If nothing else, Jerry Seinfeld is consistent. The iconic comedian behind Seinfeld‘s “no hugging, no learning” mantra didn’t seem interested in apologizing in February 2014, when people complained that his Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee guest list wasn’t diverse, telling CBS and BuzzFeed:
“People think it’s the census or something,” Seinfeld said of the assertion that all pop culture should accurately reflect society. “This has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that.”
On Monday, Seinfeld once again weighed in on PC culture while talking about why he doesn’t play colleges when he told Colin Cowherd that young people “just want to use these words,” while talking about his teenage daughter’s misuse of the term “sexist” and referring to that term as well as the words racist and prejudice. He then added, “they don’t know what the (bleep) they’re talking about.” Seinfeld also said “Yes it does” when asked if the current climate is hurting comedy. It’s a sentiment he echoed during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers last night when he described a reaction to a joke about the way people scroll through their phones resembling the way that a “gay French king” might scroll through a list of subjects.
“There’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me,” said Seinfeld to Meyers when discussing the potential “controversy” that might spike because of his use of the term “gay” in that joke.
You probably heard about all of these remarks. Maybe you agree with Seinfeld or maybe you were offended because it seems like a white rich male is telling everyone not in those clubs to shut the f*ck up with their complaints, but what if Seinfeld is at least half right, particularly when he talks about PC culture hurting comedy?
First, though, let’s not dismiss the negative impact that a joke can have if its intent is to be racially or sexually offensive. Sexism and racism appear nightly on a stage somewhere and that brand of “humor” is all over Twitter and elsewhere on the internet, preaching to and tickling the worst of our nature. But can we also acknowledge that every comedian that dares tread the risky path to talk about sex and race isn’t necessarily trying to offend or start a controversy? Can we agree that comedians are, by and large, trying to have a conversation about the world around us and that race, gender and sexuality (among other things) are going to come up? Can we agree that if we ignore those things or wrap them in bubble wrap and say that they are only able to be discussed in antiseptic and pre-approved ways, that society suffers?
Look to the past. What if we applied today’s PC standards to George Carlin, Richard Pryor and several other influential, bold, groundbreaking acts; carefully mending the fences that they pushed down with their comedy while working to undo the conversations that were started by the thoughts that they provoked? I’m not saying that these comics were civil-rights leaders or that Louis CK, Patton Oswalt or Chris Rock are on par, but by all accounts, we transformed from a society that was content to bury its head in the sand to issues pertaining to race, sexism and the economically repressed to one that has its eyes open, at least. And comedy had a hand in that social evolution, but it’s not that easy to beat back the distracting noise nowadays. Contemporary comedy that happens to be thought provoking and risque (be it stand-up or satirical news shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) can’t compete with the legacy of those past trailblazers, but it can help pull us back from the abyss of Facebook games and viral videos, so it’s not without value.
“Not without value.” — The same thing can be said of political correctness, but only in moderation. Because when it is applied broadly in a way that damns all comedy about race and sex as offensive, it isn’t good for comedy, and as an extension of that, it isn’t good for society because it becomes its own type of noise absent a discernible message. And when you add the anonymity and effortlessness of the internet to that, a pandemic of hysteria develops into something that feels like a witch hunt that seeks to banish comedians and tarnish careers. Which, in turn, makes it seem as though the easier way is to simply accede to the perceived masses and take fewer risks, giving rise to a toothless kind of comedy that is less concerned with adding to the conversation about race, sex and politics. Again, more worthless fuzzy noise.
Listen, I don’t want people to be offended, but if we’re all so sensitive and all feel as though it is a fundamental right of our existence to glide through life without anyone ever making us feel small or otherwise ungood, aren’t we to blame when the opposite happens because of how unrealistic and relatively new that view is? Isn’t it a bit conceited to expect all conversations to immediately shift a few degrees to accommodate what we perceive as offensive rather than just ignore the remarks and the people that are offending us in all but the most blatant instances? And, despite recent evidence, we do have the ability to differentiate between what is far out of line and that which is only mildly offensive. It just seems like we get wrapped up in the comfort of generalizations and in being part of a “campaign” and a group that is put off by something.
The PC brigade does it and so do comedians like Seinfeld, who makes it seem as though he assumes that all PC concerns are without merit and birthed from a misunderstanding of the meaning of these terms. Somewhere in the middle — where comics aren’t hunted for sport on the internet when they test a boundary and where they don’t feel as though they have a responsibility to strike back in a condescending way that dismisses virtually all complaints — is a place where comedy and political correctness can co-exist. We’re just not there right now. We’re lost in the noise.