A Controversy About Nothing

“What’s the deal with this ‘PC nonsense?'”

Okay, so Jerry Seinfeld didn’t say it exactly how TIME would have you believe. But maybe he would’ve said it that way if he’d had more time to flesh out the bit.

The 59-year-old legendary comedian sat for a BuzzFeed/CBS interview last week during which he tried to explain his stance on affirmative action in the world of comedy.

Being asked about the lack of diversity on his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee — which has featured only one black person (Chris Rock) and two women (Sarah Silverman and Tina Fey) — Seinfeld immediately brushed off the suggestion that he was being unfair to minority and non-white comedians.

“Oh, let’s get into this,” he said sarcastically, before saying very seriously, “This really pisses me off.”

He then touched on the faux-controversy that resulted from his first 10 episodes featuring all white men.

Having been a Seinfeld fan for the better part of my life, I didn’t think anything of it.

In fact I’d heard Seinfeld say something similar a few months back. I can’t remember where (and believe me when I say that I just scoured the internet looking for the clip), but Seinfeld has told the story of how Colin Quinn warned him at the end of the first season that people would come out of the woodwork to criticize the show’s lack of diversity.

Never mind that Mario Joyner stars prominently in the finale of Season One.

Then I saw the reaction from one popular Latino website, which summed up Jerry’s comments as such: “White = Funny. Non-white = Not Funny.”

Of course that’s not what he was saying at all. Some people seem to walk around with the word racism on the tip of their tongues.

I told the Gozamos editors how I planned on defending Seinfeld, which led to another classic Gozamos editorial debate.

Some of the editors agreed with Seinfeld, saying that comedy shouldn’t pay any attention to issues of race or gender. A comic could attack the system through comedy. And an influenti “Funny is funny,” as Jerry said.

The other editors — both women interestingly enough — argued that Seinfeld’s view highlights how race and gender-based privilege leaves many people out in the cold. If comedians with influence don’t actively seek out women and non-white comics to bring into the fold, the industry will never begin to diversify.

As with all of our editorial debates, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Using the weekend to think it over, in the end I agree with CNN’s LZ Granderson when he writes:

Seinfeld’s comments, while not malicious in intent, do highlight some of the nuances of privilege those in power enjoy but are unable or unwilling to see. And unless measures are taken to point out some of those privileges, those who have been inadvertently excluded will continue to be so. This is why Fox News isn’t concerned about ‘the war on Ramadan’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ went six years without hiring a black female cast member. ‘PC nonsense,’ to use Seinfeld’s words, is employing unqualified women and minorities for the sake of fulfilling an HR checkbox. But ‘PC nonsense’ is also being challenged for not including women and minorities and then pretending you don’t see race or gender, only shades of comedy.

Like Granderson, I don’t think Seinfeld said what he said to be racist or dismissive of female and non-white comedians. Most people who know enough about the comedy industry, specifically about Jerry Seinfeld, know he’s close friends with Chris Rock and that he includes Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers in his comedy pantheon.

On the night Rock’s seminal Bring the Pain special premiered on HBO, Seinfeld called the young comedian and reportedly gave him a simple message: “You did it.”

Jerry’s a well-known comic, so maybe Rock’s swearing and his “Niggas vs. Black People” routine couldn’t be further from Seinfeld’s own brand of comedy. But that really doesn’t matter for Jerry.

Again, “funny is funny.”

Maybe we’re firing all of our pent-up resentment at the wrong person. Sure, Seinfeld’s one of the greatest comedians alive, with tons of money and sway. But he’s no network executive. He doesn’t run a major comedy club.

Those are the people we should be placing the greater slice of blame on for the lack of diversity in comedy. And Jerry said as much when he told Howard Stern last June that network executives have a hard time knowing who and what is funny.

I suspect Jerry’s always down to feature some comic of any race who isn’t getting the attention they deserve. But what he was saying is that he’s not gonna worry too much about diversity when his real and only concern is what’s funny and what’s not.

Comedy is an art form, and as someone trying to be an artist myself, I don’t fault Jerry for thinking that way, for ignoring all the “PC nonsense.” We should want comedians to focus on being funny and let everyone else focus on fixing society.

And until we solve things like institutional racism and the lack of opportunities for women and non-whites in nearly all areas of life, we shouldn’t drag comedians or any other artists into the fray. Because they’re not fixers. They’re there to make us think and laugh at ourselves, even the really uncomfortable parts, the ugly parts even.

That’s why political correctness is anti-comedy. It tethers a comedian just as it tethers an artist, telling them what they can or can’t say, what they have to do.

Eventually, being funny just gets shoved into the background.

And I don’t know about you, but I don’t wanna live in a world where comedy is watered down by social mandate.

No matter how polite or fair it is.

Guess I’m just funny that way.


[Photo:  slgckgc via Flickr]

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