Jerry Seinfeld says ‘PC crap’ is killing comedy, he’s dead wrong

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
6 Min Read
Jerry Seinfeld has bemoaned ‘PC crap’ for ruining comedy. But it’s not as simple as that.
Jerry Seinfeld has bemoaned ‘PC crap’ for ruining comedy. But it’s not as simple as that. Credit: Unknown/Netflix

If there’s a sure-fire way to paint yourself as a grumpy old man yelling at clouds, it’s for an ageing comedian bemoaning that you can’t make the same jokes today as they could in their prime.

Jerry Seinfeld seems to be the latest member of a stroppy club, but there is, at least, a little more nuance to what he’s saying (I’ll get to that in a bit) than most of his compatriots who got the memo about punch-down comedy but refuse to exercise human decency.

Seinfeld is on the promo trail for Unfrosted, a Netflix movie he’s releasing later this week about the origin story of American cereal pastry Poptarts, and the spotlight has given him ample opportunity to reflect on his view of the state of comedy in 2024.

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And like some stand-ups of an older generation, Seinfeld, 70, isn’t copacetic with what he sees as a more censorial environment in modern TV.

“Nothing really affects comedy. People always need it. They need it so badly and they don’t get it. It used to be, you would go home at the end of the day, most people would go, ‘Oh, Cheers is on. Oh, MASH is on. Oh, Mary Tyler Moore is on. All in the Family is on.’ You just expected they’ll be some funny stuff we can watch on TV tonight,” he told The New Yorker.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Jerry Seinfeld performs onstage at the 2023 Good+Foundation "A Very Good+ Night of Comedy" Benefit at Carnegie Hall on October 18, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Good+Foundation)
Jerry Seinfeld performing in 2023. Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Good+Foundation

“Well, guess what — where is it? This is the result of the extreme left and PC crap and people worrying so much about offending other people. When you write a script, and it goes into four or five different hands, committees, groups — ‘Here’s our thought about this joke’ — well, that’s the end of your comedy.”

Seinfeld, with Larry David, is responsible for one of the most iconic and beloved TV sitcoms of all time, so whenever someone of his calibre is speaking, people listen. But his contention that TV comedies aren’t funny anymore because of the fun police is demonstrably wrong.

If you’re talking about American sitcoms, the likes of Girls5Eva is properly laugh-out-loud funny with rapid-fire jokes. Creator Meredith Scardino and her writers room can cleverly weaponise the characters and their marginalised position — women in their 40s, trying to make a comeback as a girl group in an industry obsessed with youth — for guffaws.

The show makes jokes about ageing, LGBTQI experiences and being a woman. But the characters are in on the joke, Girls5Eva is not making fun of them but calling out how idiotic some of their situations are.

Similarly, series from the stable of writer Mike Schur and his collaborators and proteges such as Alan Yang, Matt Hubbard and Dan Noor — Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Loot, The Good Place and Rutherford Falls — go for a high jokes-per-minute ratio and still does it without needlessly offending marginalised people or communities just to be “provocative”.

Jerry Seinfeld movie - The Pop Tart Story
Jerry Seinfeld’s movie Unfrosted is due for release on Netflix on May 3. Credit: John P. Johnson / Netflix

Schur previously said, unrelated to Seinfeld’s comments, that comedians who whinge about political correctness or cancel culture are “bad at comedy, they’re lazy”.

He told me in a 2021 interview for news.com.au, “They’ve been doing comedy a certain way for a long time and they’ve got an hour-long set that they perform at stand-up clubs or they’ve got a certain way they write scripts, and they are too lazy to write something new.

“It’s the weakest and lamest argument. No, [political correctness and cancel culture] are not strangling [comedy]. It’s never been easier and better to be a comedy writer in America or the world than right now. There’s more comedy being made, and there’s more good comedy being made.”

Schur added the worst thing he would want to be accused of is punch-down comedy, likening it to bullying.

It doesn’t mean Schur’s work is toothless and devoid of wit, quite the opposite. And if you look at other examples from around the world in English-language countries, you’ll find plenty more examples of TV comedies that go for the jugular without punching down.

Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

You can’t accuse Australian shows Deadloch (creators Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan) and Colin From Accounts (Harriet Dyer and Patrick Brammall) of being tame, nor British series Such Brave Girls (Kat Sadler), Catastrophe (Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney) and Derry Girls (Lisa McGee) which are all spiky and smart. They’re also not mean.

Seinfeld was actually known for not being caustic or particularly goading, famously making middle-of-the-road observations about the mundane. There are certainly moments in the Seinfeld series that play less well in 2024 (gay panic, cultural assumptions, run-of-the-mill sexism) but one of the reasons Seinfeld has aged better than something like Friends is that it didn’t rely on that punch-down humour as much.

If you take in more of what Seinfeld said to The New Yorker, there’s room for nuance. He said, “We did an episode of [Seinfeld] in the nineties where Kramer decides to start a business of having homeless people pull rickshaws because, as he says, ‘They’re outside anyway’.

“Do you think I could get that episode on the air today? We would write a different joke with Kramer and the rickshaw today. We wouldn’t do that joke. We’d come up with another joke.

“They move the gates like in the slalom. Culture — the gates are moving. Your job is to be agile and clever enough that, wherever they put the gates, I’m going to make the gate.”

It’s almost an acknowledgment that dehumanising homeless people for the sake of a not-very-good joke is not a great look but the more salient point that Seinfeld is making — almost contradicting himself a little — is that cultural expectations do change and it is up to comedians to change with them.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by NBC TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885737ai)
Jerry Seinfeld
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No, Jerry, comedy isn’t being killed by ‘PC crap’. Credit: NBC TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock/NBC TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Comedy is only effective if it’s engaged with the world around it, and that’s the current world, not the mid-nineties. Being deliberately offensive is not edgy, it’s rude.

Seinfeld’s beef seems to be with the network and streaming executives and producers that he views as interfering with comedy and there is probably a little truth to it. Creativity is blunted when it’s determined by a committee, but anyone who rails against “PC crap” reveals themselves to be stuck in the social mores of an antiquated era.

The harder, but smarter, thing is to work with the restrictions. A little conflict often results in brilliant work because it pushes an artist to reframe their thinking, and stagnation is the real death of comedy. A repeated joke is no longer a joke.

Where Seinfeld definitely has it wrong is his suggestion that stand-up is the last bastion. “Now we’re going to see stand-up comics because we are not policed by anyone. The audiences polices us. We know when we’re off-track. We know instantly and we adjust to it instantly,” he said.

The hole in that argument is that stand-up audiences have self-selected into that particular comedian’s schtick. It’s an echo chamber.

Take, for example, Louis C.K. who seems to gauge whether he’s on the right track — he’s not — by the people who choose to pay to see him even after he was outed for exposing himself in front of multiple female colleagues. That audience is primed for his grievance “comedy”.

But it doesn’t play in the wider culture and if older comedians want to stay relevant, they might try not being a dick.

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