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.
One thought on ““The Jerry Seinfeld””
I see the same problem myself sometimes. A person will prioritize one thing as their celebrated cause. The thing that defines them to themselves, the lens through which they see everything. Some people can haul around multiple lenses and swap them out, sometimes really quickly, but a lot of people don’t.
A conspiracy theorist will hear a story, and immediately scrounge around his brain and figure out how it fits in his warped worldview, and how it’s either a secret thing he can feel self-important about knowing or a hoax perpetrated by his ideological enemies.
A social justice warrior will pick apart, examine, inspect, view from every possible angle, to detect and impugn anything they feel is problematic and add it to their little black book of crusade targets. Anyone who isn’t 100% on board is automatically an enemy and subject to their imperishable fury.
A libertarian might see, in an expression, only the free speech issues because that’s strictly the only thing he thinks is important. He’s a strict Constitutional literalist (which is easy, and feels rewarding, because learning the 99.99…% of history and law that exists outside the Constitution and Bill of Rights is difficult and complicated). He’s unmoved by the self-evident examples of lawful and appropriate abridgment of the 1st Amendment: libel/slander, death threats, fraud, unethical marketing claims, consumer rights to accurate product labels, shouting “fire” in a theater. He can’t care for a moment about injustice stemming from speech because he doesn’t want to let the reality of the more complex situation intrude upon and possibly alter his absolutist stance.
I care about politics. Somehow Americans seem cowed and oversensitive about certain topics, politics included, and nobody is willing to actually talk about it. Or has the skills needed to talk instead of scream about it. Civics education is in the toilet, and it’s exhausting to be in a conversation with an antagonist so certain about things despite massive knowledge gaps. So I’m not surprised to find that tons of people I encounter are supremely uninterested in talking politics. They want to absorb their chosen media, talk anonymously online in their chosen echo chamber, and slither out of the voting booth with the clear conscience that comes from never being exposed to different ideas.
Specific to Seinfeld, I can see where he’s coming from. He worked hard, and also hit the jackpot (hopefully he isn’t one of those people who thinks 100% of his success was a result of his work). He doesn’t need to bow to the collective authority of a million mediocre online shit-talking vigilantes. If he makes a show, he can hire a dozen staffers to organize it; he isn’t signing up to an elected office where a million people vote on it. He doesn’t have constituents. He has the freedom to just make a thing and put it out there, which is what every artist wants.
(And I will say, that’s what anyone who loves art wants. More art, from the artist’s soul, the best they can produce. Constraints sometimes produce better or different art, but fear of a mob rarely does. Someone who desperately wants artists to make only art that passes through their censorship is not a lover of art, but of power.)
(Is it reasonable for a raft of keyboard jockeys to have a say in what a star does, when the star doesn’t have a say in what they do? If he declines to control them, maybe that should protect him from their control over him.)
When a mob takes online vengeance on behalf of a flashing victim, and a comedian loses millions of dollars, how different is that from a mob breaking into the homes of Enron executives and stealing everything? There’s righteous glee in seeing an unpunished villain come to ruin, but the reason we have a justice system is because a vigilante mob, angry on behalf of victims, bereft of most evidence, and totally untrained in logic, ethics, law, and wisdom are not the best-qualified judges. And it’s best to err for an injustice that sees a criminal go free than for the injustice of destroying an innocent person, whereas vigilantes prefer the opposite and will even punish without proof because he’s probably a bad guy somehow. I can absolutely see someone confronted with credible threats by a mob, wanting to reject their illegitimate and dangerous authority. Especially if, as above, he’s insulated from the force they can exert on him.
As for Cosby / the work vs. the artist, sensitive people will find it distasteful or enraging to see someone they know committed crimes. We can all pick a few choice politicians we hate to see. But assume the material itself is not otherwise controlled by the government. It’s wonderful, then, that we aren’t forced to buy Cosby material. If the agitator’s next step is to try to remove the material from circulation, that’s something they’re doing to everyone who might want to watch it, and we have to ask whether the right of the censoring agitator to prevent others from seeing what they don’t like, overwhelms the right of everyone else to choose to watch it.
But from that social justice agitator’s perspective, the thing they care about most in the world is disincentivizing harmful sexual behavior by people in power because those crimes weren’t being prosecuted. Guaranteed, there are some execs out there who stopped harassing / raping their employees out of fear they’d be exposed and cancelled, which is of course a good outcome. But because that’s their celebrated cause, their lens, they can’t be trusted to take anything else into account. So enraged, their aura of flames renders them untouchable, distorts their view, obscures harm they cause, but they’re unconcerned because it gives them the power to burn with a touch.