Section: News

Comedy hypnotist sparks controversy with allegedly racist opening skit

Matt Grisham was advertised by Social Board as a “comedy hypnotist,” but many thought his first skit was neither funny nor hypnotic; instead, Kenyon Asian Identities and other students called his act racist. 

“We don’t have to tiptoe on thin ice here, it’s racism — pretty explicit,” said Teddy Hannah-Drullard, diversity and inclusion chair, at Monday’s Student Council meeting. 

While Grisham, who performed at Rosse Hall last Wednesday, faced no immediate backlash for his ill-conceived skit, Asian students in attendance came away from the performance feeling like their identities had been commodified for a cheap one-liner. 

In an email to the student body, Kenyon Asian Identities described the skit. Grisham recounted how on a flight, a Chinese boy would not stop kicking his seat. He turned to the mother and threw a peanut at her, asking her to tell her son to stop. Grisham, impersonating her accent, recounts how she told him she does not speak English, and the boy continued kicking his seat. The skit ends with him being on the subway with the same mother and son. After her son falls, the mother stands up and asks “in perfect English” why Grisham didn’t help her son.

A few people in attendance laughed in reaction to the skit. Criticisms from the student body came in the days following the event.

“This ‘joke’ played into a variety of stereotypes about Asians, specifically that Asians will never truly be part of America, that Asians are manipulative, can’t speak English and are all the same,” Kenyon Asian Identities argued in a student-info email sent out on Wednesday morning. “Even though the Asian student body is diversifying and growing, this campus, as well as society at large, continues to dismiss the complexity of our identities,” they wrote. “Grisham’s joke perpetuates these dated stereotypes, treating us as easy targets for lazy humor.”

Several hours after the original email, Social Board sent out a student-info email apologizing for the incident and accepting accountability for Grisham’s insensitive remarks.

“Social Board is going to reach out to Matt Grisham and his representatives to prevent this from occurring again at other institutions and venues,” they wrote. “Moving forward, we will do our very best to filter out this sort of behavior from future performers.”

But before either of these emails were composed, Student Council spent a good 20 minutes discussing the controversy at their meeting on Monday evening.

Representatives from Social Board who were present at the meeting said that they had done research on Grisham and had found no indication that he would employ derogatory humor — or any humor at all — in his performance. 

“Even doing the research and everything, [I] watched videos on him, obviously no one thought that he was going to do this [perform comedic acts],” Patrick Nally ’21, a president of Social Board, said. “I met with him as well, and in meeting him prior to the show—great guy. He was here with his family, his younger kid—I was very surprised when that happened.”

Following this admission, Bradley Berklich ’22, Student Council’s vice president for academic affairs, pointed out that Grisham’s website did specify a comedy element to his performances. “I don’t want to make a huge deal of this, but I’m on his booking page right now, and it does explicitly say ‘comedy show,’” he said.

The Council then shared a laugh after Berklich displayed the flyer sent out by Social Board in the original emails advertising the event, which described Grisham as a “comedy hypnotist.” 

“Whether he was funny or not is sort of immaterial,” Berklich said. “I would say at the front end the contract needs to be a little more clear, just for next time.”

Even so, the Council generally agreed that Social Board could not have anticipated Grisham’s insensitive remarks, and members expressed gratitude for the group’s willingness to accept accountability for his behavior.

Jodi-Ann Wang ’20, senior class president and founder of Kenyon Asian Identities, acknowledged that, while Grisham’s choice of content  was outside of Social Board’s control, they should as an organization be held accountable for the speakers they bring to campus.

“Because of that, I would like to see a statement from Social Board going to the entire campus addressing this issue,” she said during the Student Council meeting. “And hopefully we can start a conversation about how we can prevent this while [for] any organization on campus, if you’re bringing someone, to have that heads up about what is okay. … We are having this conversation right now, but also the campus needs to know what’s the proper way of dealing with a situation like this.”

Much of the rest of the Council’s discussion focused on proactive solutions for similar instances where a speaker, likely a comedian, makes inflammatory or offensive remarks. One suggestion was for sponsors to discuss with the comedian beforehand about Kenyon’s community values and how Kenyon audiences would respond to certain kinds of acts.

However, Laura Kane, dean of campus life, said that an informal conversation of this kind would have little practical merit, because speakers usually sign contracts at least a month in advance, so their intended content would already be fairly set in stone.

In addition, she said that contracts with performers generally don’t take into account cultural values, but rather focus on the behavioral and criminal aspects of performances. “It doesn’t go into community values, because we didn’t really have a succinct set of those before, so something like this [the revised mission statement] might be able to guide that process,” she said.

Multiple Council members and community members in attendance suggested that a concrete policy be established to guide how Social Board and other organizations establish expectations for speakers or performers that they bring to campus.

“I hope this can be turned into an ongoing conversation about policy and the way that we talk about this, cause I don’t think it’s valuable to bring anyone and be like, ‘Tell me what you’re gonna say, and I’ll tell you what’s okay and not okay,’” Wang said. “This is a conversation. I’m glad y’all resonate with how we feel, but I hope [we will] just [keep] moving forward in terms of policy and action.”

President Sean Decatur agreed with student allegations that the skit was offensive, saying, “I’m firmly on the side that racism is bad,” but doubted that it was possible to come up with a process for pre-screening comedians for offensive content before coming to campus.

Student Council President Delaney Barker ’20 has budgeted time to discuss the matter in next week’s Council meeting.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story does not attribute the allegations that the skit made was racist. The Collegian regrets this. 

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