I have seen the future—and it smirks.
Laughing or grinning? Not so much. Condescending, self-righteous, disapproving smirks are the best the frowny future offers in the smile department.
Jerry Seinfeld lamented this “creepy PC thing” on Late Night with Seth Meyers this week. The remarks follow a few days after the comedian’s admission that he avoids campus performances because of the uptight reactions to jokes about race, gender, and other taboos.
Last year, Seinfeld scoffed at the idea of comedy quotas.
“This has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America?” Seinfeld asked regarding the comedians appearing on his web series. “Who cares? 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.”
The response to Seinfeld’s outspokenness hasn’t been entirely supportive. Comedian Dean Obeidallah scolded Seinfeld at CNN.com not to “blame college students for wanting comedy that fits their own sensibilities. Why should any audience have to change their comedy tastes to fit a comedian’s act?”
Too much “comedy” flatters political sensibilities rather than provokes amusement. People laugh at Bill Maher more out of ideological solidarity than any inherent humor in his act. The Comedy Central lineup increasingly looks like programmers prioritized checking various constituency boxes rather than airing the funniest shows (a quota system matching demographics would surely underrepresent many minority groups). The Washington-obsessed comedy—itself a symptom of the narrowing of approved punchlines—that comes “live, from New York” furthers the idea that humor represents politics by other means.
Totalitarians make better punchlines than jokesters. The joyless imposition of boorish ideology onto comedy or what states in which a sports league may hold a championship or what cakes a baker must bake or what ideas a tech company CEO must subscribe to indicates a politics without limitation. Totalitarian states pose a vexing problem; totalitarian people prove more difficult to solve.
Jerry Seinfeld raises old issues in a new setting. Seven decades ago, Communist playwright Albert Maltz meekly weighed in on the “art as a weapon” debate on the side of “art for art’s sake.” “I have come to believe that the accepted understanding of art as a weapon is not a useful guide but a straitjacket,” Maltz wrote in “What Shall We Ask of Writers?” He added that the concept meant to his comrades “that unless art is a weapon, like a leaflet, serving immediate political ends, necessities, and programs, it is worthless or escapist or vicious.”
Seinfeld, too, rebels against the straitjacket. But unlike Maltz, who retracted his article after a Communist Party browbeating session, the former King of Thursday Nights strides as too much the comedy colossus to fit into one.
What shall we ask of comedians? To make us laugh. Anything beyond this—sensitivity, political correctness, a crusading spirit of social justice—demands that they surrender their purpose for another’s or dishonestly cloak their true purpose under the guise of humor.
“Differences in sex, age, color, race, religion, physical ability, and strength lie at the source of probably the majority of jokes since the beginning of human self-consciousness,” Paul Johnson reflected in his 2010 book, Humorists. “And all jokes are liable to provoke discomfort if not positive misery among those laughed at. Hence any joke is liable to fall foul of hate laws. The future for humorists thus looks bleak, at the time I write this.”
But maybe not so bleak. As much as difference, authority—in classrooms, on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, at the office—provokes humor. And the “No laughing!” comedy-club commissars, like all puritans, set themselves up as punchlines. There hangs a piñata for the whacking.
More than five decades ago, Lenny Bruce took on authority and morality, albeit of a different sort that limits comedy today. The people who profess to admire his edginess, yet petition Seinfeld and others to dull their act, serve as today’s laugh police and they don’t even know it. As Bruce himself quipped, “The liberals can understand everything but people who don’t understand them.”