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Jerry Seinfeld on Diversity in Comedy: 'Who Cares? Are You Making Us Laugh Or Are You Not?'

By Petr Knava | Industry | February 14, 2018 |

By Petr Knava | Industry | February 14, 2018 |


Seinfeld, the show, remains one of the best sitcoms of all time. Seinfeld, the man, was once a very successful stand-up comedian that a lot of people liked. Personally, his style of comedy was never really my jam. In sitcom format it worked; onstage not so much. In recent years Jerry Seinfeld has also taken it upon himself to fight the good fight against what he perceives to be a clamping down on freedom of expression in the comedy world. He thinks that the cultural landscape we find ourselves in now is far too sensitive, that we have bred an environment of hair-trigger outrage, appointing ourselves en masse members of a hivemind thought police intent on sanding down any dissent and keeping everyone in line with some centrally mandated values.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the rush for hot takes and invective-filled reactions that incentivises a not insignificant part of the online publishing world where often the first, angriest, and loudest pieces generate the most traffic. But to speak about that would require some nuance. Nuance which Mr. Seinfeld is either uninterested in engaging in, or simply incapable of hearing. No, his point lies elsewhere. In a recent video for Buzzfeed, he again addressed the changing landscape of the comedy world, this time voicing his opinion on the idea that the industry has perhaps been dominated by cishet white males for a long time:

As you can see, he is ‘uninterested’ in it. Comedy is not a ‘census’ that shouldn’t have to ‘represent exactly’ the nation in which it operates. All that matters is whether you are ‘funny or not’.

A lovely, simple idea that. A meritocracy of comedy. Who could possibly object to that?

The trouble is, Jerry, you privilege-blinded buffoon, is that that’s exactly what we are asking for.

So just for the record, and because I know you’re totally reading this, lemme break this down for you for one more time:

1. A meritocracy is a system in which people can get ahead by virtue of their skill or merit.

2. In order for a meritocracy to function properly there needs to be equality of access, of opportunity. Just as capitalism functions best and most healthily when the flow of information throughout the market is as free as possible and the medium is as transparent as possible, so too can a meritocracy truly only be called that when everyone’s merits have as much possible opportunity to develop, to flourish, and to be showcased.

3. The comedy world is an industry. Industries didn’t spring from nowhere, and they are not new. They were built up by people, over a long period of time, and over that time prejudices and privilege were ensconced in the system, from the ground up. These prejudices and privileges are often unspoken, and so deeply ingrained, widespread, and instinctive that they appear invisible, or seem perhaps just relics of an ancient past. The privileges and prejudices built into a system will almost always favour those who resemble those who built that system. You can look at it in terms of class, race, gender, or anything else, but that is the rule of thumb.

4. For obvious reasons that I won’t go into here, a lot of the institutions and industries that we have in the Western world were built up by white men. It wasn’t fair, and we murdered, destroyed, and subjugated our way to that state of affairs, but nevertheless, that is where we find ourselves. We are the products of our ancestors’ choices. We cannot change what they chose, but we can decide to move in a different direction.

5. The ‘PC thought police wave’ that you seem to be so apprehensive about is quite simply just an attempt by new generations to acknowledge and correct the biases and structural unfairness of those that have gone before. That’s it. There’s no other agenda. Nobody is calling for censorship or a Reign of Terror in the comedy or any other industry (well, a few guillotines might be a welcome sight on Wall Street but that’s another matter). All people are saying is, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone, no matter what their appearance or identity or background, could get a fair shot at whatever they wanted to do, and that their success would be measured solely by their merit.’ So you see, we really want the exact same thing. There is a preponderance of a certain type of person in the higher levels of comedy. All we’re asking is: Why?

6. You are one of the most successful comedians of all time. With that kind of success comes a certain responsibility. A responsibility of awareness and a responsibility of receptiveness—both of which I realise get harder as you get older, but which for precisely that reason need to be cultivated and maintained. So occasionally you will get asked questions. Some of those questions you might not immediately have the answer to, and they might feel like they’re a form of personal attack. They’re not. Don’t raise the barricades. You’re not at risk. Just listen, think, and for fuck’s sake you numpty, engage. You’re a comedian. A sharp mind is meant to be your thing. And a sharp mind needs honing.

If you need help, look to your peers:


Comedy is a weapon. But, like Mr Tompkins says, a weapon meant to deal damage to those who can take it, to the powerful. In short: To aim up, not down.

Thanks for definitely reading.

And what’s the deal with the ossification of thought that comes with age and privilege, huh?! Thank you and goodnight.


Petr Knava lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.