Trigger warning: This article contains references to Sexual Assault; reader discretion advised.
KPOET Radio’s first Open Mic Night of the year got off to a good start with student performances in the styles of spoken word poetry, music, and comedy. The two comedians who performed were fourth-year Olivia Brown and fourth-year Anthony Stiriti, who closed the show.
Stiriti entered the venue trailed by a number of fellow athletes who vocally supported his comedy set. However, the OMN experienced controversy when Stiriti made a joke to the effect that Whittier Societies are not “real fraternities” because they do not receive sexual assault charges “real frats” get at other colleges. Stiriti referenced a recent trip to a Boise State frat house with “beer cans on the floor, juul pods, polos, . . . [a] sh—y couch,” and how the members threw a party after they got word that “she dropped the charges” — apparently in reference to a sexual assault complaint.
Stiriti described this party as unlike any party he had attended at the College. “It was just so fun,” Stiriti continued, “and you know that great party [is] how you know the Societies here at Whittier aren’t real frats, because you don’t hear of any allegations at these Societies here but you do at those frats up there.”
Some attendance members thought Stiriti was making light of sexual assault and belittling Whittier’s Societies as not being “real” enough because, Stiriti claims, they receive no assault incidents and complaints. School policy prevented Title IX Coordinator Bruce Smith from saying whether statistics involving sexual assault allegations against students do indeed involve society members, so the QC is unable to confirm if Stiriti’s belief is factual.
One student, who asked that their name be withheld, said the biggest problem was the joke’s potential to trigger sexual assault survivors. “Looking around the room, I saw victims of sexual misconduct,” they said. “Seeing [the back of the room] laugh at [Stiriti’s jokes] gave me a panic attack because, being a victim myself I worked so hard to work through this but then this kid feels comfortable enough to make a joke about [it].”
“[Jokes regarding trauma] don’t have to be from the perspective of the victim but . . . it wasn’t about him; it was about other people’s experiences,” the student said. “When people make jokes about their trauma, it helps them grow because they’ve gotten past it. [His joke] was condemning [victims of sexual assault] . . . it should be uplifting [victims].”
Stiriti agreed to be sensitive to these issues and is opposed to sexual assault. He maintains he was actually trying to take frat culture to task, not praising it. “I was making fun of frats because I don’t like frats,” said Stiriti. “I was praising our Societies for not having those kinds of allegations like that so it was geared more as a compliment towards Whittier, how we don’t deal with [sexual assault allegations] but [non-campus fraternities] do deal with that kind of stuff because I do not like the way frat boys stereotypically treat women.” Still, whether it is unbeknownst to Stiriti or not, WC Societies may or may not have Title IX offense allegations against them.
Fellow stand-up performer and fourth-year Olivia Brown did not see his joke that way. “How I took the joke was that our Societies aren’t credible — like he’s knocking our Societies because they don’t have rape allegations against them. That’s how I took it and that’s how everyone at my table [of nine] took it.”
However Brown, also a fairly experienced comedian, defended Stiriti’s freedom of speech. “I 100 percent believe in freedom of speech as a comedian,” she said. “Get up on stage and do whatever you want, but you need to have a certain level of respect. You have to read the audience and if your audience is mostly female, you don’t start with a rape joke. I get that his stuff goes over well at comedy clubs, but if you’re going to do it on a college campus, maybe that’s not the right setting for it.”
Despite the controversy around his routine, Stiriti claims he meant no harm by the joke. “I apologize to anyone that was offended by my comedy,” he said. “I do feel bad and I’m sorry; [it] wasn’t [my] intention to hurt anybody’s feelings. My jokes were not pointed at anybody. I was just telling the jokes to make people laugh.”
Stiriti claims his routine has gone over well in other places. “I guess that’s a different type of atmosphere . . . I thought it would be similar here because I know a few other comics . . . but I should have taken that into consideration before.” Additionally, he stated, “It was kind of difficult for me to see the audience because of the lights. I did notice the front half of the room was a little less receptive to my jokes than the back half of the room. The back half of the room was mainly athletes and the front half was mainly people I’ve never seen before.”
Stiriti mentioned that Brown’s material included an abortion joke, but defended her right to use the controversial topic as a source of comedy. Stiriti believes that neither him nor the other comic should be censored. “I think they did a great job, but the comedian before me also said jokes that were questionable,” he said. “My jokes offended people here,;maybe her jokes would not offend people elsewhere.”
KPOET Radio General Manager Diana Seradia believes Brown’s joke to be different than Stiriti’s, because Brown acknowledged the discomfort amongst the audience and changed subjects afterwards. “When she said the abortion joke, it was just silence, a majority about it because people didn’t know how to react, so she’s just like ‘OK, I’m staying off of that topic’ but in a very joking manner,” said KPOET General Manager Kris Beradi. “So she acknowledged it, letting the audience know that she acknowledged it, which was very helpful for the audience to be like ‘ok, then we can continue laughing.’”
Brown stated that her joke should be considered differently because of her warning beforehand and because the joke received a seemingly positive response. “The reason I told that joke was because the audience was laughing at everything else I was saying,” she said. “I literally said ‘I know it’s offensive; I’m gonna say it [the joke] . . . don’t get offended; I didn’t come up with it’ . . . Literally everyone I looked at was laughing, it didn’t look like anyone was uncomfortable.”
She further continued that Stiriti’s error was in the subject matter. “The reason I did the abortion joke is that abortion is a choice. Rape is not a choice…[It] hit well with the audience. I know, I read the crowd.”
Sarabia agreed. “Reading the room, a lot of people did feel uncomfortable,” said Serabia. “I feel like some topics aren’t off limits, but…[Stiriti] opened up with a rape joke,” said Beradi. “[His set] continued to get more sexist from there . . . So we knew some of the things he was saying could be triggering for members of the audience due to his content, and that’s another reason why we wanted him to wrap up.”
The performance sparked debate within KPOET Radio as to whether student material should be approved before OMNs. KPOET Radio is considering is requiring new comics to provide them with a list of topics they will be discussing beforehand.
Brown supports this possibility. “I think [offering trigger warnings] is okay,” said Brown. “[But] if you know you’re gonna go see comedy, you should go into it thinking something may trigger [you] . . . If I give them like a list of topics beforehand, I think that’d be good.”
Moving forward, KPOET Radio hopes OMNs can act as safe spaces for student expression without limiting any performer’s free speech. “I think as our Open Mic Nights and other events become more popular, we need to . . . make sure we’re keeping them safe spaces for the student body . . . while trying not to limit people’s free speech,” said Beradi.
Meanwhile, the Dean of Students is conducting a conduct investigation for the night’s incident. “The Dean of Students, along with the Office of Student Engagement and Poet Entertainment, responded quickly to this concern, and we are working closely with KPOET Radio to develop protocol to avoid situations like this from occurring in the future. It is our commitment to provide a safe, inclusive, and respectful community for all Whittier College students,” the Office said in a statement to the QC.
Despite the controversy, Stiriti claims to have received no complaints personally about his comedy, only one negative online response. “So far I’ve only received positive feedback; however, I do know that people did not like it,” said Stiriti. “I hope that if people do have a problem with it they can approach me and ask me about it. I am a friendly guy and I will not get offended by anyone asking about my comedy or saying that they do not like my comedy. My comedy is not meant for every single person to like; it was meant to make people laugh.”
Stiriti continued, stating he “will not be performing at Whittier College ever again . . . It was a really good learning experience for me to learn my audiences.”
While she was somewhat critical of Stiriti’s chosen material, Brown admires his bravery. “[H]e did a thing a lot of people couldn’t do: went up on stage and talked in front of people,” she said. “He tried to make people laugh . . . he has guts for [doing] it.”