Jerry Seinfeld (wired.com)

Jerry Seinfeld's new bizarro world: The sadness of watching a genius age into Bill O'Reilly

On "Seinfeld," Jerry's lack of self-awareness was part of the joke. Now it's become the tragedy


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Sophia A. McClennen
June 12, 2015 11:58PM (UTC)

So Jerry Seinfeld  won’t play college campuses because they are too PC.  The claims, which he has now repeated in a few venues, revolve around the idea that it is just too hard to do comedy when you always have to worry about being attacked for an offensive joke.  And he points to young people (including his own daughter) as the source of the problem since they have been trained to “label” things as sexist, racist, etc. making them unable to appreciate good comedy.

There have been a lot of smart pieces on this topic (see here and here), but there are a couple of angles that have been missed.  The first is the larger context for Seinfeld’s attack on college students and the second is the changing nature of comedy today.

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Let’s start with Seinfeld’s PC bashing. Some say that Seinfeld has the definition of PC wrong, but they are missing the point.  Seinfeld knows exactly what PC means: it means that any time you come under scrutiny, you are the victim of a mass effort to deny freedom of expression.  Think about it, the only folks that bandy about the term PC are those that think they are being unfairly attacked by mobs of puritanical, humorless, thought police. Sadly the comedian is reading from the playbook of bloviating pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly who can’t possibly imagine that they may actually do something offensive or that they may actually cross the line.  Even worse he sounds more like Pamela Geller than Louis CK.

But it’s worse than that.  Not only is PC the defense used by those too egotistical to imagine that they could ever offend, it is also constantly used preemptively.  Too often we read about PC attacks that simply never happened.  It’s like Bill O’Reilly fretting that white Christians are under attack when there is no evidence of it at all. And we hear about these imaginary attacks from people like Seinfeld who cannot demonstrate in any way that, even if they existed, they had any impact at all.  What this does is allow a deep paranoia to develop among those who imagine that they are having their way of life threatened.

The joke that Seinfeld cites as his example of PC police, led to absolutely no criticism of any kind—other than a lack of laughing over a dumb joke. (If you missed it, the joke was cell phones make people look like gay French kings because of how they make you move your hand.) It wasn’t funny, but for Seinfeld it can’t be his fault that he made a dumb joke. The blame is on society—young members of it in particular.

Seinfeld didn’t just go after his phantom PC attackers, he focused on college kids and young people in general.  He referred to his 14-year-old daughter, Sascha, as an example of all that is wrong:

My daughter is 14. My wife says to her, "Well, you know, in the next couple of years, I think you’re going to want to be hanging around the city more on the weekends, so you can see boys."

And 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 the [bleep] they’re talking about.

We might pause and wonder at the dad who says nothing as his wife suggests her young daughter should spend more time in the city so she can “see boys.” Anyone else think that’s a bit creepy? I’d say mom is being more than sexist here.

But I digress. The main point is that Seinfeld is joining the legions that love to millennial bash.  He adds to the ranks of O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and Hannity who all love to heap insult and disgust on today’s youth. Today’s millennials are the most maligned generation in our nation’s history.  They have literally been called the “worst generation.”

For the record they simply don’t deserve the hype.  If anything they show more savvy and promise than previous generations.  They vote more, they volunteer more, and they are better critical thinkers. Seinfeld doesn’t get that—even more—he doesn’t get that they are also a great generation of comedy consumers and comedy creators.   They are even good at mocking themselves.  One great example is the “We suck and we’re sorry” video that went viral back in 2013.

Famous millennial-aged comedians like Trevor Noah and Jessica Williams have been able to launch immensely successful careers.  Many of their jokes dive right into the realm of so-called PC topics. And, while they too can deal with criticism, they are clearly part of a new wave of comedians able to make jokes about socially sensitive issues while appealing to young audiences.

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This all goes to show that the comedian who was once heralded as innovating the field is now outright reactionary.  Recall that “reactionary” refers to those that think an earlier time was better, that change is dangerous, and that social hierarchies need to be reinstated. For those of us who care about comedy, such a shift in Seinfeld is sad to see.  Seinfeld made his name breaking down traditional forms of comedy: His show was “about nothing” after all.  But as we look back at the potential irony of his show—where characters were not supposed to ever care about others or learn from their mistakes-- we can now wonder at whether the irony was really there after all.

The Seinfeld TV series ran from 1989-1996 and it held to the motto, "no hugging, no learning".  The basic idea for each episode was that the main characters would obsess over an inane or innocuous detail to the detriment of their ability to connect in any meaningful way to anyone.  Thus, Jerry would break up with a woman with “man hands” and Elaine would dump a “close talker.”  When they weren’t obsessing over trivialities, they would bond through their complete inability to respect others. So George and Jerry try to find ways to talk to each other in front of Jerry’s lip-reading deaf date or Jerry would dump his cashier girlfriend, Marlene, because a cashier can’t possibly critique his comedy.  The entire show was basically about a group of affectless assholes whose only bond was their dysfunctional, sociopathic connection to each other.

The characters were designed not to grow, not to learn, and not to care about anyone. They had to stay the same. It was a hugely innovative form of comedy since it had never been done.   They were all equally shallow.  There was no foil and no character development.  And this is why in the final episode they are all carted off to jail for “criminal indifference” after they do nothing when witnessing a crime other than mock the victim.

The show was funny and it was a huge hit. But the humor resided in the irony.  The comedy depended on the fact that the characters were absurd exaggerations of the worst in human behavior.  Kramer observes surgery and treats it like going to a movie—which leads him to drop a Junior Mint into the patient.  Or Jerry breaks up with a woman when he can’t remember her name.

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Seinfeld’s comments today, though, sound like his show absent the irony.  We can imagine a TV set with four of our favorite PC-bashing, millennial-hating successful white media stars running around obsessing over a who gets to have a PEZ dispenser and calling anyone who doesn’t serve them exactly what they want a Nazi.  They would imagine attacks on their character, devise elaborate explanations for their shallowness, and justify their fundamental dislike for their fellow humans as completely normal. It almost sounds just like Fox News.

This is where the last episode’s final scene almost seems like foreshadowing.  In it Jerry is in jail doing a stand-up routine of prison-related jokes to an audience of fellow prisoners (among them Kramer and George). No one is laughing at Seinfeld except Kramer.  No one gets the humor because the irony is lost and the context has shifted. The audience of prisoners doesn’t like prison jokes, but their opinion of Jerry is what is funny.  It is Jerry’s lack of self-awareness and disconnect from the audience that is the joke.  But now, Seinfeld thinks not laughing at him is a reflection of a society that doesn’t appreciate good comedy. Looks like it might be Seinfeld himself who has lost his sense of humor.


Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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