSUCS finding the right way to making responsible comedy or are they, as many might accuse Harvard students, snowflakes? Is Sidechat the worst or best of humanity?

We don’t purport to have an answer to any of these questions. Rather, we seek to question prevailing norms and assumptions around comedy to ensure that they stand under weight, rather than just blindly uphold them.

Comedy will land or it won’t. Audiences will tolerate some jokes and shut down others. But this is the marketplace of ideas, borders over what can be joked about constantly being negotiated not just by the audience, but by the audience and comic together in an ever-going dance.

The audience has their dispositions, but the buck is then passed to the comic: what should you do with the tastes of this audience?

And then there’s the more interesting question.

What do you do?

— Magazine writer Abigail Chachkes can be reached at

— Magazine writer Thor N. Reimann can be reached at