Balancing sensitivity with humor


References to political correctness became ubiquitous during the Republican primary race and has spread elsewhere. Recently some well-known comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Bill Maher complained that they were avoiding college campuses on their tours because colleges had become too ‘politically correct’, and audiences were sometimes booing them for jokes that were considered offensive and thus preventing them from offering up edgy humor. But John K. Wilson writes that rather than the audiences being too thin-skinned, it is these very wealthy comedians who are hypersensitive, thinking that they have a right to not have to experience a negative reaction to their humor.

Unfortunately, some millionaire comedians seem to think that they’re entitled to get laughs with anyone criticizing them. Seinfeld recently told Seth Meyers, “There’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me.” And then Seinfeld explained the evil PC thing that had bothered him so much while telling a joke about cell phones recently:

“I say, ‘They don’t seem very important, the way you scroll through (your phone) like a gay French king.’ … I did this line recently in front of an audience, and comedy is where you can feel an opinion. And they thought, ‘What do you mean gay? What are you talking about gay? What are you doing? What do you mean?’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Yes, are you kidding me? Jerry Seinfeld is still doing unfunny “gay men are limp-wristed” jokes in the 21st century? Is he that much of an old hack?

But another comedian Sarah Silverman says that the problem may not be that colleges are too politically correct but that older comedians don’t seem to realize that times have changed and they are trying to cling to old forms of humor that current students don’t find funny.

“To a degree, everyone’s going to be offended by something, so you can’t just decide on your material based on not offending anyone,” she said. “But, 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 when you are put off by that.”

As an example, Silverman brought up her own issues using the term “gay” as a pejorative years ago.

“I stopped myself and said, ‘What am I fighting? I have become the guy from 50 years ago who said, ‘I say colored, I have colored friends,’” she told senior West Coast editor Krista Smith.

“You have to listen to the college-aged, because they lead the revolution,” Silverman also said. “They’re pretty much always on the right side of history.”

Here’s the clip where the exchange begins at about 2:50 mark.

Silverman is right.

Robert Smigel is the puppeteer who does Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and he too comes to the defense of young people and says that if you listen to them, you will learn how things have changed about what people find funny and what they find offensive and unfunny. The audience knows and to scold them for not laughing at what you think is funny is to quickly make yourself obsolete.

One thing Silverman did complain about performing on college campuses was the ubiquity of cellphone use among college audiences. It spoiled it for performers, especially stand up comedians, that depend upon relating with the audience to see people disengaged. The people using their phones may be texting to someone that the show is great but that is still rude. I know that when I am giving a talk, it is discouraging to see people with their heads down over their phones and it must be a lot worse for comedians who feed off audience responses.

I think as a matter of simple etiquette, people should put away their phones when they are in the company of others who have a rightful expectation that you are there to converse with or listen to them and others. I know that at university meetings, many of the attendees will be looking at their phones while the meeting is going on and people are speaking. And these are often faculty who, oblivious to the disconnect, complain about students being on their phones during their classes.

Comments

  1. says

    “Attack” comedy always gets old quickly. People like Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay, Seinfeld and others become popular by attacking a socially unpopular group that was “acceptable” to hate. But times change and unimaginative one-note comedians quickly lose their audience. I never thought Seinfeld was funny, not the TV show nor his standup before his show.

    Comedy that is observational, true, and criticizes human stupidity never gets old. We are all capable of doing extremely stupid things, even when we know better, so it rarely offends (except perhaps those who don’t want to admit their mistakes). Here’s one from around 1990, Dexter Madison. There are two questionable jokes in his routine (a stroke, a suicide) but for the most part, it’s universal.

  2. says

    thus preventing them from offering up edgy humor

    Did they just blame their audiences for not thinking they’re funny? It seems that they did.

  3. tbtabby says

    I am fully aware that I don’t have the right to never be offended. Please be aware that you don’t have the right to never be criticized. And don’t assume you’re a rebel pushing back the limits of a stifled society because people object to your jokes. You could just be an asshole. People objkected to George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, true…but they also objected to Jeffrey Dahmer.

  4. Holms says

    Seinfeld may be hailed as one of the funniest comedianns ever, but I’ve no idea why when his material hasn’t changed in 20 years. And yes, this is most certainly a case of a famous person needing to get over his opinion of himself, Silverman has the right of it.

  5. says

    Since comedy is, above all, social commentary, it seems pretty obvious that it’s going to have to change to be relevant with whatever times we live in. I imagine, for example, a US comedian from 1860 who was jokes about slaves — he’d feel we were terribly “politically correct” nowadays but really it’s just that he’s not funny anymore.

    I loathe the abuse of the term “politically correct” – a reference to times and places where failure to adhere to the party line would result in a life destroyed in a gulag, or a bullet in the back of the neck, or starvation in a re-education camp. When people complain about political correctness they are saying that they are suffering similarly to the millions who died in the cultural revolution, russian leninism, great leap forward, or collectivization. Basically, it’s the same whine as saying “such-and-such is just like the nazis!” (indeed, we are talking about similar body-counts) Imagine if Jerry said “people not finding me funny anymore … is just like the nazis” that’d fall pretty dead, too.

  6. doublereed says

    What I thought was so interesting about Silverman’s point was just that by complaining makes you sound old-fashioned by nature. It’s basically like “kids these days…” Well, fine, then get off the college campuses if you’re an old fogey. If you can’t adapt then you perish.

    @1 leftoverunder confused me considering Seinfeld popularized a lot of observational humor. That’s what he is primarily known for. Even that cell phone joke is observational humor, it’s just that it’s relying on an outdated, idiotic stereotype.

    I haven’t really followed much of Silverman’s work because it wasn’t my style. But every now and then she definitely hits some hilarious comedy gold, and if anything I think she’s gotten way funnier over time. I also thought she was great in School of Rock, but she wasn’t a comic in that movie.

  7. says

    I just watched Trading Places tonight, and while we were supposed to feel horrified about the racist old white guy using the n-word, Eddie Murphy – one of the “good” guys – twice used the f-word anti-gay slur (Dan Aykroyd also wore blackface, but we’ll stick to the slurs).

    Murphy used this word frequently back in his stand-up days. It’s good that this is no longer acceptable by the majority. Does Seinfeld want to argue that Murphy should be doing the same material today that he did in the 80s?

  8. sonofrojblake says

    Seinfeld should take a look at the UK. One of the highest paid, most successful comedians this country has ever produced is a guy named Roy “Chubby” Brown. He was never much on TV (although he did have a cameo in “The League of Gentlemen” TV show for in-joke reasons), and made all his money touring. He didn’t tour campuses though – he knew his audience, and he played to that audience, selling out massive theatres everywhere he went. He operated at the height of the politically correct “alternative” comedy boom, and outsold and out-earned every single one of those acts. His act was racist, misogynist, homophobic, puerile and (to me) completely unfunny – but his massive audience lapped it up. And good luck to him, frankly.

    Someone should take Jerry Seinfeld to one side and explain to him that if he doesn’t like the reaction he’s getting from the audiences he’s trying to play to, there are plenty of people out there who will lap up his warm diarrhea. He just needs to make himself comfortable with the fact that his audience will be mostly aging racists, sexists and homophobes who will pay good money to see him and in the car home will say to each other that he’s really funny, for a kike.

  9. Nick Gotts says

    I loathe the abuse of the term “politically correct” – a reference to times and places where failure to adhere to the party line would result in a life destroyed in a gulag, or a bullet in the back of the neck, or starvation in a re-education camp. – Marcus Ranum@5

    Do you have a reference for that? I recall arguing with a right-winger babbling about “political correctness” in the 1990s, when the term was first brought over the Atlantic, and their claim was that the term originated with what the right would now call “SJWs”, to criticise anyone who departed even minutely from the lefty orthodoxy. But I could not find a single instance of it being used that way unironically, and nor, when challenged, could they (they dug up one supposed instance from, I think, Susan Brownmiller, but it was in fact clearly poking fun at fellow-progressives). The British left’s equivalent was “ideologically sound” – always in my experience used to criticise overly-earnest fellow-leftists. Nor did I find any instance of it being used as you suggest.

    His act was racist, misogynist, homophobic, puerile and (to me) completely unfunny – but his massive audience lapped it up. And good luck to him, frankly. – sonofrojblake@10

    “Good luck” to the man exploiting and normalising bigotry and hate to make himself rich? Yes, that’s about what I’d expect from a Trump supporter.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Yes, good luck to him. It is a free country and a free market and he’s done nothing illegal. None of his act constitutes hate speech or incitement. I happen to support his right to free speech and free association, repugnant as I find his speech and his audience. I’d have to be a massive hypocrite to think otherwise. Free speech is not just for those you agree with. It’s what makes being a proper lefty hard to swallow at times. Another thing that makes being lefty hard is the people who are so far to the left, so very very right-on, that they pass right round the back and come out on the far right, in favour of policing speech.

    And I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure this is not the first time I’ve had to explain to you in small words that I’m not for Trump, any more than I’m for or against any other foreign leader or candidate. I don’t get a vote, my opinion is irrelevant. I’m a Trump entertainee – nothing more.

  11. doublereed says

    Someone should take Jerry Seinfeld to one side and explain to him that if he doesn’t like the reaction he’s getting from the audiences he’s trying to play to, there are plenty of people out there who will lap up his warm diarrhea.

    Well it sounds like he’s already resigned himself to playing for older audiences.

    I just watched Trading Places tonight, and while we were supposed to feel horrified about the racist old white guy using the n-word, Eddie Murphy – one of the “good” guys – twice used the f-word anti-gay slur (Dan Aykroyd also wore blackface, but we’ll stick to the slurs).

    Wow, I didn’t know this. It’s almost fascinating to me considering I’m a millennial. I guess times really have changed.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    I am something more than a Trump entertainee – I’m a Clinton entertainee too. It’s hard not to be when she’s knocking it out of the park comedically, like this:
    https://twitter.com/HillaryClinton/status/731107990514880512
    Not for the first time I’m wondering how Trump is getting her to put out his message without paying her. I mean – he’s not paying her to put this stuff out, right? Or am I just naive about how American politics works?

  13. anat says

    Mano, I recently had the experience of listening to a talk where the speaker was tweeting away while speaking.

  14. Mano Singham says

    anat,

    Wow, that is quite an impressive effort at multi-tasking, even as it displays the speaker’s contempt for the audience right in front of them.

  15. says

    Nick Gotts@#11:
    Do you have a reference for that?

    Sure, you want me to “google” it for you? I don’t want to sound ableist, but did someone break your fingers or something?

    Here’s a place you could start:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness
    Would you like me to read it aloud for you?
    Since I’m a 70’s kid and I was there when the term first started being bandied about, I use the original version:

    According to one version, political correctness actually began as an in-joke on the left: radical students on American campuses acting out an ironic replay of the Bad Old Days BS (Before the Sixties) when every revolutionary groupuscule had a party line about everything. They would address some glaring examples of sexist or racist behaviour by their fellow students in imitation of the tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: “Not very ‘politically correct’, Comrade!”

    More recently, there have been references to “cultural marxism” which is a new thing (comparatively) also implying that not following the party line might lead one to being purged or silenced.

    Here’s how “google” works: you go to http://www.google.com and type in what you’re looking in the “search” bar and then hit the “search” button and read and think about what comes back. Don’t forget the ‘think’ part; it’s important, even if you suck at it.

  16. says

    even as it displays the speaker’s contempt for the audience right in front of them

    It might just indicate incompetence and insecurity. Perhaps they can’t communicate very well and feel they have to supplement their spoken presentation with 140 character quiplets. But, yeah, either way it sucks: they’re inadequate or contemptuous. When the most generous interpretation is that one is inarticulate, one is probably not the right person to be standing in front of the microphone.

  17. Nick Gotts says

    Marcus Ranum@18,
    Your quote largely confirms my take on the term “political correctness” – that its origin was in ironic use by the left – although apparently the earliest uses (early to mid 20th century) were specifically use by democratic socialists against members of western communist parties, which I didn’t know. Your original comment:

    I loathe the abuse of the term “politically correct” – a reference to times and places where failure to adhere to the party line would result in a life destroyed in a gulag, or a bullet in the back of the neck, or starvation in a re-education camp.

    I understood as meaning that the term was actually used by those with the power to send others to the gulag or similar, and that was what I was asking for a reference for. Your reference does not provide any such examples, or suggest that the term was ever used in that way. When someone makes a claim I find surprising, I do often ask them if they have a reference supporting it, which is generally regarded as reasonable; if I had searched for myself on this occasion, I would not have discovered what I was looking for, nor realised that I had misunderstood you. As for your somewhat ridiculous snootiness over this, I guess that’s because I’ve criticised your attitudes on a couple of recent occasions.

    I don’t want to sound ableist,

    Why not? You had no problem with doing so when implying that vegans suffer from eating disorders.

  18. Nick Gotts says

    Yes, good luck to him. It is a free country and a free market and he’s done nothing illegal. None of his act constitutes hate speech or incitement. I happen to support his right to free speech and free association, repugnant as I find his speech and his audience…. blah, blah, self-righteous blah – sonofrojblake@12

    The facts that he was not doing anything illegal does not of course mean you have to wish him good luck, nor does finding it repulsive that you wish such a disgusting bigot as Roy “Chubby” Brown good luck imply opposition to free speech and free association.

    I’m pretty sure this is not the first time I’ve had to explain to you in small words that I’m not for Trump, any more than I’m for or against any other foreign leader or candidate. I don’t get a vote, my opinion is irrelevant.

    I’m pretty sure this is not the first time I’ve had to explain to you in small words that that is a load of dishonest crapola. When you urge others to vote for Trump and claim that Trump’s fundamental unpredictability is not a bug, it’s a feature. that makes you a Trump supporter, whether you like to admit it or not. Whether you have a vote is simply not the determining factor.

  19. Dunc says

    More recently, there have been references to “cultural marxism” which is a new thing (comparatively) also implying that not following the party line might lead one to being purged or silenced.

    “Cultural marxism” is a bit more specific – at its root, it’s an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about how The Jews ™ are plotting to destroy Western Civilisation ™ with Critical Theory, feminism, and homosexuality. No, really

    The rationalwiki article is quite good: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Cultural_Marxism

  20. sonofrojblake says

    @Nick Gotts, 21:

    Thank you, I now understand your problem here. In ignorance of the idiomatic usage, you took the phrase “good luck to him” literally, to humourous effect. That’s not what it means. I’m not literally wishing him good luck. I literally can’t stand the bloke and wouldn’t mind much if he fell in a well. “Good luck to him” in this context conveys not good wishes, but indifference. A young person might use the word “whatevs”. I hope this clear up your comprehension difficulty.

    In the “vote Trump” post, once again I would have thought it obvious I was not exhorting people to vote Trump. The point was to highlight the incongruousness of Clinton’s proven hawkishness in comparison. It is more than a little obtuse to take that literally. You come across as someone who would believe my wife actually went to the West Indies, whether or not I made her.

    And finally – you maintain Trump’s unpredictability is something he’s not doing on purpose? Because it demonstrably doesn’t take a supporter to realise he’s doing it deliberately. That’s the point you and I disagree on. I can’t support the guy, but if I were in a position to, I wouldn’t. There, is that a clear enough statement for you?

  21. says

    Nick Gotts@#20:
    If I sideswiped you earlier it was apparently more memorable for you than for me. I don’t carry blog-grudges. Maybe you should try just focusing on the substance of someone’s current comments.

    Actually, I did periodically refer to slc1’s genocidal preferences occasionally, because he went so far out of his way to make his self-discredit so memorable. You’re not there, yet.

    I was snooty to you because I thought what you said was remarkably stupid. If you wish to apply for snootiness relief under the americans with disabilities act I’ll remember to be more gentle on your feelings in the future.

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