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Jerry Seinfeld is wrong about comedy

Wokeness has exacerbated the decline of sitcoms and stand-up, but it is not the cause

As titles go, this might sound like one of my more hubristic — not quite “Francis Crick was wrong about molecular biology” but not a million miles away.

Seinfeld, created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, is quite simply the best sitcom of all time — incisively written and beautifully performed. It’s so damn memorable that even being beaten around the head with a two-by-four couldn’t shift moments like “was that wrong” and “my name is George, I’m unemployed and I live with my parents” from my consciousness. (That doesn’t sound funny out of context? Then watch the show, you lazy sods.)

Jerry Seinfeld is unimpressed with modern television comedy. He told the New Yorker:

Nothing really affects comedy. People always need it. They need it so badly and they don’t get it. It used to be that you’d go home at the end of the day, most people would go “Oh, Cheers is on. Oh, M*A*S*H is on. Oh, Mary Tyler Moore is on. All in the Family is on.” You just expected [there will] be some funny stuff we can watch on TV tonight. Well guess what? Where is it? Where is it?

The first thing to say about this — which I’m not the first to point out — is that a little show called Curb Your Enthusiasm just finished, created by, of all people, Seinfeld’s longtime collaborator Larry David. But in general he has a point. 

So, what’s wrong? Seinfeld continued: 

This is the result of the extreme left, and P.C. crap, and people worrying so much about offending other people…

As a right-winger, I should probably agree. But I’m just not sure it’s true. Certainly, political correctness hurts comedy. You get people kidding themselves into believing that Hannah Gadsby is funny — a belief so delusional that it makes Heaven’s Gate look like the FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility. You get people campaigning to have Dave Chappelle removed from Netflix, which is far more hubristic than writing “Francis Crick was wrong about molecular biology”.

But the truth is that even if “woke” was commonly understood to be the past tense form of “wake” we still wouldn’t have Cheers, or All in the Family, or their 21st Century equivalents, because our culture has moved on. It is far more fragmented, socially and culturally, and it is far, far more online. Expecting that kind of comedy to persist into the 2020s is more delusional than expecting Romantic poems to reign and rule in the 1920s. Far fewer people watch television at all.

Seinfeld, originally a stand-up comedian, thinks stand-up comedy has earned the audiences that TV comedy has lost. “Now they’re going to see stand-up comics,” he said, “Because they are not policed by anyone. The audience polices us. We know when we’re off track. We know instantly. And we adjust to it instantly.” 

I don’t think that’s true. I think stand-up comedy underwent a cultural renaissance because all the higher-ups at streaming services realised that it was cheap as chips. If you want to make a sitcom or a sketch show you have to hire writers, actors, set designers, camera operators, wardrobe people et cetera ad nauseum. If you want to stream someone’s stand-up special you just need a guy on a stage making jokes about his penis. It’s a huge financial win.

I’m biased here because I think that “anti-woke” comedians are generally as funny as Lyme disease. There are still great comedians, like Dave Attell or Simon Evans, but if I see one more greasy Joe Rogan sycophant claiming to be some sort of dangerous firebrand because they use the word “retarded” I’m going to become a dictator and mandate sitting down.

Stand-up is as doomed as sitcoms in the long run

The fact is that some art forms were not meant to last forever. Stand-up is as doomed as sitcoms in the long run, because the artistic possibilities are too limited. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s an insanely difficult thing to do — or, at least, to do well. But the roller derby also took a hell of a lot of talent and dedication and it’s still never going to reach the cultural heights of the 1940s again. Stand-up just doesn’t have the staying power of a film or the spontaneity of podcasts and social media. (To prove my point about cultural fragmentation by dropping a reference that will baffle 95 per cent Critic readers, I enjoyed Nick Mullen’s The Year of the Dragon but it was no Cum Town.)

Comedians of the 2020s should be daring when it comes to their subject matter, yes. But they should also be stylistically daring. We live in a very different world to that of Elaine Benes, Cosmo Kramer and the other Seinfeld characters and we need different ways to laugh at ourselves.

It would be a mistake to look backwards. Million Dollar Extreme, the comedy trio behind the short-lived Adult Swim show World Peace, were effectively Alt-Right, never mind un-PC, but still earned grudging respect in comedic circles because their work was so innovative, contemporary and downright peculiar. I’m not putting them forward as cultural exemplars, but it’s still sad, years on, to see right-leaning people frantically signal-boost a nostalgic ode to the days of Cheers. Why don’t we try something new?

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