Seinfeld Can Have Opinions on Comedy

In 2019 I remember seeing quotes from writer-director Todd Phillips on why he had pivoted to more serious films, like his then forthcoming Joker.  Phillips was the man behind two of the best comedies of the last quarter century – Old School and The Hangover.  He also, along with Judd Apatow, may have represented the last comedy film giants, which says a lot about our culture. We went from Mel Brooks to Zucker & Abrams to Harold Ramis to the Farrelly Brothers and Ben Stiller to Phillips and Apatow.  I am probably missing some big people in there, but the point is for close to 50 years there were writers and directors who defined their respective decade(s) for comedy movies.  So it is fair for someone to ask why this stopped in the last decade.

One reason, in my opinion, is the increasing reliance on superhero and big tent movies for both revenue and comic relief, which has rendered the big comedy movie a less attractive investment.  Another reason is the comedy sensibilities of younger people appear underdeveloped at best and completely lacking at worst (Thor and Tik Tok cannot be the main sources of comedy for humor to grow and survive – sorry to young people, including my nephew, but “that’s facts”).  And then there is the reliable, and heavy over-reliance, on blanketly blaming “wokeness.”  Wokeness has become this magical complaint that seems impervious to the most common complaint about overdone comedy from comedians – that it is HACK.  It seems on this one topic and term, there is no exhausting the bro comedians, the elder curmudgeons like Bill Maher and every other simplistic troll who just wants an easy answer to why things are not the same as they were 10 or 50 years ago in with comedy.  There is such little nuance and creativity, even in the complaining that a reasonable person could ask – this is neither funny, nor original – is the only reason your keep using valuable stage or screen time to lament this is because there is a sizeable portion of the audience who just like simple complaints repeated?  I don’t know, let’s ask a Trump rally hearing Trump share the same 4 phrases and 5 complaints for the 7th straight year of his Hateful Moron gatherings.

That said, I am not unsympathetic to some nuanced complaints about political correctness, as I have had numerous issues with many of my most vocal, least invested “fans” about jokes they do not like.  Conflating good comedy with righteous opinions, however, is bad for comedy and not great for society.  I feel like wokeness is maybe 10% of the problem and gets 95% of the blame.  But when a comedy legend or genius is offering their genuine opinion on a shift in comedy, based on their vast experience, it is worth at least listening and considering, even if you disagree.

So in Phillips’ case, which is sort of a precursor to the current Internet rage/love being showered on Jerry Seinfeld, he had said he felt like he couldn’t make comedies anymore because things had gotten too woke (or whatever word he used in an interview). What followed from that, on the Internet, was a barrage of “the guy with the unfunny frat movies can’t make movies now?” Now, Phillips did use certain language in his movies that would, understandable to me (some of you may still think being able to use homophobic slurs in 2024 is what stands between us and 1984), be out of step and maybe even frowned upon today.  But his movies were massive hits across many demographics and were defining comedies for their time.  The revisionist history that vocal, and often truly unfunny people, need to put forward to make their disagreement with a comedy writer a moral crusade is borderline pathetic.  If Todd Phillips has an opinion on comedy, he has more than earned the right to share it and have it considered, even if you ultimately disagree.  And of course, no one is “stopping him” from speaking, but I think you know what I mean.

And then Phillips’ film Joker made $1 billion and was nominated for 10 Oscars.  Clearly he has no business in Hollywood.

That brings me to the comedy complaint du jour – Jerry Seinfeld.  Seinfeld recently said, during the promotional tour for his new movie, Unfrosted (confession – I watched it last night expecting to hate it. I didn’t. It was mostly fun, occasionally funny and campy in a Muppets Show sort of way – I can see why people might have not liked it, but I think it’s bad ratings and reviews may be influenced by his current bete noire status), that he believed wokeness and PC crap is hindering television comedy (I had listened to the interview on the New Yorker podcast before the “controversy” broke out, but did not think it was worth more than half an eye roll and a “good interview, disagree on that point” from me.

                                                       Jerry Seinfeld in Unfrosted

But what has now predictably followed is a series of complaints about Seinfeld’s entire career and a listing of all the shows that prove Seinfeld wrong.

On the first point, I do believe Curb Your Enthusiasm proved definitively that Larry David was perhaps the Simon to Seinfeld’s Garfunkel or his Stephen Merchant to Jerry’s Gervais.  But that does not erase Seinfeld’s deep contribution to American television and comedy history with Seinfeld.  And his stand up career is legendary, even if he remains a stickler for well-crafted jokes instead of producing glorified podcast episodes as annual “specials.”  And loads of people enjoy his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  I can understand not being a fan of Seinfeld and/or disagreeing with his take here.  But this need to wholly erase a well-earned legacy to simply bolster a current disagreement is Phillips all over again multiplied by five.

But the second part, where people are presenting all the shows that prove Seinfeld wrong… yes they exist (from Eastbound and Down (well not that recent, but I need to always praise it) to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to The Other Two there have been exceptional comedies recently that focus on terrible people and decidedly non-PC language and situations.  But to defend Seinfeld, those comedies are now niche, like so much other great art (see the store page of this very site to purchase and stream such brilliant, yet disappointingly niche content).  What have the best comedies at the Emmys been the last 5 years? Ted Lasso. Schitt’s Creek. The Bear. The last great FUNNY comedy to win best comedy at the Emmys was Veep. (But J-L, you are forgetting about Fleabag!  Am I?)  The culture clearly has embraced nice (or in the case of The Bear, drama?) to be their celebrated comedies. Laughter has given way to feel good, at least in what we have recently celebrated.  So is Seinfeld wrong? In my opinion, yes. But he is not completely without merit if you see how people respond to Todd Phillips or what shows they reward with comedy awards.  And the fact that some of the best and most successful comedy work on TV in the last decade has been with Seinfeld alums Larry David and Julia-Louis Dreyfuss (the only J-L I put above me and J-Lo in the J-L GOAT discussion) would only further bias Seinfeld (understandably) to his show and era.

So people can agree or disagree with Seinfeld, but I believe, just like science and other disciplines there are people who could be considered experts in comedy. In fact, just because Seinfeld chose to work clean only strengthens his credibility to speak on this issue. He is not as self-interested as another comedian might be when he expresses this. Rather, he seems to be expressing a concern for the course he sees comedy taking in general, not his personal comedy.  Comedy is, of course more subjective than math or science, but if you with one tweet or thread condemn Jerry Seinfeld as out of touch with comedy and in the next post hail Ted Lasso as the proof that Seinfeld is wrong on comedy, then we can at least all agree that you are not that expert.