Earlier this month Jerry Seinfeld made some troubling comments about diversity in comedy. Sitting down with Peter Lauria of Buzzfeed on CBS in the Morning, Seinfeld asserted that viewers who have highlighted the lack of diversity in his web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” are practicing “anti-comedy.” Responding to these viewers’ demands for more diversity, Seinfeld said, “People think [comedy] is the census or something, it’s gotta represent the actual pie chart of America. Who cares? It’s just funny. Funny is the world I live in. You’re funny? I’m interested. You’re not funny? I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender of race or anything like that, but everyone else is calculating: ‘Is this the exact right mix?”
As a rich, straight, white male, Seinfeld truly opened a can of worms. Comedian Nicole Byer angrily threw these worms back in his face. Ruben Navarette Jr. went back to the factory where these canned worms originated - Seinfeld - and highlighted the few Latino characters he recalled. Maya Roy called Seinfeld racist and heralded his imminent irrelevance in comedy. Dave Schilling argued that Seinfeld and Seinfeld should be left to their own devices, with diversity being supported elsewhere instead of being injected into shows that aren’t concerned with it. I want to do some other things with these worms. By thinking about what it means for something to be “just funny,” I will explore what this troubling idea means for comedians who aren’t straight white males as well as comedians at large.
The Politics of Comedy
First off, I want to talk politics. To start, it must be clear that the politics of comedy is not the politics of comedians. Following Jacques Ranciere, I conceive of politics as a partition of the sensible, an active intervention in what can be perceived. In other words, a particular politics is the set of actions that makes certain things in the world intelligible in a certain way. Comedy essentially works by taking a description of a real or imagined world and making it intelligible as funny. This is the politics of comedy. Comedy makes things funny. Other modes of perception like sarcasm and parody and mimicry and even horror can perform the same politics, so funniness is not unique to comedy, but funniness is the primary goal of comedy, whether it is successful (causing laughter) or not (causing non-laughter).
In practice, this politics gets mixed in with other politics, other ways of rendering certain things intelligible. For instance, at a typical stand-up comedy show, the space and technical layout of the venue are to make the performer visible and audible: chairs face a centralized location, microphones and speakers are directed toward the audience and lighting is concentrated on the performer’s location. These are political acts. Through this concert of spatial and technical arrangements, comedians are able to rise above their lowly statuses as anonymous members of the crowd and temporarily be an individuated person saying hopefully funny things.
The entanglement of political acts extends further into where a venue is located, whether or not it serves alcohol, who is on the bill, who got to choose who appears on the bill and so forth. Most importantly, it gets mixed in with the political beliefs of the performer. I’m not trying to schematize the entire political landscape of a comedy show, so I will stop here, but my basic point is that comedy itself, as well as the social scene in which it unfolds, is not some neutral space that people walk into, then leave. At every level, politics occurs. Both the act of making something funny and the act of choosing who can attempt to say something funny are political choices.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. It takes a certain knowledge to make things funny and to know who is funny, and I think that people attending or watching a comedy show reasonably expect these things to have been organized by someone who knows these things. That is a given. I just think that it’s utterly naive to think that the political acts of declaring who is funny and what is funny are somehow immune or detached from the political acts that exclude certain genders, races, creeds, ages, colors, sexualities and so forth. In short, how can anything be “just funny” when funniness itself is the result of numerous political acts laboring to make things funny? Even if Seinfeld himself has not made these acts, the world he lives in, “funny,” is founded upon them. Each act has privileged certain kinds of people, collectively creating a world that doesn’t accurately reflect the incredible range of people making jokes.
Nothing Is Funny?
Seinfeld the show is often described as the show about nothing. Even the show itself once slyly asserted this in the episode, “The Pitch,” cited above. Though I don’t think this description is true, I think we should momentarily take it at face value. What does it mean to be a show about nothing? Stated differently, what does it mean for a comedy show to aspire toward nothingness? For Seinfeld, I think that this meant that no subject was particularly significant. From that perspective, each joke and the corresponding observation that led to that joke could be viewed as just another joke, just funny. The goal of each joke, each bit, is just laughter. Enlightenment, critique, anger, displeasure, empathy and other possible outcomes of jokes, are undesirable at best and unwarranted at worst. Seinfeld is about laughs, plain and simple.
I don’t buy that. In 1998 Greg Braxton wrote an interesting article about how Seinfeld’s season finale was largely a “nonevent” for black audiences. Focusing on the lack of diversity within the cast and within the show’s stories, Braxton writes, “Observers said that the lack of ‘Seinfeld’ fever among blacks is mainly attributable to the almost total absence of minority characters on the New York-based sitcom. Some supporting characters–including an attorney modeled after defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.–have been featured in the last few seasons, but many said the show is still seen as a program that excludes minorities.” The claim here appears to be that audiences want to identify with the characters they see. Braxton later qualifies this claim by quoting a tv executive who cites the popularity of Walker, Texas Ranger among black viewers. As the executive emphasizes, black people, and presumably any demographic, don’t need to see themselves in order to like a show. Yet that does seem to play a crucial role in how the show is received. To put it slyly, I think there’s a reason that Ruben Navarette Jr. can remember every single Latino character he ever saw on Seinfeld.
Keeping that executive’s comment in mind and relating it back to Seinfeld’s comments, I don’t think that people are making a purely demographic request when they highlight the lack of diversity in his show. Even if they frame this request in “census” terms, for me, the black response to Seinfeld hints at the privileges embedded in aspiring to nothingness. In other words, though Seinfeld is posited as neutral, just another vehicle for laughs, just funny, black viewers saw it as a vehicle for a particular group’s experiences of the world. For them, Seinfeld was not just funny; it was funny in a certain way, a way that came from a particular way of experiencing the world. Thus, they laughed, but they saw more than just the joke. They saw the world that the jokes come from, a world in which tensions about gender, race, class, occupation etc., could be sidelined instead of being one’s main focus. Stated bluntly, they saw a world of privilege, a world in which wealthy white folks got into hilarious and crazy antics because they had the luxury to not constantly think about paying their rent or eating or their cars breaking down or their grandmother dying. These wealthy white folks could make jokes and live those particularly strange lives because they had “nothing” else to worry about, even though the show clearly had something happening in it.
How Comedy is Made: Seriously, Nothing is “Just Funny”
I’ve touched on how comedy politically works and how Seinfeld’s/Seinfeld’s comedy has a certain infrastructure of privilege, but to underscore the latter point, I’d like to talk about my own experience of making and performing jokes, particularly observational jokes (my favorite kind). From my understanding, moreso than other forms of comedy, observational comedy is especially tied to the person observing. Even if this observer is effaced in the delivery of the joke – as in the joke itself doesn’t include “I” – observational jokes always have an implied source. For instance, when watching Mitch Hedberg perform, even when he’s telling jokes about stuff he’s seen, it’s clear that he was the person who saw these things and turned them into jokes. More than “just observations,” these are his observations and through his skill he has made them into funny, quirky jokes. The act of turning the observation into a joke is an abstraction and performing the joke live actually takes the abstraction further, but these abstractions always have a source. There is always an originary point of reference being abstracted from one thing and toward something else.
In my own experience, I was once told by a friend that some of my jokes are too focused on race. For him, the “from” was always too apparent, subsequently limiting how far the joke could travel, how funny it could be. In his mind, jokes seemed to be like kites: the best ones fly away (“Hahaha”) and the bad ones either stayed confusingly wrapped in my hands (“I don’t get it?”) or lamely sank back down to the earth, settling on my black face (“That was not funny”). Looking back, I think that some of these jokes were actually pretty bad, but not because they talked about race. I think that they were bad because I attempted to talk about race without making them intelligible as jokes. They just sounded like declarative statements from a black guy rather than jokes. I think that that admitting this and changing it was an important development for me as a comedian, but not on my friend’s terms. For him, the problem was that my jokes were too personal; for me, the problem was that my jokes weren’t jokes.
I think that the difference between these two positions is what’s at stake in Seinfeld’s comments. In the world that my friend and Seinfeld allegedly occupy, jokes are jokes. Their origins don’t matter. All that matters is whether or not the joke is funny. In the world that I live in – which is actually the same world they live in – jokes don’t exist just to make people laugh, to be just funny. Jokes and the people who tell them make me laugh as well as cry, frown, pout, yell, grimace and gasp. In this world, performers don’t deceive themselves into thinking that they aren’t part of the act, that their jokes and how they deliver them are unrelated to how they experience the world or are forced to experience the world via gender, class, race, religion or sexuality.
If this world is the world of anti-comedy, I think that the definition of comedy needs to change. Because if it doesn’t change and Seinfeld and my friend continue to define comedy by dismissing the origins of jokes, it’s doing a disservice to all comedians as well as Seinfeld’s own legacy. After all, Seinfeld’s jokes aren’t “just jokes.” They’re the product of a mind that observes the world with a keen eye and turns these observations into hilarious, insightful statements that often change how we view little dimensions of life. These jokes can be called “just funny” or “nothing,” but they’re so much more than that. To not give other people the opportunities to make their observations from their experiences of the world – be it through actively granting these opportunities à la SNL or just plain listening when they say that these opportunities are rare – is to make comedy into something that it is not and never should be.