After the events of this past week [and given the temporary resolution] now is as good a time as any to have a little bit of fun. With so many of us actively fighting for both our rights and the rights of those who cannot speak for themselves a momentary reprieve is needed, a way of recovering in between bouts. It may even be a good idea to turn to comedy, to try laughter in the face of the shockingly grim edicts being rained down by a particular governmental administration.
For a broad number of reasons 2017 appears to be the only year where the current POTUS could ever have been inaugurated. It’s not just our contemporary political landscape that has become so dauntingly complex, however, the same can be said of the comedic sphere as well.
Back in 2015 comedian Jerry Seinfeld was a guest on the ESPN podcast The Herd with Colin Cowherd where he responded to the host commenting about other notable stand-up comedians opting to steer clear of performing on college campuses.
“I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’
He elaborated on that a bit, saying-
[College students] just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudiced.’ They don’t know even know what they’re talkin’ about.”
-before agreeing with Cowherd that these people are “hurting comedy.”
Less than half a week later Seinfeld doubled down on his sentiments when he appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers. The host of that show brought up the idea that comedy is “supposed to push the line” but that nowadays “there are more people [. . . ] who will let you know if they think you went over the line than ever before.” The former sitcom star agreed wholeheartedly, relating a joke he said recently, the punchline of which referenced a “gay French king.”
“And they thought, ‘What do you mean gay? What are you talking about gay?’ [. . .] And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?'”
He ended that story by stating that “There’s a creepy PC thing out there that bothers me.” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, seemed to agree for the most part, but chimed in to mention that “you can also screw up,” before relating that criticism does and should cause you to think twice about what you’re doing.
Now Seinfeld is far from the only comedian, joined by other prominent figures in the scene such as Chris Rock, Russell Peters, and even Patton Oswalt. While there have been a number of voices in opposition to the idea that “politically correctness is killing comedy” from a number of online journalism outlets, with one even penned by “a Stand-Up Comic Who Once Railed Against ‘PC Culture’ and ‘SJWs'”, there are some of his peers who tend to side more with Remnick.
The discourse continued on in a few months later, when Sarah Silverman was questioned about it in a Vanity Fair interview. Her perspective was that it’s better to try to learn from the feedback then to rail against it.
“I do think it’s important, as a comedian, as a human; to change with the times, to change with new information. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with changing with the times. I think it’s a sign of being old if you’re put off by that.”
The year after that Paul F. Tompkins, who you may know as the voice of Mr. Peanutbutter on Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, did a video with Big Think titled “Political Correctness Doesn’t Censor, It Keeps Comedy Fresh”.
Let’s just say that at the moment of this writing, and probably forever unless there’s a groundswell of support for a video that’s almost a year old, the number of dislikes heavily outweighs the likes. The entire thing is worth watching, but I want to spotlight a particularly poignant line:
“Most cases, audiences are not [comedians] ‘you can’t joke about this.’ What they’re saying is, ‘that wasn’t funny.’ And that’s a different thing.”
Similar to Silverman, Tompkins also encourages people to change with the times, emphasizing improving oneself and one’s material. He puts it more strongly when he describes his personal motto as “adapt or die.”
Now given the way I’ve framed these ideas it’s very easy to view Seinfeld as, well . . .
It certainly doesn’t help his cause that he appears to be deeply offended that a joke didn’t land, that his audience didn’t find that particular part of his set to be funny. His reaction smacks of entitlement, that the punchline deserved laughs and the problem must be with the crowd and not with the material. While it’s probably no surprise that I side with Remnick, Silverman, and Tompkins on this one, I will admit that I can see and strongly empathize with Seinfeld.
I’ll also admit that, similar to last week’s post on my experience with instagram and proper attribution, this one is also of a more personal nature. One of my goals for 2017 is to create more content, one of the forms I hope for this to take is stand-up comedy. As someone who considers himself aware of social issues, the desire to portray myself authentically has proven to be paralyzing when it comes to the process of writing material.
Take one joke I’ve been workshopping which touches on women being afraid of blood being strange, given their time of the month. Might that be taken as trans-exclusionary, as it implies that trans women are not in fact women? Is a one-liner that lampoons [and does not praise] abuse make light of actual abuse victims? What about a punchline that features dyslexics being the lesser of two evils?
I’ve gone over this material a lot, and while I’m not an objective party consider it to be pretty tame all things considered. There are a few lines that I might not perform in front of my parents, but even then I’ve tried my best to not further disenfranchise those voiceless and to rely on genuine humour as opposed to shock value. Yet even still I’m apprehensive about the reactions I might get.
Part of that may be because I live in Toronto, where a University of Toronto professor’s refusal to non-gender-specific-pronouns took up much of last November’s news coverage. It’s a very progressive city and one I am very grateful and happy to live in, but might that make performing stand-up comedy that much more difficult?
At the end of the day I do believe that if my material is funny it will be allowed to stand on its own merits, and that any of the performing arts is a process that requires repeated trips back to the drawing board. I want to take a page from Tompkins’ book and allow the current social climate to allow me to improve myself, though I relate to Seinfeld in that it’s not easy. It’s harder now than ever to be a comic, though maybe that’s a good thing.