Lately, comedian Jerry Seinfeld has been getting on my nerves with his attack on political correctness. He appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers last night, where the topic inevitably came up. Seinfeld called political correctness “creepy.” That’s right, Jerry Seinfeld, the man who made a movie about a bee and human woman falling in love (and others just roll with the idea?) and suing the human race together thinks that increased awareness of harmful sexism and racism in comedy is creepy. Okay, Jerry. Sure.
[bctt tweet=”Okay Jerry. Sure. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
It’s time we stopped pretending that comedy and political correctness are mutually exclusive; the key word here is harmful sexism and racism. There are a number of comedians who manage to push the envelope and construct humor that isn’t necessarily “politically correct,” but doesn’t use another gender or race as a one-dimensional punchline.
Comedy is one of the murkiest territories in entertainment. There are so many kinds – slapstick, cringe, dark, highbrow/observational, etc – and each separate audience demands to be handled in their own way. So, as some MRA will inevitably tweet at me, why can’t white men just tell their sexist and racist jokes in their own space and those who are offended stay away?
The hidden (or maybe not-so-hidden) factor there is privilege. Just like their white male peers in the entertainment industry, white male comedians are given the space and opportunity to be a mainstream performer. Female comediennes are generally relegated to a female audience, black comedians to a black audience, and so on. Yet white males are just the “everyman’s comedian,” simply because of a deeply rooted history of sexism and racism in the entertainment industry.
It’s this very prejudice that has allowed comedians to continue making detrimental jokes that reduce minorities to caricatures. In recent years, the immense power of social media has allowed the once-silenced to call out these sorts of jokes, which does not sit well with people like Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld is one of many old white men who is put off less by the “politically correct climate” and more by the fact that their power has become diluted. They’ve become reduced to lamenting this generation and the death of comedy, not realizing that you don’t need to sacrifice comedy for political correctness, or vice versa.
[bctt tweet=”You don’t need to sacrifice comedy for ‘political correctness'” username=”wearethetempest”]
Let’s talk about rape jokes. It goes without being said that sexual violence is horrifying, which naturally makes jokes about rape very uncomfortable territory. It all comes down to the construction of the joke. There are jokes that are uncreative and perpetuate rape culture, and there are jokes that flip the script and satirize or mock it. If your joke regurgitates societal messages about rape, it’s not only detrimental and strips the experience of its weight, it’s weak comedy.
[bctt tweet=”Let’s talk about rape jokes.” username=”wearethetempest”]
Daniel Tosh made (and later apologized for) a rape joke he made at a comedy club. A female audience member heckled him, to which Tosh later commented, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”
No, Tosh. That wouldn’t be funny. Just like humiliating a woman in front of a crowd to assert your own power and save face after being heckled is not funny. Yeah, she heckled you, and that’s rude. But joking about her being gang-raped because of it crosses a line.
That’s not to say all rape jokes are inherently bad, however. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler made a great rape joke (which sounds perverse to say, but hey) at the last Golden Globes.
If you watch the video (the joke is around 8:40), there’s a sort of uncomfortable laughter from the audience. The thing is, this is a fantastic joke. The butt of the joke is Bill Cosby, who had been accused of rape by several different women with strikingly similar stories. The joke is about rape, but it’s a smartly written joke that serves as a reminder of Cosby’s skeletons. It subverts the power that Cosby enjoys that allows him to continue dodging the allegations against him.
I’ve heard jokes about gay people that have been more than just “ha ha, gay people are funny.” I’ve heard jokes about women that are more than just “ha ha, women are bitches.” As a brown person, I’ve heard terrorist jokes that are lazy and but also those that are actually creative and funny. It all comes down to the intent and the presentation.
We can’t restrict comedy. It’s not our duty to stay away from important issues and continue making vanilla jokes for the sake of sensitivity. Comedy should be (and still is, despite what Jerry Seinfeld thinks) allowed to toe the line. Amy Schumer and Cecily Strong are relatively new players in the comedy world who do exactly that, but theirs is a brand of subversion and reappropriating.
[bctt tweet=”We can’t restrict comedy.” username=”wearethetempest”]
To be fair, Seinfeld had episodes like this, too. “The Cigar Store Indian” satirized the cultural insensitivity of white people in America (though notably, the episode was not written by Seinfeld himself). The Seinfeld joke he mentioned in the Seth Meyers clip about a gay French king made me chuckle. But that’s not groundbreaking comedy. It’s a lazy joke deserving of nothing more than that, a chuckle.
Our standards have gone up. We aren’t content with this sort of tired comedy anymore. People like Jerry Seinfeld are so used to throwing around the same stereotypes as punchlines that they’ve forgotten to adapt with the changing climate.
[bctt tweet=”Our standards have gone up.” username=”wearethetempest”]
So, no, Jerry. We’re not too “politically correct.” We’re not destroying comedy. This “PC thing” is not “creepy.” You’ve just been forced to confront the fact we’ve outgrown your brand of humor. And while you continue complaining like a cranky old man, we’ll be watching Inside Amy Schumer and 30 Rock.