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What Even Is A Joke? Jerry Seinfeld's Response To The James Gunn Controversy Defines The Concept

By Tori Preston | Celebrity | August 15, 2018 |

By Tori Preston | Celebrity | August 15, 2018 |


Look, I dunno if I bumped my head in the middle of the night or what, but I just read Jerry Seinfeld’s interview with The New York Times Magazine and… it made a lot of sense to me? I mean, he’s still out of touch, and his Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee show is somehow inexplicably in its 10th season, but aside from all that — he made a few interesting points about the nature of comedy, and specifically of jokes. And yes, he’s still that guy who won’t perform on college campuses or make politically charged jokes. He’s not edgy, and he’s loaded with enough privilege that he doesn’t have to worry about diversity in comedy — all that matters is whether you’re funny or not (never mind that humor is subjective and hey, maybe different people find different kinds of jokes funny so diversity WOULD matter). But maybe specifically because Seinfeld is this sort of aggressively non-controversial old guard of comedy, he’s actually got some unique insights on the art form? Maybe? Or is that just my heretofore unknown head injury talking?

He’s clearly got some opinions, at the very least. Like when the magazine brings up his aversion to P.C. culture once again:

You’ve been outspoken about stand-up audiences being too sensitive and politically correct these days. Have you ever apologized for a joke?

No. Jokes are not real. People assume that when you say something that you believe it. It’s purely comedic invention. You know, I do this whole bit about Pop-Tarts and how much I love them. I don’t love Pop-Tarts. It’s just funny. It’s funny to say it, so I say it.

On the one hand: I’m not sure I find Pop-Tarts any funnier than, say, a well-executed joke about how Trump is like a horse in a hospital (a joke that’s a master class in how you can get political without tarnishing your largely non-political, inoffensive persona). But I also agree that jokes CAN BE comedic invention. It’s like any acting or writing. Sometimes great art comes from a personal place, but that doesn’t mean that it always has to — and sometimes a joke isn’t about revealing the truth of the comedian, but the truth of the audience. Seinfeld’s problem is that he acts like just because HE approaches comedy that way, it means that’s the RIGHT WAY. But he’s got a point about not treating jokes as mission statements.

And that point dovetails right into his response when asked about the James Gunn controversy:

What did you make of James Gunn, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” director, getting fired for his old Twitter jokes?

I didn’t read the jokes, but if they’re jokes, it doesn’t matter. I guess Roseanne Barr thought she was being funny, but it wasn’t funny — and if it’s offensive and not funny, then it’s not a joke. But any comedian that doesn’t understand that dynamic, you’re finished anyway.

“If it’s offensive and not funny, then it’s not a joke” actually seems like a pretty important distinction. Sure, you run into the same issues of subjective humor, and people being offended by different things, but overall if you’re just pissing people off but not making them laugh — you’re not really joking, right? Of course, this view doesn’t really help justify James Gunn’s old tweets either (which were offensive and not funny), but based on his more recent apologies Gunn and Seinfeld do share the same sentiments.

And like the third shoe dropping, Seinfeld reveals just how important the audience reaction is to his work — which lends credence to the idea that to him, comedy is more about the audience than the artist:

You use Twitter mostly for self-promotion. Why no Twitter jokes?

I don’t hear the laugh. Why waste my time? It’s a horrible performing interface. I can’t think of a worse one. I always think about people that write books. What a horrible feeling it must be to have poured your soul into a book over a number of years and somebody comes up to you and goes, “I loved your book,” and they walk away, and you have no idea what worked and what didn’t. That to me is hell. That’s my definition of hell.

Is that a little needy? Sure. But there’s something to be said for wanting that reality check — wanting to gauge what worked and what didn’t — versus spouting whatever you want and calling it a joke. Maybe he does understand, deep down, that humor is subjective, and you can’t call something a joke if nobody laughs but you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ma go take some aspirin and lie down for a while.

Tori Preston is the managing editor of Pajiba. She tweets here. You can also listen to her weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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