Dean Obeidallah: Jerry Seinfeld is right in that college students can be very politically correct
But he shouldn't blame college students for wanting comedy that fits their own sensibilities
Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s weekly program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean’s Report. He’s also the co-director of the documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!” Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
“What’s the deal with political correctness?” That line should be said in the voice and cadence of Jerry Seinfeld.
You see, back in 2014, Seinfeld railed against political correctness when asked why guests on his “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” Web series were mostly white men. He also remarked that the idea pop culture has to “represent the actual pie chart of America” is “PC nonsense.” Rather, the focus should be, “Are you making us laugh or not?”
Well, Seinfeld is at it again. This time the comedian’s focus is political correctness among college students. Seinfeld told ESPN radio recently, “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’ ” He added that younger people “just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what … they’re talking about.”
On the one hand, Seinfeld is 100% correct. On the other hand, he is way, way off.
Seinfeld is right that college students can be very PC. I have seen it firsthand when I performed standup comedy or gave lectures on college campuses. College students react to jokes about issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation differently than many people in their 40s, 50s and older. In fact, on several occasions, college students have come up to me after shows to explain that they were “concerned” with one of my jokes. Typically, they had read something into the joke that I had not intended. We would discuss the joke, but they never demanded I stop telling it.
Where Seinfeld and I disagree is that I don’t see “political correctness” as being inherently bad – unless it goes way overboard. To me, “political correctness” is about being respectful to minorities – be it based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
And where I greatly disagree with Seinfeld is that based on my experiences of performing on college campuses, I believe young adults for the most part really get racism, sexism, and other – isms.
For example, I have been in shows where comedians told very sexist or homophobic jokes. These same jokes would elicit good laughs in comedy clubs, but were met with numerous objections by college students. The students have every right to voice their views about these jokes.
I think what Seinfeld is missing is the “why” behind the reactions of college students.
Chris Rock summed it up well in December when he announced he would no longer play colleges because the students are too PC. Rock said that because of the way kids are raised today, you can’t even mention race: “You can’t say ‘The black kid over there.’ No, it’s ‘The guy with the red shoes.’ ”
Rock is right that people are raised differently today. Kids nowadays grow up in more multicultural nation than Seinfeld, Rock or I did. I have joked that I grew up in a town where the diversity was limited to two groups: You were either Italian or you were my father. (He was of Arab heritage while my mother is Sicilian.)
When I was a kid, if someone told a joke about other ethnicities or races, we would simply laugh if the joke was funny. No one analyzed it; we never would have thought of doing that. Partly, it’s because the butt of the jokes were groups of people we didn’t know personally.
Flash forward to today. Even in seventh grade – as my niece informed me – students are taught to be sensitive toward other races and cultures. This impacts not only the way they view the world, but also their view of comedy.
So what Seinfeld calls “political correctness” can be better described as a generation gap. Comedy tastes evolve to reflect the cultural norms of the time. It’s why comedians from the 1950s like Henny Youngman – famous for his “Take my wife … please” joke – wasn’t popular with younger people in the late 1960s. That generation gravitated toward comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin who weren’t telling jokes about wives, but about things like race and politics.
Every comedian has a choice to perform at colleges. But don’t blame college students for wanting comedy that fits their own sensibilities. Why should any audience have to change their comedy tastes to fit a comedian’s act?