Last week, students objected to a comedy set by guest Fumi Abe, deeming several of his jokes racist and sexist. While Abe’s visit was sponsored by the Asian Students Alliance (ASA) and the Student Center for Multicultural Life, ASA quickly condemned Abe’s act, and Director of the Student Center for Multicultural Life Benjamin Harris said that the College had no reason to anticipate any of the offensive comments from the performance.
During Abe’s set, several students left the auditorium to display their disapproval. Students later reported that Abe made offensive jokes—for example, stating that more women should become involved in politics but only if they are attractive—and put several audience members on the spot about their sexuality and sexual experience.
Later that evening, ASA leaders sent out an email to their members apologizing for the content of Abe’s set. The email condemned the comedian’s “Islamophobic, anti-black, misogynistic, transphobic or homophobic” remarks, and ASA leaders wrote that Abe’s “words, behavior and performance should not be considered representative of the Asian and Asian American communities.”
Ellie Sapat ’20, an attendee at the event, said that Abe, whose comedy has been featured in mainstream media outlets such MTV, New York Magazine and The New York Times, seemed confused by students’ discomfort.
“It was a small audience and the jokes were just not great,” Sapat wrote in an email to the Orient. “When it was obvious that the audience wasn’t enjoying the show, he didn’t really understand what they weren’t responding to or know how to fix it … which made it more awkward.”
Harris, who helped ASA find and book Abe, said that based on Abe’s online presence, there was little reason to worry about the content he would bring to campus.
“We looked at clips of Fumi online through his agent, and they weren’t alarming in any way,” said Harris.
“The Office is not in the business of trying to offend people, [nor is] ASA,” said Harris. “With bringing Fumi, the intention was never to offend people. The goal is to bring different representation to campus and have different voices and identities representing different industries. That’s part of the work we do, and sometimes we succeed at that and sometimes we fail.”
Objections to Abe’s comedy set varied in terms of what, if anything, viewers found distasteful. Harris recognized that, while comedy is a subjective art form, some of Abe’s jokes were “out of touch with Bowdoin and the Bowdoin community.” He referred to a discussion earlier this academic year led by Henry Laurence, associate professor of government and Asian studies, about what constitutes as “too much” in the world of comedy, as a model for the type of conversation Abe’s remarks should spark on campus.
David Zhou ’21 said any comedian should be better about knowing the audience.
“He should have known that if you come to a liberal arts college and start making like offhand jokes about like sex, race, gender, like, you’re going to get slapped,” Zhou said.
Harris does not see this event as a reason to drastically change how speakers and entertainers are selected at Bowdoin, but he said that his office will adhere more closely to the method it currently uses to screen potential visitors.
“I think we will continue to try to do our due diligence to vet artists,” said Harris. “You never know when you give them a microphone if they’re going to be really good or if they’re going to be offensive. If that was something we had foreseen, we wouldn’t have brought him.”
ASA leadership declined to comment for this article.