You may have heard the recent brouhaha regarding Jerry Seinfeld who claims that he no longer performs at colleges because all those mean kids are so politically correct. He specifically complained about the fact that one of his jokes doesn’t play because of the sensitivities of the youngins. On Late Night With Seth Meyers, he said, “I do this joke about the way people justify their cell phone — ‘I need to have it with me’ — because people are so important. Well they don’t seem very important the way you scroll through them like a gay French king…” My first reaction was that maybe the reason that joke doesn’t work that well is because it isn’t that good a joke.
There is the common response to that, which I’ve heard for years from professional comedians, “If people don’t laugh, it isn’t funny; if they do laugh, it is.” I agree with that. That’s why I try very hard to say “I didn’t think that was funny” rather than “that wasn’t funny.” The truth is that something I don’t find funny at one moment I might find hilarious at a different moment. What’s more, different kinds of people like different kinds of humor. But here is Jerry Seinfeld explaining that his joke just is funny and there is something wrong with the kids who don’t find it funny. Could it be that Seinfeld is now 40 years older than the college kids and the problem is with him? Could it be that he’s like the old Borscht Belt comedians who didn’t get Lenny Bruce?
I was listening to Sam Seder the other day and he was talking about Seinfeld’s recent whining. He wasn’t sympathetic — but for a very interesting reason. He said that he was a huge Sam Kinison fan in the 1980s. Now Kinison was known for pushing the envelope of what was considered acceptable. And so there were always television talking heads discussing what Kinison had recently said that was totally over the line. And, Seder said, it seemed that there would always be Jerry Seinfeld there as the example of the “good” comedian. And Seinfeld, while not criticizing Kinison, would talk about how he worked clean — or something along the lines of what those Borscht Belt comedians used to say when they facilitated the attacks on Lenny Bruce. So to Seder, there’s a kind of hypocrisy in what Seinfeld is doing now. Of course, the great irony is that Kinison was in trouble because he was pushing comedy forward; Seinfeld is upset because he’s being left behind.
Nathan Rabin wrote an excellent editorial about this over at The Los Angeles Times, Seinfeld and Maher: More Cranky Than Comic These Days. This sums up his point:
Maher is an even bigger issue for me. I’ve never liked Jerry Seinfeld. I’ve always thought he was a middle of the road comedian doing tired observational humor. And I thought the show was so hateful that I had a hard time getting into it. But Maher is a different matter. He does wear his politics on his sleeve. And even though I disagree with him a fair amount, I admire the attempt. At least he has an edge. But he falls into brainless libertarianism and I tune him out. Humor depends upon the listener’s connection to the truth of the material. When a joke is premised on something that goes entirely against my worldview, it is jarring and so not funny. I’m the wrong audience for the joke. But if Bill Maher is performing for an audience of people like me, it’s his fault a joke dies, not ours. He is not paid to stand up there on the stage and say things that he wants to say; he’s paid to entertain us.
No comedian is perfect. It’s a hard job. But the fact that Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher may not get quite as big a laugh on some of their jokes is hard to be sympathetic to. There are new comedians who are up on stage alone dying night after night. Seinfeld ($800 million dollars) and Maher ($30 million) are rich men. They don’t need to perform at all. In fact, if they stopped performing, they would provide some room for up and coming comedians. But the least they can do is to stop whining. None of us care.