I can’t say it surprises me to see that Jerry Seinfeld, whose “observational” comedy felt dated when he was at the height of his popularity, has drifted right into cranky old man territory with a string of broadsides about how he and his are oppressed by the kids these days and their “political correctness.” Earlier this week, Seinfeld, on “The Herd with Colin Cowherd”, complained that colleges are too politically correct for comedians of his generation to play. His evidence of this was an anecdote about his 14-year-old daughter.
“My wife says to her, ‘Well, you know, in the next couple years, I think maybe you’re going to want to be hanging around the city more on the weekends, so you can see boys,’” he riffed. “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 they’re talking about.”
His daughter had a point. There is a sexist stereotype of the boy-crazy teenage girl that doesn’t accurately capture the complex feelings adolescents have about self-identity and sexual desire. More importantly, it’s downright weird to use an anecdote about a teen girl trying to get her mom off her back to draw some larger conclusion about the atmosphere on college campuses, an atmosphere that his daughter, being only 14, isn’t part of anyway.
But Seinfeld wasn’t done, which is no surprise, given that he came under fire last year for dismissing the value of diversity in comedy. On Tuesday, he went on Late Night with Seth Meyers and complaining that people might complain about a joke he does with a punchline that rests on stereotypes about gay men being effeminate. He complained that a joke he does comparing people who have smart phones to a “gay French king” makes audiences squirm instead of laugh. “I could imagine a time where people say, ‘Well, that’s offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing motion and you now need to apologize,’” he argued. “I mean, there’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me.”
Clearly, Seinfeld is entitled to your laughter, audiences of the 21st century, particularly you young’uns! If you’re not feeling it, just imagine that you are courtiers in a pre-revolutionary Versailles and he’s one Louis or another making a boneheaded joke, and cough up that polite chuckling. No need to speculate about his sexual inclinations either way, unless picturing him doing the deed with his socks on helps bring forth your indulgent giggles.
In a sense, this is all our collective faults for ever pretending Seinfeld was funny and giving him money to observe at us at length. Wasn’t the joke on Seinfeld that he was a second-rate hack? At some point we must have forgotten that and started to think that because he’s a sitcom star, he must be a funny guy. What he’s blaming on “political correctness” might just be audiences waking up to a truth that was always there if we were willing to see it.
Unfortunately, as the conversation that followed between Seinfeld, Meyers and New Yorker editor David Remnick shows, this idea that political correctness is some great bogeyman gobbling up all sense of subtlety and humor has a lot of traction these days.
This is a delicate conversation to have. On one hand, it’s true enough that there are, as Lindy West noted in the Guardian, “some individuals use political correctness to disguise what is, in reality, a regressive devotion to propriety” and others who “simply have no sense of humour.” The Internet has given these people an opportunity they never had in the past to do what puritans do, which is try to impose their grim humorlessness on others. No use in denying that’s an issue, not while the world “problematic” remains in heavy circulation on Twitter and Tumblr.
It’s also true that some on college campuses use lefty politics as a weapon to try to censor or police the language and ideas of professors and fellow students. It’s a serious enough problem that many college professors are legitimately afraid of being investigated for saying the wrong thing.
All that said, there continues to be no substantial evidence that these eruptions are anything but a marginal bit of infighting on the left, as opposed to a serious cultural shift towards hypersensitivity or censorship. The real and larger problem is people who use “political correctness” as a catchall defense against legitimate criticism.
Take, for instance, the joke that Seinfeld is so defensive about. Odds are people aren’t laughing at it because it’s, bluntly put, not particularly funny. The main target is people who are using smartphones and think they’re all that, so it’s not a big surprise that as the phones become ubiquitous, the stereotype of phone users as spoiled brats loses a lot of its salience.
But yes, Seinfeld is probably right that another huge chunk of it is that a lot of straight people have grown sour on the tired “gay men are bitchy” stereotype that he employs in the joke. That joke has been tired for at least 60 years now, but as straight people become more accepting of and used to gay people, more of them are beginning to realize that stereotype doesn’t really have that much truth to it. Sure, some gay men are bitchy. So are some straight men, though they may express it differently. But most gay men are not bitchy. Like straight people, gay people come in all personality types and forms of self-expression, and as more people realize that, jokes that rely on believing otherwise aren’t as funny anymore.
It’s a good thing for comedy if hackish comedians are finding it harder and harder to rely on half-baked and unfunny jokes that rest on the premise that straight guys are better and cooler than everyone else. If that means that audiences increasingly notice that Jerry Seinfeld is really not that funny, so be it. He can go home and count the millions made off a simpler, less discerning era.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.