Jerry Seinfeld is very good at what he does. He’s a storyteller, focusing on “observational” humor – airplane peanuts, the difference between cat and dogs, cellphones. So it’s interesting that the comedian is grousing about political correctness, insisting that he forgoes college tours because young folks are just too damn PC for the guy.
I’m not a fan of Seinfeld’s, but I recognize that the guy’s talented. I love his Web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (though, I watch it for his guests), and his eponymous sitcom does deserve some of the accolades its piled up in its 9-year run.
And because his material, for the most part, is to skewer the kinds of minutia in everyday life (which he spins with whimsy and wit), I am a little flummoxed at his fear of political correctness running amok, because, c’mon, let’s face it – as good as he is, he’s a bit milquetoast when compared to comics like Louis C.K., Richard Pryor, Amy Schumer, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, or Sarah Silverman. Those comics really did/do skate the line between good taste and offensiveness (often slipping into the latter), because the bulk of their material dealt with volatile topics like politics and sexuality. When Joan Rivers was making jokes about 9/11 or abortion to suss out her audiences’ attitudes about the topics, she was working like a medic, trying to cut away at the hypocrisy that often clouds real debate about serious issues.
So again, I was thinking “Well, Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t do abortion jokes.” I could be wrong, but I’m not sure if the guy ever even said the word abortion on television. Why is he feeling the encroaching grip of censorship when his material would never be considered risque, when compared to Louis C.K. (who opened his SNL hosting gig last season by positing what would it be like to be a child molester).
My answer finally came when Seinfeld was on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Seinfeld was still grousing about how hard it is to be a white cis het billionaire comedian, and how the PC groups are cramping his style. The evidence? A silly joke in which he describes how people flick through their contact lists on their phones “like a gay French king.” You get it? Because gays and French dudes are effeminate, and so every gesture they make is marked with a flourish. He reported that the joke didn’t go over as well with his original audience (the Meyers audience liked it).
So, that’s the problem. Jerry Seinfeld pines for the day when comics weren’t hampered by socially progressive movements and so they were free to just rip on people. Please don’t misunderstand: I think Seinfeld’s probably a very nice guy, and not a racist, homophobe, sexist, etc (well, no more so than the next guy). But Seinfeld seems to be frozen in some kind of Johnny Carson-era amber, where dumb jokes about gays (dumb, not offensive – the gay French king joke was silly, but not offensive) were okay – as long as you didn’t go too far, a little teasing is fine.
Jerry Seinfeld wants to make silly, inoffensive gay jokes, but doesn’t know how to in the 21st century. Poor guy is trying to ride his horse and buggy on a highway. It’s not that you can’t tell gay jokes – lots of comics do, like Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Aziz Ansari – hell, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, and Kathy Griffin would all be scrambling for new material if they had to leave out their queer material (and these ladies get raw about gay topics). But the problem is Seinfeld is a prisoner of his fame, his privilege, and his age. And it appears as if he’s not a strong enough comedian to transcend those limits. Right now, his gay jokes sound tired and trite – like a schoolyard quip. The comics I mentioned earlier are all millionaires, too – but they avoid being alienating because their comedic personae also has elements of the underdog.
And I’m not really all that clear why Seinfeld wants to become this biting, cutting edge comedian. It’s okay to be the comedic equivalent of comfort food. After all, Ellen DeGeneres is the closest thing to a female Seinfeld. Like he, she avoids controversial issues (funny because back in 1997, she was controversy epitomized), and talks about universal issues. And she makes billions of dollars doing it.
And finally, watching the interview with Seth Meyers, what I found interesting was that when Caitlyn Jenner came up, Seinfeld quizzed Meyers on his pledge not to tease Jenner. Meyers clarified and said he chose not to make a Jenner joke the day she came out because the moment she came out on Vanity Fair “I sorta thought that was a wonderful moment and that wasn’t the time to make a joke.” He reassured Seinfeld that Jenner isn’t off the table, though – which is weird because I guess Jerry Seinfeld’s jonesing for some Caitlyn Jenner jokes…
But what Meyers showed to the veteran comic is that you can push and prod taboos without being a dick. Seinfeld’s caught in this weird new land where he’s still revered for his talents, but he’s also extremely old school (it’s almost shocking to watch his act, and then watch someone like Jenny Slate or Hari Kondabolu). I don’t think he’s incapable of evolving in the 21st century – the fact that he’s doing a Web series shows that he (or at least his manager) has some insight to what’s going on around the world. But because his humor was always based on an alleged timelessness, he can come off as a comedic Rip Van Winkle, stumbling out, blinking wearily at all the new changes in the world. If he wants to thrive as a vital and important comic (as opposed to rest on his laurels as a sitcom legend – which is a valid choice, btw), he’ll have to step outside his little world. Instead of being pissed at a college audience for not being happy that a rich middle-aged white dude is making a really threadbare joke based on assumptions of homosexuals that seem almost cute in their moldiness, figure out why the kids feel standoffish from gay jokes and work with that.