On Seinfeld and the Reality of Millennial PC in Comedy
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?
Whoever he is now, Seinfeld will always be this man to me.
© 2015 Ben Cleland