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Jerry Seinfeld Understated the Death of Comedy

(The new film “Unfrosted,” directed by Jerry Seinfeld)

“In Carlin’s time, it was edgy and cool to push back against the prudish ideas about obscenity, so playing with the boundaries of the metanarrative was practically encouraged (at least from audiences). Today, quite the opposite.”

“You can’t say hobo anymore. They prefer bum.”

This line, from Jerry Seinfeld’s new film Unfrosted, is not a scold. It is a punchline. Although it is not an especially funny punchline, it serves as an instructive example of the current state of comedy. 

Today, comedians often gripe about not being able to say offensive things, but this is not exactly true. On podcasts, on stage, and between friends, they can generally say whatever they want and “get away” with it. However, it is also true that comedians cannot technically be offensive—not on their own terms and in keeping within the parameters of a joke. Instead, offensive statements now always exist within an inescapable metanarrative about political correctness. In other words, when comedians discuss a sensitive topic in a comedy setting, the topic of conversation always gets sucked into the broader topic of political correctness, leaving the original sensitive topic to merely be a footnote. The result is that political correctness has already won the war against comedy, regardless of whether or not comedians are ever allowed to say what they want.

Leading up to the release of Unfrosted, Seinfeld reignited the debate about political correctness in comedy during interviews with GQ and The New Yorker. His spiciest comment was that television comedy is dead thanks to “the extreme left and PC crap, and people worrying so much about offending other people.”

This comment was mocked ruthlessly by innumerable editorials. The Daily Beast ran a headline, “Jerry Seinfeld’s Crotchety Whining About ‘PC Crap’ Comedy Gets It All Wrong.” According to the magazine Paste, “Jerry Seinfeld Is a Lazy Hack Out of Touch with the Real World.” 

Social media users, in turn, scorched these editorials, mocking them for being ideological, proving Seinfeld’s point, misrepresenting Seinfeld’s comments, noting that Seinfeld was actually completely accurate, etc. 

All of this together—from Seinfeld’s statement to every last word of commentary—is the PC metanarrative in action.

Explicitly, the PC metanarrative is the overarching opinion, enforced by gatekeepers and major institutions, which states: In a civilized society, speech that is insensitive or offensive should not be said in public. Anyone who consciously or even accidentally falls in violation will be socially or professionally penalized.

Humor is inherently in tension with the PC metanarrative—it has been even before the modern concept of political correctness (let alone “wokeness”) came about. For example, the humorous novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in the 1500s, is filled with what we would call “bathroom humor,” which is funny and edgy because it is, intentionally, crude and offensive. But in today’s media-saturated environment, the entire comedy ecosystem—from the aspiring comic on TikTok to the big names on Netflix—is not just “in tension” with the PC metanarrative; rather, it is in direct communication with it. 

In 1972, George Carlin famously spoke directly to the PC metanarrative of his day when he delivered a monologue about the seven dirty words that can never be said on television. Today, this approach of talking directly to the PC metanarrative is ubiquitous among comedians. It is not just Seinfeld, but also Joe Rogan, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Ricky Gervais—any comic who might ever be tempted to say something edgy seems utterly consumed by the direct communication with the PC metanarrative. 

Notably, the PC metanarrative of 1972 was fundamentally different from the one activated today. In Carlin’s time, television networks censored speech because they were compelled to do so out of concern for Christian sensitivities and conservative family values. In the early days of standup, comedians could be arrested onstage for violating strict obscenity laws. The modern PC metanarrative, on the other hand, is driven by the sensitivities of the political left and the godless youth who are concerned not with dirty words but, instead, with isms and phobias: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. 

In Carlin’s time, it was edgy and cool to push back against the prudish ideas about obscenity, so playing with the boundaries of the metanarrative was practically encouraged (at least from audiences). Today, quite the opposite. The boundary lines of the new PC metanarrative are not even lines that move; they are more like sticky webs. The more comedians push against the boundaries, the more they become stuck permanently in the web. Many people, especially on the Left, hardly even see Joe Rogan as a comedian anymore. He has complained so much about the inability to say things—while simultaneously saying them—that he is seen more as an anti-woke activist rather than a comedian. The PC metanarrative has consumed his image as a public figure.

Meanwhile, comedy television and movies are equally trapped in communication with the PC metanarrative. Like the Unfrosted quote above, it is common for edgy comments to only be said in order to elicit the punchline: “You aren’t supposed to say that anymore.” In other cases, edgy characters will complain directly about the PC metanarrative, acknowledging how they are trapped within it. For example, in the 2022 film Glass Onion, the loudmouth character Birdie says, “Everything’s so woke these days. It’s out of control.”

And, again, in instances where characters actually say edgy statements, audiences are primed to think about the statement primarily in terms of the PC metanarrative and not in terms of the joke itself. 

To be free from the PC metanarrative, comedians presently only have two options: Focus on non-edgy comedy that does not become entangled in the web of phobias and isms or accept the role of activist or political commentator rather than comedian, such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver. This is the best option for axe-to-grind comedians like Rogan and Chappelle. Accept the role of political commentator and commit one’s act to activism. 

Imagine if Chappelle were a political commentator rather than a stand-up comedian. His commentary about trans people would not be couched within the conversation “Can he say this?” or “Should Netflix platform this?” Instead, his comments would stand on their own as political statements and could then be considered on their merits.

Comedians taking the turn toward activism, while unfortunate, is completely in keeping with the spirit of our time. They are in good company. Since former President Donald Trump first sought the presidency in 2016, we have seen journalists, teachers, and scientists all take on the activist role. Scientific American went from a non-political publication to a publication focused on social justice. National Public Radio went from left-leaning to being painfully agenda driven. Even the Central Intelligence Agency has adopted activist talking points.

The good news is that, someday, looking back, this will all be very funny.

Peter Clarke, a Merion West contributor, is a writer in San Francisco and the host of the podcast Team Futurism. He can be found on X @HeyPeterClarke

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