University President Grey J. Dimenna, Esq. issued an apology statement via email regarding a fundraising event where inappropriate humor was used in a comedy act.
The Jan. 12 email referenced The First Annual Monmouth County Gala and Award Show, hosted by nonprofit organization Hometown Heroes, which took place the day before. The Gala was not planned by the University, however the event was held in Pollak Theatre and honored four guests, which included Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, Joseph Azzolina, Jr., Byron Griffin, and Dimenna.
The fundraiser was originally intended to raise money for the organization, which “aims to support local communities when unexpected needs arise during a time of crisis,” according to their mission statement.
However, audience members and the President were disappointed when the evening took a turn.
Set to the theme of “The Tonight Show,” the event featured, according to Dimenna’s email, “a warm-up comedian as well as an opening monologue and other attempts at humor by the host of the show who is the head of Hometown Heroes.”
Dimenna described a joke delivered by Michael Schwartz, founder of Hometown Heroes: “He (Schwartz) said something similar to, ‘Three Monmouth basketball players arrive in a car. Who was the driver? The cop.'” Dimenna commented that the humor was insensitive and inappropriate, especially with everything going on with the Black Lives Matter movement, and believes that that kind of statement is inadvisable.
Dimenna continued in the email, “While the people being honored were acknowledged for their good work, and the University, its employees and students were also praised for the way they have given back to the community, there were numerous attempts at humor that unfortunately were disrespectful of minority groups as well as several other nationalities,” he wrote.
Schwartz has since apologized for the incident and claims that it was not his intention to be racist for the incident and claims that it was not his intention to be racist or insensitive. While apologies have been made, Dimenna believes that although the intent was not there to be hurtful, the impact the words had on the audience and the Monmouth community is what is more important.
“Impact matters to me because humor can be great but also can be trouble when used inappropriately, and even if the comment wasn’t intentionally insulting, the way people understood it is what matters. That is what happened here,”Dimenna added.
Michael Phillips-Anderson PhD. An associate professor of communication who teaches a course titled, “What’s So Funny,” which gives in depth analysis on humor and its place in society. Phillips-Anderson agreed that humor can be a great tool for bringing people together, but there can also be a fine line when determining what’s funny and what is inappropriate.
“There can be a fine line, but it’s usually quite clear, if you know your audience. Every person has a different standard for taking offense, but it is likely that we can anticipate how groups might largely react, he said.
Phillips-Anderson continued, “In general, people public take offense to jokes once they have enough political power that their taking of offense might persuade others. These standards are always changing. What was perceived by some, even the majority, to be funny in one generation is offense to the next. Comedians today don’t perform in blackface though that was the standard for white comedians.”
When offering a possible explanation for incident, Phillips-Anderson added, “While a speaker might have a particular intention, the audience has the major role in constructing meaning. Speakers who attempt to use humor must remember that their audiences are not made up of clones of themselves. It’s rare that even comedians set out to offend their audiences.”
He continued, “In the given case I would think that humor that has any chance of being offense is not appropriate at an awards event on a diverse college campus. Of course, that means that the comedian, and other speakers, didn’t think that these comments were offensive.”
Roni Cervelli, a sophomore health studies student and Resident Assistant of Elmwood Hall, attended the event as per request from the University, and, much like her other Resident Assistant peers, was appalled and offended by the humor used. “As RA’s, we were on campus at the time of the event, and were invited to attend. Politely we all decided to go and were really disappointed with what we saw and heard,” said Cervelli.
Cervelli also explained that the students were afraid to walk out in the event they would be fired for acting out. “A lot of people wanted to leave but we felt like we would get in trouble if we did. It was really awkward. Our staff is pretty diverse and they were saying some racist stuff,” she continued.
Cervelli also added that comments were made to the students about their inability to donate to the fundraiser.
“They were saying we were poor and that we shouldn’t be there because we couldn’t donate, which was weird because we were asked to be there.”
These comments are inconsistent with the values of Monmouth University and hamper our efforts to foster an inclusive environment at Monmouth,” Dimenna’s email concluded. I felt it important to communicate to the campus even though it wasn’t our event. “They should have absolutely felt able to walk out if they felt offended.
Mary Fitzgerald, a senior math and elementary education student and RA at the bluffs agreed, and was also offended by the event. “The humor at Hometown Heroes was offensive, insensitive, and prejudiced. No one working in Residential Life supported the comedy and as a whole we felt extremely uncomfortable, “Fitzgerald said.
“While I was at the event, I wanted to leave, but feared what repercussions leaving could have on my job as an RA. From the debriefing meetings the RAs had with Area Coordinators, Nina Anderson, and President Dimenna, I realized that at Monmouth University we should always feel safe to stand up for our morals. We can’t undo the past, but this event is another reason for us to all stand together and recognize the injustices currently taking place in our society and culture,” she continued.
Hindsight is 20/20 according to Dimenna, who added that he will definitely be more involved in events that are held at the University, and hopes that every person in the Monmouth community feels welcome and included.
IMAGE TAKEN from the Hometown Heroes Facebook page