Jerry Seinfeld lamented the state of political correctness on college campuses today during an ESPN interview with Colin Cowherd. When asked if college students are too sensitive in light of recent claims made by Chris Rock and Larry the Cable Guy, Seinfeld responded:
“I hear that all the time. I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me ‘Don’t play colleges, they’re too PC.”
“I’ll give you an example: my daughter’s 14. My wife says to her, ‘Well, you know in the next couple years I think maybe you’ll want to hang around the city on the weekends so you can see boys. My daughter says, ‘That’s sexist.”
“They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.”
When asked, “Does it hurt comedy?” Seinfeld’s quick to answer, “Yes it does. Yes it does.”
Seinfeld isn’t engraving his thesis on the state of politics with “kids these days”, but there are already a handful of problems in this admittedly short excerpt of opinion.
First, his sources aren’t particularly sound: he’s given a leading question about Chris and Larry, so the only evidence he brings to the table himself is (relevant) hearsay and an anecdote about a young girl who, it’s worth noting, may be talented but probably isn’t in college at age 14.
I should say, though, that I agree political correctness of certain kinds has become a bit stifling these days. I often take the website Salon cruelly to task for enticing outrage where perhaps it isn’t deserved, and click-baiting every snide comment seems to have become a hobby for some of the further left outlets as much as the far right (disclosure: I am a progressive liberal). Yet this sensationalism is of the same kind and often even degree Fox News and its cohorts have practiced for decades now. It’s no less, or rather more, a trial to overcome this type of PC bullshit than any other political nonsense.
I happen to believe comedians are pretty much as wise as normal folk get (just below Warrant Officers in the military, god bless ’em), and I do not think poorly of “normal folk” so that is a grand compliment in my own way. Comedians do little else but ponder the absurdities of reality, and where time and concern converge, expertise must blossom. I am also sure Jerry Seinfeld has practical insight about whether or not this is actually happening and so I’m sure it is. Where I must willfully disagree is in accepting the issue is so bad that comedians should be deterred from playing college campuses, which is degenerative social advice for students, who most need to be educated, and terrible fiscal advice for budding comedians, who usually need money.
Too many adults today are afraid of teenagers; it’s not an uncommon theme for standups either. It’s not that you’re a pussy if you’re afraid of teenagers; you are. You just definitely can’t let them outwit you, too.
How impressive is it, by the way, that a 14 year old girl, the simplest of the sexes, is already aware enough of gender dynamics to have any kind of retort at all beyond “Boys are dreamy!” (Do girls still say dreamy?) Of course, Jerry’s right: she doesn’t seem to have run the full course of thought back to reason that, naturally, “boys” or perhaps even girls will have escalating appeal. Yet that’s not something that should deter him or any smart comedian from anything. Now let’s bring it back to college students since that’s what we’re supposed to be talking about to maintain context.
College students, of course, have more challenging views on bigotry and politics, and I imagine it is exhausting to wrestle lesser opponents at the drop of a hat like some witty Miyamoto Musashi or Afro Samurai incessantly defending the number 2 headband. But playing college tours usually pays disproportionately well compared to traditionally low standup wages, and it’s kept many road comics alive. How severe is the annoyance that any but the most successful comic could afford to stop playing colleges, if they’re even an option in the first place?
Coincidentally, I too have a debatably relevant anecdote about amateur politics, but I took away something different. This girl happened to be 17, so a bit closer to college age than Jerry’s. An upcoming school dance was themed “gender swap” so that boys should dress as girls and girls as boys, but there was discontent that this precluded transgendered students who did not identify either way. Gender is a spectrum with transgendered between either side, so on a technicality, to me, this shouldn’t have been a big deal, but there was probably additional context I didn’t receive in our short conversation.
Nonetheless, I didn’t come away from the interaction thinking, “This darn kid with her fledgling opinion. I should stop talking to teens.” Instead I spent some time mulling over the matter myself, came to greater personal understanding about the issue, and was ultimately impressed that anyone would care at such a young age.
I’m 31 and many of my peers wouldn’t even feign a moment of concern about anything political. If I had to be around awful, awful young people, aren’t these the kind I would hate least? The ones who have something to say, or have so little to say that I can sharpen my claws against them like a bored cat?
“Louie’s great gift is he doesn’t worry. He just does his thing.” Seinfeld says of leading standup Louie CK. And this is perhaps why Louie is the #1 comedian in the country right now, with a well-regarded and frankly next-level comedy show on FX: “Louie doesn’t worry. He just does his thing.”
If you’re given the opportunity to practice your passion and get paid to do it, you should almost certainly take it. You don’t often get that kind of chance to “do your thing”. If that means deflecting silly young people, how is that any different than one’s day-to-day interactions with the wider public? It can’t be any worse than going to a popular bar, plus if anything you start with the upper hand because people already want to fuck you.
At the end,
Seinfeld seems to stumble in punctuating with this: “If I wanted to say something, I would say it. Everybody has their hot zone, their heat map. Those are the jokes you do. For me, I talk about the subjects I talk about because for some reason I can make them funny. The ones I can’t make funny, you don’t hear.”
And that’s how it should be when presenting a product. Students, however, aren’t presenting products: they’re consuming and deconstructing and hopefully digesting, and best part is they actually want yours. College campuses are one of the rare avenues from which standups can actually make money, and college students actually like comedy, albeit not as much as they like sports, sex or drinking.
Give the people what they want, be up to the challenge of confronting these ideas or at least deflecting, and make some money in turn. Nothing Seinfeld said in this interview justifies an aversion to performing on college campuses, unless the aversion is to the constant attention he must receive after starring in Seinfeld, which is just a natural consequence of being one of the previous leading comedians.