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On Seinfeld and the Reality of Millennial PC in Comedy

Updated on June 16, 2015

In recent interviews, Jerry Seinfeld has become the subject of controversy due to his views on political correctness.

The Reality of the Situation

I'm sure if you're reading this, then you have also read the dozens of similar articles buzzing about the net on Jerry Seinfeld's “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” interview about how university students are too PC for his comedy (I say university rather than college as I live in New Zealand where we speak English correctly). Now I know university audiences better than anyone, having been both a comedian and a law student for the last three years, as well as being the president of the fastest growing student comedy association in New Zealand; The University of Auckland Stand Up Comedy Club. So, in my unique position as a quasi-expert on university comedy audiences I can tell you two things; one, university audiences are PC; and two, Seinfeld is still wrong.


The truth is that university audiences do show aversion to politically incorrect material. When playing for a university audience, clean material has a much higher success rate than your provocative gear. Recently a friend and fellow student comedian, Matthew Parker, encountered this phenomenon when playing a university gig for the first time. He was perplexed at the audience's great reaction to a joke about how his cat is an intern in his family company, while all his overtly sexual material fell flat. In truth, it's easier to get a student's dad to laugh at risqué humour than a millennial. And this isn't just due to the greater “PC” of generation Y; when you play to a student crowd they're usually sober during the mid afternoon or early evening, when you play to their parents they're blind drunk in a dingy comedy club late at night. Nevertheless, the general consensus between comedians is that university campuses are tough gigs. And I mean tough gigs in general, not just for those of us wishing to use provocative material. Students seem to be shy to even laugh out loud. I played a uni gig recently where these young, first-year girls actually covered their mouths to prevent people hearing them laugh. I mean, give the comedian a break here.

Correctly Defining "PC"

This being said, I actually feel that this issue is somewhat immaterial to Seinfeld's statements about PC. I've read all the articles demonising him, and all the articles defending him, and this point is never covered in detail. All anyone ever focuses on is his PC bashing. And Seinfeld himself, in the original interview, moves the focus away from university campuses. He's asked a clear cut question about whether he thinks college campuses are PC and he starts talking about his 14 year old daughter, who is either an academic prodigy or not actually in university. And a large amount of the criticism of Seinfeld's comments revolves around that reply. Here's the transcript;

My daughter is 14. My wife says to her, “Well, you know, in the next couple of years, I think you’re going to want to be hanging around the city more on the weekends, so you can see boys.”And you know what my daughter says? She says, “That’s sexist.” They just want to use these words. “That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice.” They don’t know what the [bleep] they’re talking about.

I think it's pretty obvious what the issue is here. His wife said something sexist, his daughter called her on it (I'm actually proud of Seinfeld's daughter. She's only 14 and yet she's already standing up to gender stereotypes) and Seinfeld has accused her of not knowing what she's talking about. He's a bad parent for starters. Listening to the audio, Seinfeld pauses, trying to let the weight of what he's said sink in. He actually thinks that his daughter offhandedly accusing his wife of sexism is a big deal. He's an idiot. The irony is, that while Seinfeld accuses feminist millenials of just using labels, PC in itself, the very thing that he accuses of creepiness, is really just a label for a very complex subject. People have been hating on the PC movement for decades. Its always the same argument; freedom of speech versus protecting people from prejudice, and while it inspires tomes of debate in internet comments sections and the like, the answer is very simple; you have the right to say whatever you like, but if you are a dickhead about it people won't like you. That simple statement wraps up the entirety of the PC situation. It's not a new thing, it's not some crazy turn of the century invention, it's a social convention that's existed since man evolved the ability to speak.

PC's Negative Effect on Comedy?

How does PC relate to comedy? Well, comedy is unique as an art form in that you know your audiences approval instantaneously; whether they laugh or not. If you make a movie, you have to distribute it and then wait for reviews and sales statistics in order to know if people think it's good. If you tell a joke you know immediately if its a good joke or not. You're either greeted with a successful laugh or the awkward silence of failure.


When I first encountered articles about Seinfeld's faux pas, I was initially astounded by how Seinfeld, one of the least provocative and most observational of all comedians had problems with PC. He thinks universities are PC? Great, they should be his perfect audience, all his material is clean. Listening again to the original interview, the first thing Seinfeld says is that he doesn't actually play colleges. Which in hindsight, is probably why he talked about his daughter; she's his only real frame of reference. All this does is make his statement that college campuses are too PC rather unfounded (even if it is correct). Anyway, what I've tried to clumsily segue to is his second controversial interview on “Late Night with Seth Meyers”. It was on this television appearance where he explained how PC had negatively affected him as a comedian. And boy is it a doozy.

Defender of freedom of speech, or oppressive proponent of prejudice?

Forgetting the Golden Rules of Comedy

First off, Seinfeld really isn't helping himself. Talking about how PC is evil with two other rich, straight, white men? Really? While it's evident he's trying to defend some kind of right to the freedom of speech, the whole interview comes off as saying, “we straight, white, rich men have the right to say what we like, and you don't have the right to get offended”. Don't believe me? Here's the transcript;

I say, 'They don't seem very important, the way you scroll through (your phone) like a gay French king.' ... I did this line recently in front of an audience, and comedy is where you can feel an opinion. And they thought, 'What do you mean gay? What are you talking about gay? What are you doing? What do you mean?' And I thought, 'Are you kidding me?

Yeah. Seinfeld's upset because his audience doesn't want to laugh at a gay joke. Yeah. He's not helping himself is he? In his defence, he's in the unique situation of having too much success and not enough self awareness. Most comics in my situation (You know being poor, having to beg the manager of the Classic via email in order to get a measly Big Wednesday) if we said a joke that didn't work, we'd cut it from our set. We'd assume it was just a bad joke. Seinfeld on the other hand, evidently has come to the conclusion that his audience is simply too PC. In his success he's forgotten one of the golden rules of comedy; never blame the audience.

Taking the Reasonable Approach to PC

And here's where Seinfeld is right, but also very very wrong. The truth is that art should be provocative, that it should be offensive, that it should mean something. The moment art caters to what is politically correct, is the moment art is dead. I should be terrified walking into the Auckland art gallery, not bored. But if you're going to offend, your art has to mean something. Thinking back to the great Daniel Tosh rape jokes debate of last year, I'm willing to forgive a rape joke if it serves a deeper meaning. In the words of George Carlin, you can joke about anything, what matters is where the exaggeration is. Let's think about Louie CK's controversial SNL monologue where he compares a pedophile’s love of children to his own love of chocolate bars. I'm willing to allow Louie to be offensive, because the purpose of the joke isn't to make fun of pedophilia. The joke is self deprecatory, he's making fun of the warped way in which his brain works, that's the exaggeration. He's so self absorbed that even with a topic like pedophilia, he uses himself as a frame of reference. The folly of a self absorbed mindset is his subject of ridicule.


Another oft mentioned argument is that humour about sensitive subjects, like the holocaust, is part of the healing process. That laughing at tragedy is a positive alternative to crying. And that's fine, so long as that's the purpose of the joke. The same is simply not true of Seinfeld. His example of a joke that people are too PC to handle is inexcusable. People got offended by what he said because it was offensive and more importantly, it didn't mean anything. There's a line between art and a thinly veiled insult. It's okay to poke fun at Caitlyn Jenner, but it's not okay to victimise her. The difference is subtle, but it's important and it's noticeable. Honestly, it's surprising to me that the man who popularised the democratic phrase, “not that there's anything wrong with that”, would think it was suddenly okay to ridicule gay people.


To conclude, (and I know my old English lecturers would kill me for writing that) Seinfeld is still one of my comedy heroes. When I was twelve and I'd try to write comedy, I'd basically just copy Seinfeld's observational style, and to a much lesser extent I still kinda do. His work will always be an inspiration to me. If anything, this whole episode has just been a painful reminder that our heroes are still mortal men, and they have their flaws. Noone is ever as perfect as they are through the rose coloured lens of nostalgia. And, while some of Seinfeld's views do irk me, I believe he said what he did with good intentions. Seinfeld may have become an out of touch, rich, white man, but in my heart he'll always be a nervous, young, Jewish guy telling jokes about the airport. In the words of Harvey Dent in Nolan's The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.

What Do You Think?

Is Seinfeld wrong about PC? Yes, no, maybe so?

See results

Whoever he is now, Seinfeld will always be this man to me.

© 2015 Ben Cleland

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    • lyoness913 profile image

      Summer LeBlanc 2 years ago from H-Town

      Ok, I read this article. I can see where you are coming from and I enjoyed your point of view. However, I certainly don't think Jerry is a 'bad parent' He was just making a joke and really, and honestly the joke was on him as he was alluding to the fact that he is too old to understand the younger generation.

      Seinfeld has always made fun of obvious, every day things. People being too 'PC' is right up his ally- just as people who eat their peas one at a time, people who 'refuse to wear the ribbon,' people who aren't 'kind of their castle' and women who have rumbling stomachs (Helllooooooooo).

      If you get the references above, you will probably see my point. If you don't, well then- you probably won't!

      Interesting points about the times you perform and your audience- how true. My husband would laugh at a fart joke before something more profound in a seedy comedy club.

      Great write up

      -Wendi

    • TheManlyBeastman profile image
      Author

      Ben Cleland 2 years ago from Auckland, New Zealand

    • mrpopo profile image

      mrpopo 2 years ago from Canada

      Hey, thanks for the response. I should have made it clearer; I certainly don't expect you to address everything (the lengthy response was mainly for my benefit) but should you choose to use it for self-improvement all the better. I might be way off the mark on some of them and certainly pedantic and semantic on others, but hopefully you can gain something out of it.

      If I would want you to address anything in your piece, it's this:

      "Maybe I'm just an idiot like Seinfeld and his wife, but how exactly is it sexist to make a comment relating to the propensity of being attracted to the opposite sex?"

      This was the main source of issue with your article for me. Everything else in my comment is really minutia which I totally went overboard with, but this comment exacerbates every other issue in the article. So how was she being sexist? I haven't the faintest idea, and I can't see how this would be an exaggerative technique, especially when you delve into being proud of her being so ahead of her age.

      If you could clarify that it would be very much appreciated.

    • TheManlyBeastman profile image
      Author

      Ben Cleland 2 years ago from Auckland, New Zealand

      Okay bro, I can't address everything in your comment. This piece's primary goal was to entertain, and I'm glad that you were "captivated" by it. I won't address everything bit by bit, I just want to say that I used alot of exaggeration in my piece, and I definitely think you read into what I was saying too much. It's not intended as a Seinfeld is evil, PC is good argument. I think the main point that I wanted to get across was that people complain about PC alot, and they shouldn't be. It's easy to say, hey this is comedy, people shouldn't get offended because it's just jokes, but I don't think that's a healthy way to think. Some people say it's the duty of the comedian to offend, I say it's their duty to give some thought to the people they make jokes about. Also Jewish people are white, I'm sorry I'm Chinese, you people look the same to me.

    • mrpopo profile image

      mrpopo 2 years ago from Canada

      Well, that was a bit longer than I expected. I wish there was a better way to format this to make it more legible.

      A bit sorry on ending on a sour note, and some of my points I disagreed with more vehemently than I expected but hopefully you can bring some clarification. Looking forward to it.

    • mrpopo profile image

      mrpopo 2 years ago from Canada

      "And Seinfeld himself, in the original interview, moves the focus away from university campuses"

      I would assume it's because this issue of being overly PC is not exclusive to university campuses, and he can relate to it in other means. The focus should be on the cause of the issue (PC, according to Seinfeld), not on the symptoms (university campuses being poor audiences) and I think he was on point in that respect.

      "I think it's pretty obvious what the issue is here. His wife said something sexist, his daughter called her on it"

      Maybe I'm just an idiot like Seinfeld and his wife, but how exactly is it sexist to make a comment relating to the propensity of being attracted to the opposite sex?

      "He actually thinks that his daughter offhandedly accusing his wife of sexism is a big deal"

      And you don't? If you were accused of being sexist or racist when you're not actually being sexist or racist I would hope you think of it as a big deal.

      "The irony is, that while Seinfeld accuses feminist millenials of just using labels, PC in itself, the very thing that he accuses of creepiness, is really just a label for a very complex subject"

      The issue isn't that they're using labels (where does he say that?), it's that they're watering down words to the point where they lose all meaning. Calling "sexism!" or "racism!" for everything is the modern day equivalent of crying wolf, and people seem to be largely blind to it.

      "you have the right to say whatever you like, but if you are a dickhead about it people won't like you"

      I agree with this entirely. Unfortunately, this is not the issue. The issue is that people seem to think that saying generalizations such as "girls like boys" is sexist and idiotic and a dickhead move, without actually explaining why. This is baffling given that it's generally true of any species that engages in sexual reproduction, and is certainly true of humans (give or take 5-20% or the population).

      The issue isn't that people are being dickheads, it's that the standard for being a dick is lowered to the point of meaninglessness. I'd also say there are other elements in the PC movement which outright forbid the mere utterance of words they don't like regardless of their context, which is becoming scarily Orwellian.

      "He thinks universities are PC? Great, they should be his perfect audience, all his material is clean."

      And yet they aren't, according to the man himself. Either his material has become unclean or the university audiences have become too sensitive. I'd say it's the latter, but it's not just universities that are becoming too sensitive.

      "Listening again to the original interview, the first thing Seinfeld says is that he doesn't actually play colleges. Which in hindsight, is probably why he talked about his daughter; she's his only real frame of reference"

      No, this is the only real frame of reference that you're aware of. He knows other comedians, he knows other venues, he has other means of acquiring information about a potential gig. To assume that he's basing his "no colleges" rule on a single comment by his daughter is silly.

      Doing a quick Google search confirms my suspicions:

      “I hear that all the time,” Seinfeld said. “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me don’t go near colleges — they’re so PC (politically correct).”

      He gives his daughter as an example because she's the closest and most immediate thing to a perspective from a university that he is privy to, because, like he said, he doesn't play colleges on the advice of other comedians.

      "All this does is make his statement that college campuses are too PC rather unfounded (even if it is correct)"

      Not sure what else you'd expect. Short of a scientific study on university audiences' sensibilities, all of this would be based on his experiences or anecdotal evidence, neither of which are at the forefront of foundational basis.

      "First off, Seinfeld really isn't helping himself. Talking about how PC is evil with two other rich, straight, white men? Really?"

      This is the point where you completely lose me. So straight white men aren't allowed to voice their contrary opinions on PC because they're straight white men? This is probably the most racist and sexist thing I've read in this article, and it wasn't even uttered by Seinfeld.

      "While it's evident he's trying to defend some kind of right to the freedom of speech, the whole interview comes off as saying, “we straight, white, rich men have the right to say what we like, and you don't have the right to get offended”. "

      Having the right to say what you like (barring things like threats and incentivizing violence) is pretty much defending freedom of speech. I mean, how dare he. And he never said you didn't have the right to get offended, he's saying you're getting offended at something over nothing which is infuriating. If one of the cleanest, most successful comedians of all time says you're being too sensitive I think it says something.

      "Yeah. Seinfeld's upset because his audience doesn't want to laugh at a gay joke. Yeah. He's not helping himself is he?"

      He's upset because they don't want to laugh at a gay joke at the mere mention of the word "gay". Nothing in this joke was offensive to gays unless you think the mere reference of being flamboyant with your actions and movements is an insult. The butt of the joke was about people that say they want to be connected in case there's something or someone important, but then end up scrolling through everything without any care. Yet the audience in it's desire to be PC ignored the context and got offended on behalf of all gays everywhere at the mere comparison to a typically gay mannerism (notably, there was no offense on behalf of kings or the French).

      "We'd assume it was just a bad joke"

      Why? Sometimes the audience just doesn't get the joke or doesn't understand the context, which is huge in comedy. You yourself reference a recent controversy with Louis CK. In this case you allowed Louis to be offensive because he was being self-deprecatory, you understood the context but many people didn't. They were blinded by their moral outrage and desire to be PC, which is why there was a controversy (and not because the joke was bad).

      "But if you're going to offend, your art has to mean something"

      Says who?

      "Thinking back to the great Daniel Tosh rape jokes debate of last year, I'm willing to forgive a rape joke if it serves a deeper meaning."

      How deep can you really go with rape? Pun intended. Seriously, why is there a sudden requirement that jokes need to have a meaning if they're offensive? What was the "deeper meaning" behind the mild racism and the neighborhood pedophile in CK's skit?

      "People got offended by what he said because it was offensive and more importantly, it didn't mean anything"

      What was offensive? Why does it have to have a deeper meaning about gays to be a joke about gays (even though it wasn't making fun of gays)? And by the way, the deeper meaning was that society is becoming too absorbed in vapid social media and technology. The context of the joke matters, I'm surprised you're not picking up on these as a comedian.

      "There's a line between art and a thinly veiled insult"

      Jokes don't have to tread that line.

      "It's okay to poke fun at Caitlyn Jenner, but it's not okay to victimise her. The difference is subtle, but it's important and it's noticeable."

      What's the distinction? Where did he say it was okay to victimize her? Did he personally victimize her? What is the definition of victimize in the first place?

      "Seinfeld may have become an out of touch, rich, white man, but in my heart he'll always be a nervous, young, Jewish guy telling jokes about the airport."

      So he wasn't white before? More racism, ageism, classism, again not uttered by Seinfeld. Because old people can't be wise? Because rich people can't be relatable? Because white people can't talk about race?

      Funny enough in that interview with Seth Meyers the New Yorker editor David Remnick jokes that "this is the most Jewish interview I've ever been on" and Seinfeld acknowledges that. But somehow he's gone from Jewish to white, whatever that means?

    • mrpopo profile image

      mrpopo 2 years ago from Canada

      I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this article in my feed, having just caught up on the whole fiasco. You're a good writer, this had me captivated even though I've already read about this issue at length. I'm somewhat disappointed with your conclusions but I did thoroughly enjoy reading it, even if I don't agree with most of it.

      Speaking of those disagreements, I'm going over some of the things I have an issue with point by point. Hopefully you can bring some of these concerns to rest.

    working