Humoring the political correctness phenomenon

By Carly Charles

Jerry Seinfeld voluntarily walked straight to the chopping block earlier last week when, in a radio interview with ESPN’s Tom Cowherd, he announced that he will not perform on college campuses, citing college students’ almost “creepy” obsession with political correctness as harmful to comedy.

In Seinfeld’s mind, the extreme ends to which college students in particular will seek out and condemn even the most subtle instance of political incorrectness is harmful to comedy and comedic intent.

In a subsequent interview with Seth Meyers, Seinfeld reiterated this when he said to Meyers, “There’s a creepy, PC thing out there that really bothers me.” 

He referenced a joke that refers to the flamboyance of “a gay French king” as evidence of a stereotypical homosexual mannerism that millennial college students might find insensitive and threatening. 

But Seinfeld’s complaint draws attention to the larger question: Does today’s hyper-politically correct culture pose a threat to comedy?

I believe that the force most threatening to comedy isn’t political correctness itself — it’s the notion that uncensored creativity and political correctness cannot exist within the same jokes, or, more largely, within the same personal belief system.

On one hand, policing comedy and demanding that comedians conform to a narrow standard of what the majority of his or her audience feels is commonly accepted and condoned as politically correct inhibits creativity.

And yet, we must also bare in mind that comedy is a reflection of the society in which it resides, and, therefore, we must present comedy as a product of that society — in this instance, a society very sensitive to political correctness and the impact of one’s behaviors.

Turning our gaze away from sensitive subjects in comedy (and, in life) simply because they make us feel “uncomfortable,” makes it far more difficult to learn, grow and gain exposure to the problems we face as a contemporary society.

To gain an insider’s perspective on political correctness in humor, I spoke with Rebecca Tham, junior in LAS. Tham is a member of the University comedy groups Spicy Clamato Improv and The Titanic Players and is co-president of Potted Meat Sketch Comedy.

Tham believes that beyond simply causing laughter, comedy should strive to be memorable and significant to the viewer. A spectator at a comedy show should ideally walk away from the event and say to himself, “It made me laugh, and it made me think.”

One of the ways she said this can be done is by using possibly “offensive” comedy to draw attention to a real social issue.

She referenced a particular sketch one of her groups has performed on numerous occasions in which an overly-cheerful grocery store greeter says hello cheerfully to every customer as they enter the store. When a black family enters the store, the greeter smiles and informs the family that they’ll be treated the same as everyone else — and immediately afterwards orders security to keep a close eye on the supposed subjects of non-prejudice.

How are we to learn about ourselves and the world we live in when we avoid conflict and challenge in the realm of speculative, observational performance? Rather than dismissing political correctness as a threat to comedy, comedians ought to put their unique spin on the social values of their audience and create the opportunity to examine and critique the ever-imperfect world we live in.

It’s arguably pointless to “cross the line” in a random, meaningless way. Causing discomfort “just because,” is tasteless and, in certain cases, cruel. Politically incorrect comedy of this sort is certainly grounds for opposition.

But causing discomfort for a specific thematic or educational purpose is another matter entirely.

Feeling discomfort or shock in response to a disturbing phrase or situation is a way to learn and grow through observation. Using crude or even offensive comedy can be an effective way to draw attention to a real crude or offensive societal problem through a popular entertaining form of literature.

While Jerry Seinfeld may be partially correct in saying that our politically correct culture can be detrimental to comedy, I don’t believe the issue should be dealt with in terms of absolutes. The true danger, in my opinion, is believing that political correctness and edgy, discomforting humor are mutually exclusive aspects of comedy.

Comedy is one means by which the writer and audience can both reflect upon and make light (or dark) of relevant social phenomena. So long as the material presented has thought and purpose behind it, offensiveness can be fair game.

[email protected]