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An Explanation à la Seinfeld and Millennial PC
I'm sorry about misrepresenting you Jerry.
A few days ago I wrote a piece about Seinfeld and his recent interviews on PC.
However, upon sharing what I thought was a well reasoned and sensible point of view with some fellow comedians I was bombarded with criticism. Even though only one person commented on the article itself, he sent me a colossal 1597 word series of comments breaking down everything I'd said sentence by sentence. As a frame of reference, my article was only 1769 words. And so I wanted to write another article addressing all the feedback I'd received.
I feel like many people read my article as a pro PC argument when it wasn't. My article was only ever intended as a haphazard collection of my thoughts concerning Seinfeld and the slew of other articles out there, in particular an article by SALON.com entitled “Jerry Seinfeld’s new bizarro world: The sadness of watching a genius age into Bill O’Reilly”. While I, of course, read more than just this article, it was this article in particular which inspired me to write an article of my own. And comparatively, I thought that my arguments (although full of holes as Mr 1597 pointed out) were rather moderate. Sure, I made the ad hominen argument that he was old, white and rich, but in my defence, he kind of is. I thought what I wrote was much more reasonable than SALON.com, and I thought people would appreciate that.
I have always advocated that the problem with arguing about stuff on the internet was that noone puts any rational thought into it. Whenever someone argues their internet point of view, it's always just a gut reaction. I'm thinking back to the Daniel Tosh rape debate here. There were two sides to it and they both argued for two separate propositions; The first being, “It is never acceptable under any circumstance to make fun of rape, rape is horrible” versus the second, “Comedy is an exception to the rule; you should be able to joke about anything even rape”. And I honestly felt like both of these points of view, which people so passionately argued for online, were equally wrong. You might find it surprising, but I was on Daniel Tosh's side in this debate. There's a kind of unwritten rule that you can say horribly offensive things to people who heckle you. But, did that mean I thought that it was okay to make wanton jokes about rape? No. But everyone who was on my side of the debate argued that point, and I couldn't defect from the people who agreed with me. The problem is that people always argue for black or white when they should be arguing for shades of grey, and it's easy to get swept up in it.
The point I'm trying to convey is summed up in this example; after sharing my article with some fellow comedians, a certain member amongst them told me the premise; funny is funny, offended people can go eat a dick. That's a quote. That's such a ridiculous proposition. Something being funny is not a justification for it being offensive. I find the thought of walking into the Ann Frank museum and saying, “what's the difference between a Jew and a pizza” funny, but if you actually do that, you're an arsehole. The situation is similar to that of the Westboro Baptist Church; while everyone has the right to protest, those who picket the funerals of homosexual soldiers are dicks. I was also told that the PC movement forbades the mere utterance of some words, making it an “Orwellian” attempt at oppression of the freedom of speech. That's bullshit. Noone dragged Seinfeld off to room 101 after he made a joke about gay French kings. The problem with the internet is that its easy to take small differences in opinion and blow them out of proportion.
So, I quickly want to address two things which I think are wrong with peoples mentality when arguing about this topic; the first is holding comedy as special and exempt from criticism, and the second is a fundamental misunderstanding about PC. It's an unhappy occurrence that my writing of this article coincided with a time when I was getting increasingly disillusioned with comedy. I started writing comedy when I was fifteen, and all that mattered to me then was making people laugh. But as I grew older and more experienced, just the fact that people laughed wasn't good enough. I began doing stand up because of the work of comics like George Carlin and Stewart Lee, comedians whose work was not only funny, but that really meant something. I was tired of going out to the comedy club every other night and just hearing meaningless crap. Here's a joke about public transport, here's a joke about how I don't get sex from my wife. Was this it? Was this all there was to comedy? An endless line of talentless nitwits telling lazier jokes than I wrote when I was fifteen? Were we going to joke about penises and public transport forever?
George Carlin, "Scratch any cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist".
I was growing up, but the comedy scene just wasn't growing up with me.
And that isn't me saying there's no talent left in comedy. There's a tonne of comics I've worked with that I deeply respect. But a joke just being funny isn't enough for me anymore. A laugh isn't enough to justify you wasting precious minutes of your audience's life. I realise it's cynical, and I've written journal articles previously about the exact opposite thing; about how there was infinite beauty in a joke's meaninglessness, but I just don't feel the same way anymore. To quote George Carlin, “scratch any cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist”. That's what I am. Comedy disappoints me.
And so, when I see people make the argument that comedy is special and that being funny justifies being offensive, well, I can't disagree with you more. It just isn't right to intentionally victimise people with your comedy, regardless of how funny you think it is. Whenever I head down to the comedy club and hear jokes told by a privileged, middle class, white man about how the Muslims are being idiots and the Maoris are being criminals, and hear them justify their politically incorrect statements with the proposition that “it's just a joke”, well, the idealist in me dies a little more. People say it's the duty of the comedian to push the line, but the truth is that when you make these types of lazy jokes, you're not pushing the line. You're going down a path that's been tread by thousands of other comics before you. When Seinfeld called flicking a smartphone “gay” he wasn't pushing a line. He wasn't innovating or making any radical new statements about society. He was telling a lazy joke that honestly, wasn't even that funny. What annoyed me about his statements was that he blamed this joke's failure on political correctness gone mad. People aren't comfortable laughing a joke whose only proposition is “gay people act gay lol” and they shouldn't be. It's part of being a good comedian to know your audience.
Does this mean that comedians aren't allowed to say whatever they want? Yeah it does. Is it a bad thing for comedy? I don't think it has to be. Honestly, it's about time us comedians grew a conscience.
So now you're thinking I'm a brainwashed liberal whose been totally swept up in the PC movement. You think that I think, you can never make jokes if there's even the slightest chance that your jokes might offend somebody. That because comedians don't have the freedom to go and offend people, all comedy's got to be lame dad jokes about how a duck walks into a bar. If you're thinking that right now, then you've completely missed the point of everything I've said. I will always advocate for the reasonable middle ground. Put simply, I think that comedians should be allowed to make offensive jokes, so long as they aren't dicks about it. I'm not saying Seinfeld is a dick because he made a joke about gay people, I'm saying he's a dick for blaming the failure of his joke on the PC movement. Very few things annoy me as much as allocating arbitrary blame on “PC”.
But I'm not totally on PC's side either. I honestly don't even think that Seinfeld's joke was that offensive. A gay french king, I mean who really cares? Hold your horses, I know you think this is contradicting what I said about Seinfeld earlier, and in truth, it sort of does. What I mean to say is, it's offensive enough to not laugh at, but I don't think it's offensive enough to be offended by. I think that's the major difference that Seinfeld hasn't realised. If upon saying the joke he was booed offstage then there would be a problem. That would be PC gone mad. But, that didn't happen. All that happened was that people weren't totally on board with laughing. I tried to get that point across in my previous article, but I realise in my exaggeration it may have come across differently.
So let's quickly tackle the myth that PC has insidiously infected our society and censored our speech. It isn't true guys. Seinfeld was up in arms about his daughter accusing his wife of saying something sexist, when she hadn't really said anything of that nature. He thought his daughter had misinterpreted and arbitrarily labelled what his wife said. However, I think that misinterpretation flows both ways. Anti-PC advocates think that PC misinterprets harmless jokes as horribly offensive insults, while pro-PC advocates are themselves misinterpreted as being incredibly offended, when in reality, all they (or at least all I) offered was some constructive criticism. Once again, a degree of reasonableness is what the doctor ordered. I sincerely feel like the daughter's saying, “that's sexist” was all a part of the natural banter between mother and daughter, an excuse oft used by those defending the politically incorrect.
People seem to be under this persuasive belief that PC means that, if someone might be offended by something, then we can't say it. Full stop. And that's not what it's about. It's about not being a dick. Thinking about Daniel Tosh again, his whole act is about being a dick; he just took it too far in this one instance and he subsequently apologised for it via social media. We didn't need to rally against feminists in his defence, and I don't think we should rally against PC in defence of Seinfeld. I got annoyed by Seinfeld because he doesn't have a point. This “orwellian” PC movement he cites is a fantasy. The truth is, that we as a society aren't as comfortable offending people as we used to be. I remember a set by Eddie Murphy in the 80s where he literally rants about “faggots” for a full twenty minutes. He'd be crucified for that now. A point that my 1597 word commenter made was that PC has changed the degree of offensiveness people need in order to qualify as a “dick”. Its a good point. However, I don't think PC has restricted the available vocabulary as much as Seinfeld complains it has. Sure, you can't joke about “faggots” anymore, but isn't that a good thing in a society where we want to be accepting of these people?
It's all a matter of degree. People weren't seriously offended by Seinfeld's gay joke. I'm not offended by it, and I would argue that the reasonable person shouldn't be offended either. And they shouldn't be offended, not for the arbitrary excuse that it was funny, but because it just isn't that offensive. People say much worse things every night at the club. He just shouldn't have blamed the failure of his joke on some kind of fanciful PC movement. Just as he shouldn't have blamed his 14 year old daughter's innocent banter on the same thing. That's really all I was trying to say in my previous article.
In conclusion, I hope I've answered all the questions people were asking me on facebook and the like. If you still don't agree with me, that's fine too honestly, you're allowed to have a differing opinion. My goal has always been to promote reasonableness and rationality when tackling these controversial issues and I hope that you all didn't misinterpret what I wrote earlier. I want to end this piece, again with a quote, this time by Stewart Lee, “When I was fourteen, I had a massive poster on my wall of a giant pop-art mouth advertising a Swiss exhibition of abstract art. My friends and family mocked my pretention, but I loved that poster and the hope it offered of an exciting world of thought beyond the boundaries of stifling Solihull. But one day the poster fell off the wall and the dog pissed all over it, ruining it for ever, while my mother laughed. That poster is what the Alternative Comedy dream meant to me - the possibility of a better world. And now it is covered in dog's piss.”