“They just want to use these words,” Jerry Seinfeld observed of today’s ideologically intolerant young in his recent ESPN radio interview, explaining why so many comics no longer play colleges. “They just want to use these words. ‘That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” It’s no wonder the remarks generated such notice. Seinfeld has never shown an ideological bent in either his work or his life. That he cited his own 14-year-old daughter as exemplifying the unhappy phenomenon was especially surprising. A few nights later, appearing on Seth Meyers’s late-night show on NBC, Seinfeld more fully revealed himself. He made it clear that he views our politically correct popular culture, and the reflexive caution it imposes, with the stunned surprise of the belatedly aware; and, more to the point, that now that the veil has been lifted from his eyes, he has no intention of backing off.
Seinfeld described how an innocuous comic observation he made at a recent performance—that, when scrolling through names on their cell phones, people assume the imperious air of “a gay French king”; illustrating with an insouciant flick of an outstretched finger—he instantly felt the room go tense, as the audience silently responded: “What are you talking about ‘gay’? What are you doing? What do you mean?’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” He added that he “could imagine a time when people would say that it is offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing motion and you now need to apologize.”
Imagine it? That time is here and has been for quite a while. Like most of America, Seinfeld simply hadn’t been paying attention.
Nor, even now, is there any suggestion that Seinfeld is politically engaged in a traditional sense. Notably well-adjusted and comfortable in his own skin, especially for a comedian, he enjoys friendships across the political spectrum, from Chris Rock and Louie C.K. on the left to Colin Quinn and Larry the Cable Guy on the right. His allegiance is to humor, about which—catch him on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee or in his Inside Comedy chat with David Steinberg, or almost anywhere else where the subject is generating laughs—he’s unbelievably smart and analytical. Above all, he understands that the most essential element in his kind of comedy is precisely the one under such sustained attack today: honesty. It was key to the observational humor with which he established himself in the clubs and on late-night TV, and it drove his iconic show. No one on Seinfeld was especially nice or generous of spirit; corner-cutting and pettiness ran rampant. Yet the show’s characters, true to themselves even when (make that especially when) their behavior didn’t reflect well on themselves, inspired such affection because they were so recognizable, especially to the millions of young urbanities who formed its core audience. As Upper West Siders, pretending to social consciousness even when their hearts weren’t in it, their manifold hypocrisies made for especially rich comic fodder.
This is what Seinfeld is defending: the truth, irreverently expressed.
While this is obviously a fight on principle, it is just as obviously intensely personal. As Blazing Saddles marked its 40th anniversary in 2014, Mel Brooks, himself a liberal, bemoaned that racial sensitivities would preclude the film being made today—and it’s a real question whether some of Seinfeld’s most memorable episodes would pass muster in what conservative pundit Guy Benson aptly terms today’s culture of shut-up. Just off the top of my head, as a fan of the show, there were the following:
George, desperate to prove his racial bona fides by producing a black friend, seeks to befriend any black guy he can find, including a random guy on the street.
Kramer, refusing to wear a red ribbon on the AIDS walk, is set upon by a pair of gay bullies.
At the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Kramer accidentally sets fire to the Puerto Rican flag, and is attacked by a mob, including the same pair.
Not realizing that a woman he hopes to date is Native American, Jerry repeatedly offends her by proffering a gift of a cigar store Indian, using phrases like “Let’s bury the hatchet,” and finally by trying to avoid using the term “reservation” when booking a table at a restaurant.
Susan’s father is humiliated when it emerges that he was John Cheever’s secret lover.
Kramer is serenaded by Mel Tormé at a benefit for the Able Mentally Challenged Adults, after being socked in the mouth, treated with Novocaine, and mistaken for someone mentally impaired.
All the episodes featuring shyster lawyer/Johnny Cochran stand-in Jackie Childs.
And that’s before we get to the Seinfeld guys’ constant objectification of women (just like real guys!), down to comparisons of specific behaviors and body parts. In fact, with the possible exception of The Man Show—a Jimmy Kimmel/Adam Carolla cable vehicle that once featured a video of clueless young women eagerly signing a petition to “end the suffrage of women”—Seinfeld might have been more indifferent to bien pensant feminism than any in the medium’s history.
It’s a good bet that any of these subjects, treated more or the less the same way by a comedian on a college campus today, would be greeted with stony silence, or worse. Among the most telling reactions to Seinfeld’s remarks on ESPN was “An Open Letter to Jerry Seinfeld from a ‘Politically Correct’ College Student,” written by a journalism student at San Diego State University. It is a rather startling document, as poorly written as it is poorly reasoned, yet utterly confident in its rectitude. While allowing that he “loves and appreciates offensive, provocative comedy,” he cautions that “comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive. Sexist humor and racist humor can no longer exist in comedy because these concepts are based on archaic ideals that have perpetrated injustice against minorities in the past . . . There needs to be a message, a central truth behind comedy for it to work as humor.” Offend away, he concludes his lecture to arguably the most successful comedian in America, as long as you’re “offending the right people.”
To a considerable extent, his celebrity—along with the general presumption that, in his heart of hearts, he’s one of the good guys, a liberal—has shielded Seinfeld from the abuse he might have otherwise provoked from the nation’s humorless army of social-justice warriors. Indeed, Jerry Seinfeld may well be the hardest celebrity in America to marginalize. But some are ready to take a crack at doing just that. “Jerry Seinfeld’s anti-P.C. tirade isn’t just stale and lame—it’s cowardly,” tweeted Salon, following the ESPN interview. An MSNBC panel on the controversy made up of left-of-center media millennials produced the following:
Hostess Alex Wagner: Seinfeld has “fallen behind the times.”
New York Magazine’s Annie Lowrey: “I kind of roll my eyes at Jerry Seinfeld. You know, he’s a billionaire—like I don’t feel sorry for him if people don’t laugh hard enough at his jokes.”
Bloomberg Politics’s Dave Weigel: “(N)o one wants to think they’ve stopped being cool or they stopped being relevant—or especially, that they—that they’re now a bigot because they believe something they’ve always believed.”
MSNBC’s Dorian Warren: “I think it’s so cheap and easy to be able to insult people who are socially marginalized . . . you’re afraid to be criticized, because you can’t come up with funny jokes that don’t insult people.”
To his credit, Seinfeld isn’t backing down. In fact—and, perhaps this, too, speaks to his sense of invulnerability—he seems more eager than ever to engage the issue, as was clear on the Seth Meyers program. The host is straightforwardly liberal; the other guest that evening, New Yorker editor David Remnick, is that and more—a man ever vigilant, lest an errant thought slip into his magazine.
“There’s a creeping p.c. thing out there that really bothers me,” Seinfeld opined of the troubling audience’s reaction at his recent performance, and Meyers and Remnick readily professed to agree.
“But you can also screw up,” said Remnick, noting that thanks to the web, he instantly hears about it whenever he does.
When that happens, asked Meyers, “Do you look back on the work and say ‘Wait, did we make a mistake?’”
“Of course,” said Remnick. “If you have half a brain you give it a second look.”
“When was that?” challenged Seinfeld, from down the couch. “Tell us about that?”
Remnick replied that one of the magazine’s recent covers had so offended “a guy on CNN” that the guy told him, on the air, that it “could have been a cover on a Nazi magazine.”
Seinfeld wasn’t buying. “Explain and defend, not apologize. Did you apologize? . . . Have you ever done that?”
No, Remnick said, but added that some cover sketches do go over the line, and sometimes there’s “a misfire—I got a misfire today.”
“What does that mean, you got a misfire?” Seinfeld asked.
“It was a sketch about a possible cover about the Vanity Fair cover recently,” Remnick said, referring to Vanity Fair’s Caitlyn Jenner cover. “But it didn’t work.”
“I would like to know what it was,” pressed Seinfeld.
“You’re not gonna get it.”
The audience laughed and applauded, as if it was all in good fun, but Seinfeld was clearly in earnest. A moment later, he turned to the other media heavy, Meyers. “I saw on Instagram where you said, ‘I’m not going to make any jokes about Caitlyn Jenner.’”
Meyers looked momentarily abashed, before replying, lamely, “I said ‘that day.’ I sort’ve thought that was a wonderful moment, so it wasn’t a good time to make jokes.”
“Oh, good,” allowed Seinfeld drily. “I feel better about it.”
Many of us should feel better knowing Seinfeld is in this fight. Might he eventually go all in, and connect the dots? Might he come to realize that this issue also bears on the proliferating trigger warnings at colleges—the kinds his children will soon be attending—and the treatment of people like Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and so much more?
Probably not. But for now, let’s settle for a steady push for the freedom to make light of anything, across the ideological spectrum—including, for the next month or so, Rachel Dolezal and her amazing quick-switch from white to black.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.