Every Friday night after filming, Jerry Seinfeld and writer Larry Charles used to drive up to Laurel Canyon in LA and race from there to Sunset. Jerry (Porsche) would give Larry (Saab) a three minute headstart before tearing at “insane” speeds through LA to catch up with him. “I would risk the entire series,” he said later. “My whole life.”
It sometimes feels as though Jerry Seinfeld’s appetite for peril extends beyond motorphilia and into the realm of oratory, where he is un-woke, and oddly prone to putting his foot in his mouth for such a consumately controlled performer.
Let’s look at the evidence. In 2014, he responded to a question from Buzzfeed about the overwhelmingly white, male guest list on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee by saying, “who cares?”
A flurry of opinion pieces and withering Tweets followed.
Then, perhaps irked by his previous run-in with contemporary sensibilities, in 2015 he told ESPN, “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’”
Then he told Seth Meyers that there’s a, “creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me,” because he sensed that an audience disapproved of the term “gay French king” in one of his jokes.
And another flurry.
Jerry Seinfeld is obsessive about his comedy vocation. This is evident in the documentaries he has made, and in his fabled work ethic, and his reputation as a master technician. And more subtly in the way Judd Apatow describes his bare monastical LA apartment when they first met in the 80s, and how in Comedians in Cars he often stops to explain why the thing his guest has just said is funny, right down to the timing of hand movements. And how he openly struggles to speak to people who aren’t comedians. You can even see it in the way he recounts his late night street races – “series” comes before “life.”
Comedy is Jerry Seinfeld’s kingdom, and lately it seems as though he’s been developing a sort of philosophical armour of defiance against the encroachment into his kingdom of criticisms that he considers to be irrelevant, because they’re being made on moral rather than aesthetic grounds.
There’s the interview with Channel 2 in Israel in which he responds to a question about the #metoo movement by calling his female interviewer, Dana Weiss, “honey,” and the the fact that in his recent Netflix documentary, Jerry before Seinfeld, he delivers strangely archaic material about the differences between men and women. And there’s the equivalence he seems to draw in an interview with Stephen Colbert between Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults and Jerry Lewis’s seemingly capricious will arrangements.
Stop. Zoom. Jerry Seinfeld’s interview with Stephen Colbert last year is a milestone in the journey of Jerry Seinfeld. When Stephen Colbert asks him whether he can still listen to Bill Cosby records despite the allegations against him, Jerry Seinfeld says. “Oh yeah,” in his breezy high pitched voice, as if it’s the simplest thing to disregard multiple alleged rapes.
You can hear the audience hesitating, unsure how to respond to the strange spectacle of a beloved comedy legend not particularly minding that Bill Cosby is a rapist. How could the co-creator of the greatest ever sitcom be so out of touch?
Well guess what. Jerry Seinfeld isn’t out of touch. Probably. He’s not just another irritable old man objecting to attempts by the world to deprive him of the sanctuary of his own worldview. There’s a principal at stake, which is that comedy is the only thing that matters to him. As long as he behaves himself in life, thinks Jerry Seinfeld, he shouldn’t have to concern himself with anything else.
“Funny is the world that I live in,” Jerry Seinfeld told Buzzfeed in 2014. “You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested.”
The salutary aspect of this stance is that race, gender, sex, and so on are irrelevant to Jerry Seinfeld. He just doesn’t see those things, which is the textbook definition of somebody who isn’t a racist or a sexist. His only avowed prejudice is against people who aren’t funny, and that’s not a thing.
You can disagree about whether Jerry Seinfeld really is comprehensively colourblind in this way, but I believe that Jerry Seinfeld believes he is, and I for one believe him. If pressed, I expect he would acknowledge that the preponderance of middle-aged white men on his show is symptomatic of the unfair barriers that women and people of colour must overcome when trying to enter the kingdom of comedy. But that’s a downstream problem for somebody else to fix. All Jerry Seinfeld can do is ensure that he only ever judges the person in front of him in terms of how funny they are, and not their sex, background, or skin colour.
Unfortunately – but actually fortunately – Jerry Seinfeld’s armour is pregnable. In the next segment of his interview with Stephen Colbert, after the commercials, Jerry Seinfeld abruptly changes his mind about Bill Cosby.
It may be that Stephen Colbert leaned across to him while the cameras were off and urged him to repent, or Jerry Seinfeld may have felt in his waters that he had gone too far, at the wrong time, and a Twitterstorm was coming, which, after years of stumbling into controversies, he no longer had the resilience to withstand.
Either way, he hastily crowbarred a retraction into the interview as soon as the lights came on, rushing it out before Stephen Colbert had a chance to change the subject. There follows a slightly uncomfortable exchange in which the normally suave Jerry Seinfeld seems to flounder and Stephen Colbert gets all the laughs. The balance of power between the two men visibly shifts as Stephen Colbert steers Jerry Seinfeld towards a repudiation of his entire philosophy. Observed through metaphor-sensitive spectacles, Jerry Seinfeld would at this point dejectedly remove his philosophical armour and join the shuffling grey PC brigade, like Winston Smith professing his love for Big Brother.
The title of this video on the Late Show’s YouTube channel is, “Jerry Seinfeld Is Becoming ‘Modern’ Seinfeld”.
A confession. Following Jerry Seinfeld makes me nervous because I’ve been quietly rooting for him. While admittedly there are conspicuous differences between us, Jerry Seinfeld appears to have been going on the same emotional and intellectual journey as I have over the last few years.
“But should we separate it or shouldn’t we separate it?” he says to Stephen Colbert, in one last valiant effort to keep the flame of his rebellion alive. “The art, or the work, from the man?”
Though I hesitate to admit it, this is exactly what I spent the weekend pondering after Louis CK confessed to sexual misconduct last November. I know it’s not the story, and I know people got hurt, but I just couldn’t accept, and still can’t, that the appalling things Louis CK did in front of several women will permanently invalidate the edifying and hilarious things he said on stage – even though some of the things he said on stage seemed to originate in the things he did.
“It’s made up, it’s material, come on,” says Jerry Seinfeld, re Bill Cosby, to an unmoved Stephen Colbert, his last swing.
“I know that, but part of him was the charming fatherly figure too, and all of that is destroyed.”
“Alright. You’re right. I’ll change my mind.”
Earlier, in Israel, Dana Weiss asks Jerry Seinfeld about Louis CK. “It’s terrible,” he replies, before quickly moving on to the aspect of the affair that most preoccupies him. “I mean, these behaviours don’t even make sense sexually.”
Ever in lockstep with Jerry Seinfeld, I said this too. I simply don’t understand how masturbating in front of an unhappy woman in a semi-public setting could be enjoyable. But I’m aware that by saying that I’m sidestepping the collective narrative and fixating on a detail, which is also what Jerry Seinfeld is doing, because that’s the aspect of the scandal that interests us, or because we don’t want to feel as though peer pressure is dictating our views, or a bit of both.
You could argue that Jerry Seinfeld’s stubborn resistance to PC sensibilities is just a symptom of old age. Progress and fashion can turn uncontroversial beliefs into contentious ones almost overnight. When I was younger, the expression that most neatly summed up the relationship between the sexes for everybody was the book title. “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” Not only is this kind of thinking borderline hateful nowadays, but it’s not even clear that there are two sexes. Change like that can be discombobulating to a well-meaning person of advancing years.
But I don’t think that’s what’s happening with Jerry Seinfeld. I think he’s fundamentally a decent person. I don’t think he endorses the white partriachal worldview that’s under attack. “One door closes, another opens,” he told David Remnick at the New Yorker Festival. “There’s always a joke; you’ve just got to find it.”
But there it is, still. The opening and closing doors in this analogy are a reference to heroic activism following dreadful abuse and injustice, yet Jerry Seinfeld only seems to care which jokes can make it through. He can’t see beyond comedy. And with all the suffering in the world. Shame on him!
Except, that’s okay, isn’t it? Is it? I don’t know. I think so. He can get to Sunset at his own pace as long as he doesn’t crash into anybody. Maybe. Maybe not. Disappointingly, I still don’t have a conclusion to this argument.