What Do the Politically Correct Brain Police Have Against Venerable Man Comedians Like Jerry Seinfeld?
Beloved funnyman of yesteryear Jerry Seinfeld (ask your parents!) took to the airwaves this week to offer his hoary wisdom on the state of modern comedy. A plague is upon us, he warns. Harmless jokesters and joy-bringers are literally being figuratively strangled by the long, thin goblin-fingers of “political correctness” (which is a fancy term for “not treating people who are already treated like garbage like garbage”), even though all they were trying to do was just say anything they want to, the way they always have, without ever being questioned or criticised by known killjoys such as “people of colour” and “women”, and with zero regard for the institutionally oppressed groups upon whose backs their industry has been stepping for generations in the service of shallow, straight white dude “catharsis”. Is that so wrong? Jerry Seinfeld, hero, is here to say “yes”; yes, that is so wrong.
“They just want to use these words,” he explained, weeping probably, but in a brave way. “‘That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudiced.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about ... I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot people tell me: ‘Don’t go near colleges.’ They’re so PC.” Yeah! Take that, words! No PC college phony is going to convince me that words have meanings.
Why, back in Seinfeld’s time, you could run a sitcom set in New York City for nine entire seasons and only feature 19 black people ever (18 of whom were one-off background characters such as “the waiter” and “the guy who parks cars”) – and if anyone tried to do words at you, you could just pretend they didn’t exist.
Nowadays, because of Twitter and electric mail, you get the brain gestapo completely up your underpants if you so much as publicly fantasise about making a black media personality your erotic slave. Or if you produce an innocent web series with an almost-entirely white, male cast, only 20 years after you were criticised for doing the exact same thing with your sitcom. The PC police might not know what “racism” is, but Seinfeld does, and it certainly isn’t either of those things. And yet the PC death-grip on comedy is so fierce that Seinfeld has only managed to accrue $820m so far. The horror.
This unfairness, as you can see, is bad for fairness; it is bad for the constitution in some way, I’m sure; and it is bad for college students who are probably really clamouring for the vintage observational stylings of Jerry.
OK, look: our divergent political priorities aside, I actually don’t mind Jerry Seinfeld. I liked Seinfeld the programme. If I was a person who got stoned, I would enjoy watching Bee Movie while stoned (a bee is a lawyer and has implied sex with a human woman!!!). But his past work does not entitle Seinfeld to our eternal adoration or unconditional support. In fact, he isn’t even entitled to be a defining, authoritative voice in 21st-century comedy – particularly when his response to the broadening scope of his art form is one of mistrust, defensiveness and gloomy prognostication. Even the old guard forfeit their clout once they start to reject innovation and challenge. (I’d much rather hear Cameron Esposito’s perspective on the state of comedy in 2015 than, say, the ghost of Buster Keaton’s – the prospect of a talking comedy-ghost notwithstanding – not because he’s irrelevant, but because she is of this moment.)
What Seinfeld is reacting to is not the shrinking, ossifying death of comedy, as he seems to believe; it is the vibrant, expansive unfurling of comedy, and the multitude of growing pains that come along with it.
It’s absolutely true that some individuals use political correctness to disguise what is, in reality, a regressive devotion to propriety. There are people who simply have no sense of humour. It’s possible that a small few just relish the takedown but don’t care about the politics. But none of that has anything to do with whether or not it is correct to treat people with dignity and care; to call them by the names they’ve taught you; and to remain open, elastic and humble enough to catch up when you’re behind and apologise when you’re in error. No one is required to do any of these things, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good things to do.
I used to think it was a given that, at any comedy gig I attended, I’d have to grin through a number of brutal jokes about my gender: about beating us, about raping us, about ranking us, about reducing our already dehumanised existence to a handful of insulting stereotypes. And I went ahead and grinned – because, I thought, that’s just how we joke.
But, of course, there is no contract, and I’ll never fully be allowed in the club no matter how obedient I am. As long as sexism goes unchallenged, I’ll always be “just a girl”. But because I’m a girl, my complaints about sexism are dismissed. It’s a loop. And that devaluation is vastly compounded for people of colour, trans people, gay people, disabled people – anyone who has spent the past few decades as a stock “edgy” punchline.
It’s so-called political correctness that gave me the courage and the vocabulary to demand better than that from the community I love. Yes, this cultural evolution is bumpy, but what Seinfeld and some other comedians see as a threat, I see as doors being thrown open to more and more voices.
Video-game critic Leigh Alexander, who is perpetually besieged by male gamers for daring to critique a pastime that is hers as much as theirs, wrote a beautiful meditation on her weariness: “My partner is in games, and his friends, and my guy friends, and they run like founts of tireless enthusiasm and dry humour. I know sometimes my ready temper and my cynicism and the stupid social media rants I can’t always manage to stuff down are tiring for them. I want to tell them: It will never be for me like it is for you. This will only ever be joy, for you.”
Joy isn’t finite. Share. Just share.