Student’s controversial FUDG comedy act currently under Title IX Assessment

Robert Griffin, ‘20, performed jokes at Friday Night Underground that some students felt were discriminatory against LGBT and disabled people.


A night at Friday Night Underground, a popular party alternative for students, in January 2019. Photo by James Ricks, ’21.

Hannah Denham

During a comedy night at Friday Night Underground, one student performed a set that’s now being assessed as a potential Title IX violation.

FUDG staff invited Jim Grant, ‘19, to perform at the comedy event on Nov. 2. As the emcee for the event, he first passed the mic to Robert Griffin, ‘20.

Griffin said his jokes were specific to mostly Washington and Lee, on subjects like the physical education requirement and the student health center’s salt prescription. But he branched out with a story from when he was in London and walked into an event for deaf people at a bar.*

Both James Ricks, ‘21, and Colin Reed, ‘22 (who asked to be identified with a pseudonym), said the joke turned into a punchline about deaf, gay people making effeminate hand gestures.

“He made some jokes about, ‘And then you know, all the gays have a sort of sign language that me and my friends don’t understand,’” Ricks said.

This got a rise out of his friends in the crowd, sparking laughter. 

“For me, you wouldn’t pick me out of a crowd,” Reed said, who identifies as bisexual. “I still follow gender norms. But these jokes about people being effeminate really bother me.”

Grant said he approached Griffin and asked if the rest of his set would be similar. Griffin continued with a joke about Magic Johnson that included his status as HIV-positive.

Ricks recalled the line: “You know, he’s just changed his initials to HIV to give us all a warning. There’s not much magic left in that Johnson, if you know what I mean.”

The room quieted immediately. Ricks spoke out this time.

“It wasn’t very articulate, but in that quiet, I said, ‘That’s not cool, dude,’” he said. “He looked over at me and put his fingers to his lips and said, ‘Shhh.’”

Danika Brockman, ‘21, was also in the audience and said she was shocked by the jokes.

“If I had just overheard this in a conversation, I just would’ve thought, ‘Jeez, these guys are jerks,’” Brockman said. “But to get up on a stage?”

After that, Griffin was told by FUDG staff to leave the stage. Some of the following acts, who were supposed to perform after Griffin, were cancelled. Grant said he apologized to the audience on behalf of Griffin’s performance before leaving.

“‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended,’” Grant said he told the crowd. “‘This is a safe space and I want to maintain that.’”

Griffin said the majority of the crowd were his friends and fraternity brothers who laughed along with his jokes. He said he felt it was a minority of the room who were offended enough to shut him down.

“I wasn’t expecting to offend people,” he said. “I’m sorry that people were hurt by what I said. It was never my intention.” 

On Dec. 31, Griffin posted a picture on his Instagram profile with the caption, “New Year’s Resolutions: win more intramural sports championships & get kicked off of more stages.”

He said the caption didn’t come from a place of bitterness or anger in regards to how the comedy night ended. 

“A lot of my close friends were there that night,” he said. “I took it as an opportunity to poke fun at myself, which is why I also included the intramural sports championship part as well.”

Griffin said he believes he was asked to leave the stage because the FUDG staff wasn’t familiar with how professional comedy works. 

“You do have to take risks,” he said. “Comedy is inherently edgy.”

Grant agreed that there is a place for pushing the boundaries within comedy, but that Griffin had gone too far.

“Robert definitely slipped up,” Grant said. “I think there’s a place for making fun of each other that’s in a way that’s not targeting.”

 It wasn’t Griffin’s first time performing at FUDG. He first performed with Grant during spring term last year. Griffin said he remembered the act after him included stereotypes of people in Rockbridge County—characterized as redneck and conservative. He said he felt like that set the precedent for the limits that comedy could reach on the FUDG stage.

“The fact that that set could have gone on and was embraced by the audience was fully okay and mine was not?” Griffin said. “It was a little wishy-washy [on] what was all right to say.”

He said he was confused about how his set could have offended LGBTQ students.

“I didn’t use any hate speech. I didn’t use any homophobic rhetoric,” Griffin said. “I just told a joke about a straight basketball player having an STD.”

Ricks said he found Griffin’s jokes to be explicitly offensive. 

“I think people at W&L are better about not being overt if they do harbor homophobia,” he said. “But this was just right out of the middle school playbook. It was terrible.”

Brockman, who is a resident advisor, said a few first-year students who identify as LGBTQ approached her after the event and were distressed.

“They don’t want to be cut off from the rest of the community, but what choice do they have when the rest of the community marches into their space?” she said. “That’s not supposed to happen here, especially at FUDG.”

Reed had been coming to Friday Night Underground during his first semester since he visited campus as a senior in high school.

He said he wasn’t able to come out in high school or he would have been expelled. But when he first visited the university as a prospective student, he was encouraged by how diversity and inclusion were presented. 

“I was hoping when I left high school I was going to somewhere that would be different,” he said. “[After the comedy night], it was like, ‘Oh, I’m back.’”

Reed said the experience dredged up similar emotions that he felt after Ku Klux Klan pamphlets were distributed across campus in October.

Brockman said she felt the incident violated the university’s expectations for student conduct. Since she’s a mandatory reporter as a resident advisor, she reported the incident to Lauren Kozak, the university’s Title IX coordinator. Title IX applies to speech that qualifies as sexual harassment or discrimination.

She said Kozak gave her two options: to either give Griffin community service hours as consequences, or to set up a meeting with Griffin and students who felt targeted by his jokes to engage in dialogue about it. But Brockman said she wasn’t comfortable speaking for the roughly 30 people who were present at FUDG that night.

“I don’t know what to do in that situation and it’s not my job to make it okay,” she said. 

Kozak is bound by confidentiality and was unable to comment on specific cases, she said. 

But, in general, she said, once someone reports an incident for Title IX review, she’ll meet with the student, gather information and explain resolution options. It can be handled in two ways, depending on what’s alleged: discipline, which will result in an official investigation for charges, or remedies-based resolution, which could take the form of mediation, educational training or no-contact.

“If there are a lot of witnesses of a behavior, that may impact an investigation moving forward, independent of evidence,” Kozak said.

In that case, Kozak would follow up with multiple people who were present for the situation in question, she said.

As of Friday, Jan. 18, no action has taken place yet beyond the initial Title IX assessment.

Now a FUDG leadership team member, Ricks said he applied for the position because of the event.

Ricks said he felt like the situation was reflective of the social divide between students involved in Greek life and independent students. The comedy night in question was crafted with the goal of reaching out to Greek students and diversifying FUDG performances and audiences. Friday Night Underground was created to offer a positive space for all students in search of something to do on Friday nights.

“Do we compromise our goal of being more inclusive of the whole student body to make sure that the people here feel safe?” Ricks   said. “It became apparent to me that as much as we want to include everyone, some voices that preclude the dignity of others can’t be included in an inclusive environment.”

On Nov. 5, the following statement was posted on the FUDG Instagram account:

“Following the events on November 2nd during one of our acts, we at FUDG want to apologize to those who were negatively affected. Ever since Friday Underground was created, we have dedicated ourselves to providing a safe and inclusive space for all students on campus to feel welcome to stay, welcome to perform and welcome to express themselves. When we ask students to perform we entrust them to be respectful of our inclusive space. We recognize that certain performances last Friday broke that trust and we will not let that happen again. Our community has always been one of acceptance and belonging, and your safety and comfort are integral to that and indispensable to us. We never want to provide a platform for hatred or ignorance. If you were specifically targeted, we want to let you know that we love and accept you, not despite your differences but because of them and the value they add to our community. Please reach out to the counseling center, LGBT+ peer counselors, and/or other champions of diversity on campus. We consider ourselves a safe space and promise to take the necessary steps to ensure it. Love always, the Friday Night Underground Executive Team.”

Griffin said he was hurt by the post and said he was never asked to apologize.

“I wished they had reached out afterward so we could have talked about what went wrong,” he said.

Grant said he wished FUDG staff had turned Griffin’s set into an opportunity for dialogue instead of shutting down the performance.

“It’s kind of like when you walk into someone else’s house with dirty shoes and don’t take off your shoes,” Grant said. “You could tell someone to take off their dirty shoes before they walk into your house. One of those is a lot more productive than the other.”

Ricks said FUDG is currently planning another comedy night, but this time around there will be a formal vetting process for performers.

 And as for Griffin, he said he has no intention of returning to FUDG. But, he said he doesn’t expect to be invited back, anyway.

*Editor’s Note: The editors of the Phi clarified one of Griffin’s jokes from his comedy act. The Phi adhered to its obligations as an independent, student newspaper and did it in a pursuit of fairness and accuracy by double checking the accuracy of the quotes attributed to Griffin with him before the story was published.