Jerry Seinfeld’s takedown of the political correctness of today’s youth should give us all pause for thought. In an interview on US radio, the sitcom and stand-up star said that college campuses have become a no-go area for comedians. ‘I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, “Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC”’ he said, before launching into a story about the time his 14-year-old daughter accused his wife of being ‘sexist’ for suggesting that she may soon want to start seeing boys. ‘They just want to use these words. That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice. They don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.’
Of course, this is nothing we haven’t heard before. Young people’s inability to hear a risqué punchline without launching a Change.org petition has raised the ire of plenty of other comedians recently. In an interview with Vulture magazine last year, Chris Rock said twentysomethings are now so touchy that comics ‘can’t even be offensive on [their] way to being inoffensive’. Even talking about difficult subjects is wont to provoke pious outrage, as the foulmouthed, dad-bod comedian Louis CK found out in May when his paedophile-themed Saturday Night Live monologue sent the Tumblr hive mind into meltdown. But coming from a man whose airline-dinner routine was about as edgy as he got, Seinfeld’s call for young people to get a grip shows just how bad things have gotten. Like a velcro-shoed uncle telling his 25-year-old nephew to get out more.
In an age of privilege-checking, trigger warnings and campus bans on ‘oppressive’ clapping, it’s hard to be shocked at the offence-seeking extremes of my generation. But comedy has always been given a pass to provoke. Even as the PC craze raged on campus in the 1990s, acerbic comics like Bill Hicks, whose infamous ‘Goat Boy’ alter-ego boasted of a taste for teenage girls, was a dorm-room hero. Young people still had just about enough loaf to realise that being offended, even disgusted, is not only inevitable in comedy, it’s quite often the point of it.
Now that Generation Y’s blue-haired radicals have taken political correctness to its logical, soft-Stalinist conclusion, even cracking jokes about taboos is taboo. And, Seinfeld’s dealings with his daughter doesn’t bode well, either. It seems the young are now getting their PC credentials long before they’ve been anywhere near a gender studies seminar.
But for all the fortysomething choruses of ‘pc-gone-mad’ in response to Seinfeld’s comments, one has to look at where this new puritanism might have come from. Generation Y did not all just pop out of the womb as fully-formed Feministing contributors. Ideas this mad don’t appear out of thin air.
The fact that comedians can no longer hold the line for free speech is largely their own fault. Comedy has become an enforcer of lefty-liberal groupthink. Anyone who followed the decline of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show into little more than incessant George W Bush gags – still sounding long after Dubya had retired to paint portraits of his dogs – will see that what passes for ‘edgy’ comedy nowadays caters to political prejudices rather than challenging them.
Things are bleaker still in the UK. Stewart Lee, the bequiffed Grand Poobah of alternative comedy, says political correctness is nothing more than ‘institutionalised niceness’. Last year, when a petition was launched to have laddish comedian Dapper Laughs ousted from his ITV2 show, his fellow comics either kept their mouths shut or joined the lynch mob. 44 stand-up comedians, some of whom were almost twice his age, signed an open letter denouncing Dapper, claiming his line in knob gags ‘encourage street harassment, rape culture and normalises misogyny’. It read like a copy-and-paste job from a students’ union AGM.
Seinfeld is right. PC does hurt comedy. And my ‘-ism’-flinging generation is nuts. But it’s about time comics stopped pandering to liberal intolerance and taught the younger generation how to take a joke.