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Jerry Seinfeld and the fraught history of comedians and 'political correctness'

In an episode of <em>Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee</em> called "Larry Eats A Pancake," Jerry Seinfeld has coffee with Larry David.
In an episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee called "Larry Eats A Pancake," Jerry Seinfeld has coffee with Larry David.

In the midst of the much more important stuff happening in the world, you may have missed a recent interview with Jerry Seinfeld. While doing the press rounds to promote his upcoming movie, the billionaire comedian offered a few thoughts about "why TV isn't funny anymore." His explanation? Political correctness and the extreme left. (His new movie, by the way, is about the race to invent the Pop-Tart – a topic so edgy and iconoclastic that I'm surprised that the woke-mob that runs Hollywood let it happen at all.)

I won't waste anyone's time arguing about how funny today's TV is compared to the TV of yesteryear. But I think it's worth dwelling for a moment on the nature of Seinfeld's critique (which, by the way, is one that he, and other comedians, have been making for nigh on a decade now).

It falls in line with the rich tradition of blaming political correctness for all the ills of the modern world.

Donald Trump has done it many times over the years, including after calling for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." Author Anne Rice did it, while defending Paula Deen after the chef admitted to using the N-word ("Aren't we becoming something of a lynch mob culture?" Rice added on Facebook.) Jackson Miller, a former Virginia legislator and member of the "Redskins Pride Caucus," said that pushback against the Washington Football Team's name was "political correctness on overdrive."

[Editor's note: This is an excerpt of Code Switch's Up All Night newsletter. You can sign up here.]

What these statements seem to do, remarkably consistently, is avoid engaging with why someone might find a particular type of joke, or comment, or act of mass discrimination perpetrated by the most powerful person in the world, distasteful. Instead, they caricature the *type* of person who takes issue with these things: a snowflake, a buzzkill, a crybaby.

And one of the convenient things about the term "politically correct" – like "woke," or "cancel culture" or dare I say "DEI," – is that its meaning can change to include just about anything. Does being politically correct mean capitalizing the term Indigenous? Not laughing at a transphobic joke? Trying to push back against racist research policies at an elite university? It's all in the eye of the person trying to dismiss someone else's concerns as whiny.

But as one of my favorite comedians, Gary Gulman, has put it, "I notice that the people who are saying you 'can't say anything,' are saying everything on Netflix for $20 million a whack."

Which has me wondering: If the ones who complain loudest about "PC culture" are wealthy, beloved, highly respected power players who have the resources to – again, make a movie about Pop-Tarts – who is the real crybaby after all?

Copyright 2024 NPR

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.