Seinfeld’s 25th Anniversary And Comedy In The Woke Age

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the final episode of the TV comedy series Seinfeld. For those who may not have watched it, it was, as advertised, “a show about nothing.” By nothing, we mean four single apartment-dwelling New York misanthropes ricocheting their way from one series of chaotic events to the next. It’s not much of a premise to be sure, but with the brilliant comedic minds of co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David at the writing desks, and arguably the funniest comedic quartet since the Marx Brothers (don’t forget Zeppo!) acting out one steadily escalating problem after another throughout 180 episodes over eight seasons, Seinfeld would become the most popular sit-com in television history. 

So with that said, it pains me to ask a question we hear more and more these days when it comes to comedy – could this show about nothing ever be made today? 

It’s not a crazy thought. After all, Mel Brooks has claimed that his most popular film, Blazing Saddles, could never be made now. Brooks blames the culture: “Never Blazing Saddles, because we have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy. It’s okay not to hurt feelings of various tribes and groups. However, it’s not good for comedy. Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks. Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering into the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behavior.” 

It’s not hard to see what parts of Brooks’ classic parody western would give offense to the hyper-latted, blue-haired social justice warrior and serial uberfeeler of today – especially his comedic use of the “N” word. Of course, anyone who gets Brooks’ humor can see that he rigorously lampoons the ignorant and racist mindset that goes into feeling comfortable enough to say it. 

As with Nazism in another Brooks classic, The Producers, he attacks uncomfortable subjects through the oblique angle of humor to both deflate the topic and discredit the reactionary ideology behind it by portraying its adherents as fools to be ridiculed. Humor is a comedian’s way of confronting the painful.

But what of the much less cutting Seinfeld? There’s no use of the “N” word. They never get political (other than to call George Will “handsome”).  And the episodes present silly concepts like Jerry making fun of people with ponies in front of a pony lover, a delirious Elaine on painkillers, George pretending to be a marine biologist, and Kramer feeding a horse Beef-O-Rino (and the flatulence that results). And the butts of the jokes, which are often self-inflicted, are usually its four morally compromised ensemble characters. So how could anyone find this “show about nothing” offensive? 

Well, what if the subject matter is, say, Jerry and George trying desperately to convince a student reporter that they’re not gay lovers? George is so panicked at the very suggestion that he challenges the attractive NYU reporter about to “out” him with: “Come on! You wanna have sex right now? Let’s go, baby!” Even though the dialogue follows every impassioned denial of homosexuality with a disclaimer “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” it certainly wouldn’t be enough in the face of a cancel culture today that takes no prisoners. 

Why wouldn’t an LGBT watchdog group pounce on this episode for Jerry and George’s viscerally negative reaction to being misconstrued as gay? Why should there be any negative reaction to being gay at all? And why must there be a disclaimer to tell us something that everyone should believe already? How much alienation and homophobia can a show spew in 22 minutes!

There’s more, of course. How about an episode wherein Jerry buys Elaine a cigar store Indian statue and keeps using terms like “Indian giver” and “bury the hatchet” in front of Elaine’s Native-American friend whom Jerry wants to impress, but just insults instead? Cultural appropriation and racial/ethnic insensitivity all at once. Doesn’t Seinfeld know about the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee? 

There is the episode where Jerry and George ply the former’s girlfriend with white wine and turkey so she’ll pass out and they can play with her verboten toy collection. Not to mention Kramer’s watching with binoculars from Jerry’s apartment a pretty woman undressing in the apartment across the street. Need I even discuss the blatant misogyny and date rape implications? #Believeallwomen would have a field day with this.

And then we see one show in which Jerry exploits the talents of a deaf lip reader girlfriend to eavesdrop on conversations at a party, showing terrible disrespect for the hearing impaired, let alone handicapped over all. Being handicapped isn’t funny, Mister. 

And how about Jerry manhandling an old woman on the street and stealing her marble rye bread while calling her an “old bag”? Ageism, anyone? 

Then there is the episode with Elaine unsure if the man she’s dating is black or white, and all the cultural and racial clues she tries to decipher to find her answer without coming out and asking him. Get Al Sharpton on the phone! 

It goes on and on. I’m not here to simply list the beloved comedy shows in my time that would give offense to the safe-space/microaggression crowd today – there are plenty of articles out there about all that. Rather, it is to highlight Dennis Prager’s observation when he speaks of leftism (not to be confused with liberalism). “The left ruins everything.” Certainly where comedy is concerned. And why shouldn’t it? Comedy requires certain shared characteristics in the audience in order to work. 

They must have a thick skin, be able to understand when something is said in jest and process the message accordingly, and, most of all, be able to laugh at and not take the person they see in the mirror every morning so seriously. Clearly, as anyone who has seen the backlash against even the mild ruminations of Dave Chappelle can tell you, the modern leftist has no such psychological armor. And so, comedy is a casualty. 

Seinfeld himself said that although he doesn’t play colleges, he’s been warned by other comedians to stay away as they are now p.c. minefields. Comic icons from Dennis Miller to Ricky Gervais have uttered similar dismay over the hypersensitivities of the p.c. crowd. 

John Cleese has said of politically correct comedy, “It starts off as a halfway decent idea and then goes completely wrong. It is taken ad absurdum.” 

Although I disagree that going out of one’s way to not give offense in comedy is a decent idea, Cleese is right about the absurdity of it. The late great Gilbert Gottfried offered: “Imagine the great comedians working today. They’d never stop apologizing. Charlie Chaplin would have to apologize to all the homeless people he belittled with his Little Tramp character.” Chris Rock also nails it: “You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”

It is ironic that the deaths of certain art forms come from the same side of the political spectrum that has given us so much great content in the past. Hollywood and media has been run by the left for generations, and yet it is from this same once-irreverent and insightful left, from whom we were gifted All In The Family (another unlikely greenlight today), that the woke cancel culture arises.

So where does this hijacking of pop culture by the woke mob leave the comedic arts today? We’ll never know because one cannot miss the shows that are never aired or comedic routines never delivered. Had Seinfeld faced a hard pass, although some wonderful humor would have been denied us, it’s not like our worlds would be any different. And that’s the insidiousness of sensitivity censorship. What great projects that would have been greenlit thirty years ago have been sacrificed upon the altar of inoffensiveness? What have we missed? 

Don Henley once said, “The creative impulse comes from the dark side of the personality.” That goes for comedy as well as music. 

Perhaps the greatest casualty of the smothering blanket of p.c. extremism is potential. A world without the caustic and, in its own way, thought-provoking comedy of Mel Brooks or Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David just wouldn’t be as fun. It would still turn, sure, but it would be a little bleaker, more anodyne, less flavorful. This is a steeper cultural price to pay than we may realize.

A people who cannot laugh at themselves are an unhappy, and fragile, bunch indeed. 

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