By Caitlin Riley ‘20
I filed into the theater with the rest of my classmates with the usual voices grumbling about another guest speaker, complaining that guest speakers are always so boring. While the pink frosted donuts during office hours did raise the spirits of students, none of my friends seemed to have super high expectations for Mike Reiss. We thought he’d just be another speaker giving the all-too-familiar shpiel of “if you work hard enough, you can do anything! Make sure to try hard in school!” We were mistaken. The assembly started off normal enough; Mr. Reiss introduced himself and proceeded to tell a couple jokes. The first major “shocker” I noticed was the Stephen Hawking joke. Mr. Reiss began telling us about how he works with many celebrity guests on The Simpsons, and that he worked with Stephen Hawking a couple times. One day, Mr. Reiss went up to his office, and Mr. Hawking was there. But the kicker is, their office is on the second floor, and there was no elevator. Mr. Reiss closed the joke with “Stephen Hawking must have been faking.” After this, I could sense the energy in the room change; nobody knew how to react, as we were all shocked to hear a joke so “un-PC” in our Crystal theater. Laughter erupted from many, but some students were still looking around uneasily, or even just wondering “can I laugh at this in the presence of my teachers?” Well, we were in for quite an assembly as Mr. Reiss then told many jokes in his speech (more of a stand-up comedy act than inspirational assembly), some of which had to do with Oprah’s big head, bashing Trump, Melissa McCarthy, the South, and more. I think that was the most I’ve ever seen Crystal students laughing on campus. That is to say, there were definitely people who felt uncomfortable with this variety of humor, and there was much talk of the administration’s reaction during the assembly. After this controversial event, I sought to find out exactly what the student and faculty population at CSUS thought of Mike Reiss’s assembly. I want to say a huge thank you to everybody who responded to this survey; almost 100 students and faculty responded (some very in-depth).
The overwhelming reaction to this assembly seems to be a positive one. There were almost 30 responses of a couple words describing the assembly as “fantastic,” “very funny,” “super entertaining,” “hilarious,” “awesome,” “best assembly ever,” “amazing,” “outstanding,” “fun,” “absolutely genius,” “refreshingly un-PC,” “lively and refreshing,” “one of the best things that’s ever happened to Crystal,” and more. As seen by these responses and the laughter, Mike Reiss had CSUS entertained. I myself walked away from this assembly feeling a similar way. I had just laughed for an hour straight with my friends at school, and my stresses and worries were the last things on my mind. Not even related to the content of the assembly, but many students felt the same way; the assembly was a nice distraction from our everyday lives as stressed high school students. Some responses relating to this were “It was a great way to relieve stress” “funny and lifted the overall environment… everyone seemed much more relaxed and happy after” “really nice way to end the school day” “exactly what I needed during a stressful week” and “a much needed part of the school day.” Crystal kids work hard, and this break from our busy lives was much appreciated, especially since it is almost unanimously agreed that Mike Reiss was one of the most engaging, entertaining, and provoking speakers we have ever had.
Now, to the “controversial” part. I really did not know what to expect when I sent out this survey. Personally, everyone I talked to had a very positive reaction to the assembly, and I had only heard faint whispers of people being truly offended. My first takeaway from the responses was most people loved that the assembly was not politically correct (PC). In fact, PC was probably the most-used word in all of the responses. Most people felt that Crystal tends to be very PC, and you cannot say anything without being wary of offending somebody. Obviously, Mike Reiss did not care about offending anyone, as almost all of his jokes were targeted at a person or a specific group of people. But as opposed to being offended by this, most students and faculty felt it was a refreshing break from the constant PC culture at Crystal, or as many dubbed it, “the Crystal bubble.” I wish I could include everybody’s thoughts, but these responses seem to sum up most of what people said:
“Students should be exposed to new ideas even if they might be offensive or different than what they’re used too. “
“I really enjoyed it, I thought it was a refreshing break from the pc bubble that crystal creates for its students. It didn’t feel like you were being judged for laughing at stuff that was funny without being judged for being insensitive.”
“Sure, we had some laughs and maybe some of the humor was borderline but guess what: THAT’S COMEDY! We aren’t babies, and I didn’t think any of the humor was over a PG-13 rating. I’ll admit, some jokes may not have been PC, but, doesn’t that say something about Crystal? That we can’t laugh without questioning if a JOKE is politically correct? As a student, not only was the assembly funny, it was a learning experience. That’s what school is, isn’t it? I would love to have another assembly like this.”
“A relief from so much political correctness. We cannot live in a bubble.“
“Nothing should be off limits for school. Just like how and why we read banned and controversial books, school should be an environment where everyone and everything is welcome so long as it does not infringe upon the physical safety of its students.”
“However, the speakers we bring to school are meant to show our student and faculty audience real life. We can’t always be protected from these comments, and I can firmly say that everyone I’ve talked to thoroughly enjoyed his speech. It was unique, spoke from his own anecdotal experiences, and had the audience laughing every other minute. We as a community need to appreciate all different views. I apologize to all who thought things were offensive, but it isn’t anything personal — it’s someone’s life story and views that shouldn’t be shut down because we were too scared to open up.”
“Nowadays, with everything considered “offensive” or “inappropriate” to say, it was nice to have a break and just be able to laugh at something for a chance. Now, I am not saying that what he said should be repeated around or that should make it okay for people to say. I am just saying that having a little bit of comic relief in our world is needed. We can’t laugh anymore or have jokes anymore. I am glad that Mike Reiss came because in the world outside of our small bubble and media world, there isn’t as much of a PC culture.”
“I think those who thoroughly enjoyed the Mike Reiss talk would not have enjoyed it so thoroughly had the administration not been characterized as “overly PC”. Part of the amusement was the anticipation of how the administration would respond–people saying things like “Ms. ____ was NOT having it” or “____ and ____ probably regret paying this guy to come.” Maybe it’s the overwhelming message to subscribe to PC culture that leads us to revel so much in material that, to be honest, wasn’t even THAT un-PC.” This response raises a good point; was the assembly even that “un-PC,” or are Crystal students just so used to being sheltered that the excitement of “edgy humor” exacerbated the reactions? I will admit, all around me students were snickering over the reactions of certain faculty members, and wondering about the apologetic email expected to be sent to parents (that surprisingly never came.) The school instead handled the situation with “grace and good humor,” to quote Ms. Sortino, and did not make a bigger deal of the situation that it actually was. I also appreciate the many thoughtful responses from faculty members to this survey. All left honest responses, and tended to overlap with many of the student opinions as well. Some of the faculty responses are as follows:
“I think he was fun, fresh air, away from so much political correctness. We got to see the man behind the characters everyone knows who are not politically correct anyway. We cannot live in a bubble. Life is a balance, and not perfect.”
“I thought it was hilarious at times and offensive at times. I found some of his humor to cross the line into racism, sexism, and fat-phobia, but I think he would brush off those complaints by saying it’s okay because he made fun of many different types of people, so it wasn’t like he was just making jokes about one particular minority. I have been surprised how many people found it very funny, but I also have heard from some people who found it very offensive.”
There were also comments such as this one, which recognizes that some of Mr. Reiss’ comments did cross a line. But really, where is this line? Nobody knows the right answer to which kind of joke is offensive, or how far can you take something before it “isn’t okay” to say. I do not have any final conclusions on this aspect of the assembly, because it really is open to interpretation and what each person believes individually about what humor can be or how far it can go.
“The discourse we have at Crystal should be respectful and considerate, but also open. I believe it would be ill advised to restrict the content of our assemblies simply to avoid controversy. Mr. Reiss is an accomplished professional in his field, with a hand in making arguably the most significant and influential television program of all time, one that has endured longer than any other show.” Many others made the similar point that Mike Reiss is an accomplished, influential writer, and why would we limit speakers such as these from coming to the school? Any assembly featuring somebody so accomplished should be appreciated as an opportunity to hear a new perspective and learn from others’ success.
One last student perspective sums up my thoughts as well:
“As an educational institution, Crystal has a responsibility to show its students different points of views. Society’s most well-rounded individuals are ones who can see/hear something that upsets them or that they disagree with, and can then process their reactions to that thing and respond accordingly. I’m not here to tell people to not get offended, but Crystal should not just be seeking out the safest, most PC speakers to talk to the students. The speaker told funny jokes that some students enjoyed, and other students didn’t. There is nothing wrong with that, and we cannot allow outrage culture and PC culture to start censoring what we as students can or can not listen to, or what speakers can or can’t come to the school.” Maybe Mike Reiss was not the inspirational speaker the administration thought they had signed up for, but I believe it was a productive and overall beneficial experience for the Crystal Community.
And building off of some of the responses ideas, seeing controversial speakers like this at school is a good thing! It prompts discussions and makes us engage with the people around us, and the environment in which we live and go to school. Controversial speakers allow students to form their own opinions and be exposed to the real world, which as many people said, we tend to be sheltered from at Crystal. Isn’t that what high school should be preparing us for anyway?
In the real world, we will have to deal with people and opinions that we don’t agree with, and we should have the skills to respectfully disagree and discuss the world around us without the fear of offending everybody. Who are we to say what is and isn’t allowed to be offensive? As seen by the enormous response from both students and faculty to this survey, we need more speakers like Mike Reiss: whether it be through controversial jokes, personal stories, or something completely different, but overall speakers who inspire conversation among our community and force us to step outside of the Crystal bubble.