At the end of May, The Atlantic declared Amy Schumer and John Oliver “public intellectuals.” To say their sketch and stand-up commentary is “comedy with a message” is now redundant because comedians are increasingly tackling “subjects like racism and sexism and inequality and issues including police brutality and trigger warnings and intersectional feminism and helicopter parenting and the end of men,” in their material.
They’re truth-tellers who help contextualize the most important issues of the day in entertaining and accessible formats. In the process, they’ve become more influential to the “cultural conversation” than the politicians, economists, teachers, and pundits of the world. Entertainers have often been the most powerful voice in the room even before the Internet age, but now their opinions belong to the public, and they had better match with the way the tide is moving.
Then this happened.
Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy has for the entirety of his career been about nothing. Which is to say, Seinfeld’s “Did you never notice” or “What’s the deal with this” brand of observational comedy was about nothing that really mattered. He only sweated the small stuff. And for a time even after the run of Seinfeld, it appeared Jerry could appear to do no wrong. He’s the first name you think of when you hear the word “comedian” because his material was inoffensive and universal, yet he understood more about how men, women, children and the world worked because he paid attention to the stuff no one else did.
Seinfeld is still arguably innovating, particularly by embracing Internet distribution and simplifying the talk show format to its most essential parts with his show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but he’s not exactly beloved by the blogosphere. Gawker made a big, misguided attack on Seinfeld when he brushed off a PC question about meeting a certain quota of women and African American comedians on his Crackle show. They’ve also cited his perceived elitism and massive wealth as a boon against his ability to relate to normal human beings, presumably those concerned with political correctness.
Even The Atlantic in the same public intellectuals piece took a veiled swipe at how his style of comedy has aged poorly, writing, “the microcosmic comedy that was popular in the ‘90s—an observational strain that culminated in a show that proudly claimed to be “about nothing”—quickly became unfit for them. Gradually and then suddenly, the smug nihilism of Larry David and Adam Sandler and Carrot Top and that guy who smashed watermelons with comically oversized mallets came to seem not just out of place, but regressive.” Combine that with critics having all but forgotten about his massively popular and acclaimed ‘90s TV show because it hasn’t been part of the Netflix Canon, and you have a comedian on the border of becoming the U2 of stand-up: a rock-star figure with an incredible back catalog who somehow today remains a punch-line and hated figure on the web. If you were Rush Limbaugh, you might even say he has been “treated like a Republican.”
The tacit, unsaid declaration of The Atlantic piece is that if you’re not saying something with your comedy, it’s almost worse than saying nothing. If you’re not interested in the cultural conversation and picking a side, you’re likely on the wrong one. Bloggers and social media have little place for a public figure who won’t show where they stand.
The truth is Seinfeld simply doesn’t care. The Gawker article first took issue with this statement: “Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that, but everyone else is, kind of with their little calculating, is this the exact right mix. To me, it’s anti-comedy, it’s more about PC nonsense than are you making us laugh or not.” Their translation, via an actual comment on their site: “I only think white men are funny because that’s the only demographic I give a shit about.”
Except not being concerned with being PC is not the same as being racist or offensive. While everyone got hung up on his earlier comment saying young kids “don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” his last comment is really the interesting one. “I talk about the subjects I talk about because I can make them funny. The subjects I can’t make funny, you don’t hear.”
If Seinfeld isn’t making jokes or comments about racism or gender equality, it’s not because his material or his opinions aren’t progressive. And when he says his 14-year-old daughter simply wants to use the words “That’s racist, that’s sexist, that’s prejudiced,” he may as well be questioning the media’s need to put a label on everything so that it can be about something. What’s the deal with everything making a big deal out of everything?
I got into film criticism because I wanted to talk about movies. But because I write opinions and about popular culture that shapes our perception of race, gender, and sexuality, I now share the same desk with the Op-Ed writers and culture critics looking to fill column inches. There’s unspoken pressure as I write reviews and features to put movies into context of the bigger social issues, and not in terms of cinematic style, artistry, genre, history or the like. By not writing about those topics that generate clicks, outrage and social calls for action and equality, I risk irrelevancy.
Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, John Oliver, and every other comic got into comedy because they want to make people laugh. Making people think and challenge their notions is always secondary. Of course there’s a place for real issues in comedy, drama, and any form of cultural criticism. Black and female comedians are no doubt largely unrepresented in comedy, and Seinfeld has slowly come to realize that in subsequent episodes of his talk show. And of course we have PC checks because comedians like Daniel Tosh and Michael Richards have crossed serious lines on stage. But can’t we allow our comedians to be comedians, and not just pundits?