Comedian Nimesh Patel, an Emmy-nominated former Saturday Night Live writer, was recently pulled off stage at New York’s Columbia University.
Patel was performing at cultureSHOCK: Reclaim, an annual charity event produced by the Columbia Asian American Alliance to provide a platform for Asian American artistic expression while breaking harmful stereotypes. He was silenced after making jokes that event organizers deemed racist and homophobic, the Columbia Daily Spectator reports.
Patel, 32, was the first Indian-American writer for SNL. His other writing credits include the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the Oscars. He has performed on Late Night With Seth Meyers and opened for comedians such as Chris Rock.
Patel’s cultureSHOCK set included a bit riffing on the gay black men in his neighborhood. He joked that being gay can’t be a choice because “no one would choose to be gay if they’re already black.”
About midway through Patel’s set, AAA members interrupted and denounced his jokes about race and sexual orientation, allowing him to make closing remarks before they forced him to leave the stage.
Patel, who insisted his remarks were inoffensive, explained that he was exposing the young audience to ideas found “in the real world.” Before he could finish, his microphone was cut.
In an official statement, AAA apologized for inviting the comic to perform at the November 30 event. “Patel’s remarks ran counter to the inclusive spirit and integrity of cultureSHOCK and as such, the choice was made to invite him to leave,” the group wrote on Facebook. “We acknowledge that discomfort and safety can coexist, however, the discomfort Patel caused was unproductive in this space.”
The comedian addressed the incident in an op-ed for the New York Times, writing that “three student organizers came onstage and politely told me they were going in a different direction with the next 30 minutes of my remaining time after deciding my material was offensive.” He also broke down the offending joke:
I open by saying I live in Hell’s Kitchen, a diverse area in New York populated by, among others, gay black men who are not shy about telling me they don’t approve of what I’m wearing. I try to learn things from everyone I encounter, and one day I realize oh, this is how you know being gay can’t be a choice—no one would choose to be gay if they’re already black. No one is doubling down on hardship. Then I say, no black dude wakes up and thinks that being a black man in America is too easy. No black dude says, “I’m going to put on a Madonna halter top and some Jordans and make an Indian dude real uncomfortable.” That’s not a choice.
The joke bombed—total silence in the crowd of several hundred students—but I didn’t think anything was abnormal. I wrote the joke about six years ago, and it may be hacky at this point, but I certainly don’t see it as anti-anyone. While comedians can and do tailor sets for audiences—you don’t do blue jokes in a room full of nuns kind of thing—for the most part you learn what works with a crowd only when it works or doesn’t. This particular joke has worked at New York clubs full of gay people, black people and college students multiple times. I didn’t think twice about using it in a room full of smart, progressive young adults.
“When you silence someone you don’t agree with or find offensive, not only do you implement the tactic used by the people you disdain; you also do yourself the disservice of missing out on a potentially meaningful conversation,” Patel continued in the op-ed. “You cannot affect change if you are not challenged.”
“I believe the student leaders were wrong to cut my mic, but as a person, I cannot control how people think and how they react,” Patel added, noting that he has since been flooded with apologies and messages of support from Columbia students.
“I do not think we should let the actions of a small group—actions that get blown out of proportion because they feed a narrative many people want to hear—paint college campuses as bad places to perform and paint this next generation as doomed.”