On the Campus - April 7, 1999
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Chris Rock comes to Princeton
A comedy-act full of politically incorrect errors

by Nancy Smith '00

" Princeton. " With a chuckle and a shake of his head, this is how Chris Rock began his February 18 performance to a sell-out crowd in Dillon Gymnasium. The audience went wild, cheering and shrieking as much out of pride for their university as in anticipation of what the comedian would say in the next hour, and how the traditionally conservative, serious, andat timesprovincial campus would react.

That is just about the only line of Rock's monologue that can be reprinted in a mainstream publication, much less the paw. Chris Rock's blatant, no-holds-barred, in-your-face humor can perhaps best be described as "off-color." Having made a name for himself as the African-American comedian who tells jokes about "niggahs," Rock has also made millions at it. The first joke he told in Dillon drew on his success, noting that while many members of his audience would hit the books after the show, Rock would drive away in a Porsche, having only attained a G.E.D.

Many might wonder how well Princeton students are able to relate to Rock, who draws on personal experience in the racially segregated ghetto and uses humor to illuminate de facto racism in American society. One comment, "I was the only black kid in my grade," drew cheers of understanding and solidarity from a segment of the crowd, causing at least this white student to pause and consider what that might be like, and what it might be like to be black at Princeton. But an instant later, riotous laughter snapped me back into the heady moment, as the row of plaid-shirted white guys sitting in front of me rocked back in their folding chairs under the weight of unrestrained guffaws.

Half of what makes Chris Rock so intriguing is how successfully he has defied entrenched racial taboos to appeal to white and black audiences alike. Where 50 years ago whites and blacks did not sit together on buses or use the same drinking fountains, today they sit shoulder to shoulder in crowded auditoriums, laughing together. Yet Rock's act resonates more than through the unison of laughter; that white people laugh and nod appreciably at his colloquial renditions of the "black-people mall" and the "ghetto grocery store" shows a deepening acknowledgment of the problems of segregated communities and the economic glass ceiling.

But another side of Chris Rock is his potential to offend. Reducing a woman's weighty decision to have an abortion to a simple choice between short-term medical costs, Rock distills the divisive issue this way: "It costs $5,000 to deliver a baby. It costs $1,500 to have an abortion. Face it: It's either Jimmy or cable." Further, his characterizations of male-female relationships center around graphic sexual dominance, putting the woman on her knees before her manin the physical as well as the psychological sense.

His humor oscillates between refreshing disregard for political correctness and a cold slap in the face of social dignity, and people line up for his performances, in the case of his Princeton appearance, as much as four hours before scheduled curtain time. Like moviegoers at a horror flick, people are excited and titillated by what they see and hear. Goodbye to the politically correct.

On the Princeton campus, where daily interactions are rooted in a firm middle ground of codified respect, Chris Rock found no exception, profiting from the fact that we literally have to buy tickets to witness anything different. Certainly very few would wish for a wholesale exchange of Princeton's norms for Rock's pejorative outlook; nobody wants their preceptor to ask them for the "redneck" point of view on slavery or how a "ho" feels about single motherhood. In contrast, a diverse community like Princeton presents all of us with the challenge of how to deal with other groups most respectfully, which is clearly positive. But when this challenge is taken too far, as many have argued in the case of the political correctness movement, many are dangerously tempted to give up on the whole concept of multiculturalism out of frustration. The all-consuming questions of whether to say "blacks" or "African-Americans" or whether it's acceptable to use "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun have become a source of anguish and awkward embarrassment; a dangerous result of all this sensitivity is that many have come to consider respect too much of a burden.

What Chris Rock shows us is that it is possible to break down our oversensitivities through humor. Even those who grimaced at many of his sexual references or whose first impulse was to become indignant at his "racist" or "sexist" comments couldn't help but smirk a little too. Rock brings us closer to reality by removing the politically sterilized terms that we use to inoculate real societal problems. Whether we call it a "ghetto" or an "inner city" does nothing to change the reality of a run-down neighborhood; it only alters the frame through which we perceive it.

As I left Dillon Gymnasium a few weeks ago, I pondered what life would be like, on campus and off, if we could give each other the freedom to laugh without constantly worrying about offending each other. In our use of hyphenated labels, whose wordy precision has permeated our language and our precepts, we are sending each other a message that every joke must by definition be at someone else's expense, and that there is no such thing as laughing with someone instead of at him (or her). In a multicultural society, it is admittedly a fine line to draw, and the stakes are high. And in the case of Princeton in particular, it is probably too much to ask that an Ivy-league community not overanalyze everything. Still, the simplistic idealist in me sometimes wonders if we're only making things worse by our hypersensitivity, and if the world might be a little more harmonious if we could only laugh at ourselves once in awhile.

(illustration by Chris Brooks)

Kitchen capers
Learning to shower while the spaghetti boils

by Nancy Smith '00

Feet firmly planted, shoulder-width apart; knees bent, lowering the center of balance; arms tensed, wrists extended; eyes darting from corner to corner of the room. This is not the image of an athlete, but one of an inexperienced and paranoid cook. I am, however, borrowing from the best traditions of Princeton basketball as I grab a wadded-up dish towel -- my makeshift oven mitt -- and lunge for the oven. I can almost hear the crowd shouting "dee-fense, dee-fense," as I keep an eye on the pot of egg noodles dancing a threatening boil on the stove.

It's been just a few weeks since I began performing frantic, squeaky-sneakered pirouettes in the kitchen on the third floor of Little Hall, and I'm beginning to discover some of cooking's basic lessons. After being an eating-club member last semester, I decided with the start of the new year to become a free agent, daring myself to top my previous culinary record of setting off the smoke detector while trying to toast a bagel in a frying pan. But the fire department hasn't come yet, so I'll claim -- hesitantly -- that I'm improving. And this may be credential enough for me to share some of my recently acquired culinary knowledge.

Lesson #1: For a beginner like me, low on skills and budget, cooking is all about small victories. Triumphant grocery shopping means getting a dollar off and finding frozen dinners on sale. Spotting a coupon for your brand of mac 'n' cheese evokes a Marv Albert-like "YESS!" as the scissors go to work.

Lesson #2: Pathmark Foods is one of Princeton's sorely underestimated social fixtures. Although located on Route 1, not Prospect Street, it has the sole distinction of being the university's least exclusive eating option, bringing successful Ivy Club bickerees, graduate students, and professors together in the same checkout line. Alas, there is a downside: I fear the day that my mass-media seminar professor catches me reading the National Inquirer as I wait to check out.

Lesson #3: Sandwiching kitchen patrol in between classes and meetings requires an efficiency audit. You start examining your routine and asking yourself which processes you can combine or perform simultaneously. In my case, the kitchen is two flights up from my room, and the biggest struggle is getting all the necessary ingredients upstairs in one trip without forgetting anything. However, the bathroom is right across from the kitchen, meaning one of the advantages of low-supervision meals is that I can take a shower while my spaghetti simmers on the stove.

Lesson #4: Be safe and get yourself some antibacterial dish detergent. Television advertisers try to scare you with magnified images of germs on your counter and suggestions of lurking salmonella. These are, of course, important, but keep in mind that there are other, larger vermin that those ads neglect to mention. (Those Princeton squirrels can really tear up a kitchen.)

Lesson #5: It really is true that cooking fosters creativity. In the kitchen itself, I follow recipes to the letter, not wanting to bring on an explosive reaction. But it is in moments of lightheaded laziness, sitting on the floor in front of my refrigerator contemplating what to eat, when I am most inspired: "soft corduroy mornings bring eternal melon love." Love that Magnetic Poetry.

Lesson #6: Never allow yourself to be duped by the recipes printed on the backs of rice boxes. "Easy! Ready in five minutes!" is always a lie, unless you're Martha Stewart. What they really mean is "Profitable! You must buy five more boxes of rice for this entrée!"

Lesson #7: Remember PB&J? I do, vividly; I had it yesterday, and the day before, and...

Lesson #8: If you can find yourself a noontime intellectual interest, you will have found a gold mine. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a lunchtime discussion for the Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Program with other members of my junior policy task force. The technicalities of the lecture topic -- energy-efficient cookstoves -- largely eluded me, but the sandwiches alone would have persuaded me to come back.

Lesson #9: One of the backbones of conservative politicians, the "family values" campaign was encouraging families to get together around the dinner table. Now would be a good time to discover the wisdom of Republicanism; it might just mean a few free, home-cooked meals. BYOT (bring your own Tupperware).

Lesson #10: In the face of utter disaster, don't panic. There is always a solution. Simply remember this mantra: "Domino's can be there in 30 minutes."


Nancy Smith (nmsmith@princeton.edu) is majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School.

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