Jerry Seinfeld is wrong about the ‘extreme left’ ruining comedy

‘Look there! A woke!’: Jerry Seinfeld performs onstage in 2023 (Getty)
‘Look there! A woke!’: Jerry Seinfeld performs onstage in 2023 (Getty)

What’s the deal with wokeness?” Jerry Seinfeld probably whispers to himself while reclining in his bathtub of money. Over the course of his 40-plus years in showbusiness, the billionaire observational comedian and actor – whose eponymous Nineties sitcom Seinfeld is the blueprint for every dark comedy about miserable people that came after it – has embodied a number of different guises. The stand-up. The sitcom star. The maker of Bee Movie. And now he’s embraced another persona, the kind that truthfully must be resisted by all: the late-in-life scold.

Speaking to The New Yorker, Seinfeld rallied against the apparent death of TV comedy, blaming “the extreme left [and] PC crap and people worrying so much about offending other people”. He continued: “When you write a script, and it goes into four or five different hands, committees, groups, ‘Here’s our thought about this joke,’ well, that’s the end of your comedy.”

If you feel like you’ve heard Seinfeld say this already, you’re probably just confusing him with one of the other yesteryear comics who’ve mounted impassioned condemnations of cancel culture. John Cleese, Dave Chappelle, Jimmy Carr, Ricky Gervais and French and Saunders have all insisted they can’t say anything any more, usually from the stages of their Netflix specials or their GB News chat shows. For funny people of a certain age, raging against the phantom comedy-killer has become the equivalent of retirees buying a sports car – a reactionary inevitability, fuelled less by society and more by sheer panic over not being as good and/or as relevant as you once were. It exposes nothing but a deep lack of curiosity about the world, about new voices and new ideas.

Seinfeld’s claims are particularly annoying, though. If it feels as if there’s been a dearth of new comedy on TV lately, it’s probably to do with our modern-day viewing habits, which favour comforting nostalgia over new ideas. If you’re Netflix, why bother investing money in a potentially unpopular new sitcom when millions are happy to watch old episodes of Friends, The Office and, oh look, Seinfeld instead? That a show like Sex and the City has been embraced by Generation Z upon its arrival on Netflix USdespite panic that they’d rush to “cancel” it – should also put to bed the claim that young people can’t decipher context, or that a single dodgy joke from decades ago will break their brains.

Even more aggravating, though, is that Seinfeld is such a bizarre person to launch into this kind of polemic. His humour has never had a particular bite to it – his stock has been low-key observations, told cannily and tightly. Politics have been a no-no. Bad language, too. No one has ever watched a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up special and had to clutch their pearls in horror.

The darkness of Seinfeld, the petty arguments, bitter judgments and sheer nastiness of its characters stems from its co-creator Larry David, and not its leading man. And David has continued in that mode for decades – his Seinfeld follow-up Curb Your Enthusiasm only just came to an end after more than 20 years on the air. Seinfeld spawn is everywhere, too – from the works of Nathan Fielder and Julia Davis, to series such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I Hate Suzie, The White Lotus, The Curse and even Succession. Mean, hard-edged comedy television, in both half-hour and hour-long forms, still exists – you just have to look for it.

There’s also a slight irony to the fact that Seinfeld’s comments arrive just as it was revealed that those politically correct, “wokerati” finger-waggers once came after Seinfeld itself – and the creators entirely acquiesced to their concerns. Mysteriously leaked online earlier this month, and then shared on Reddit, was the script for “The Gun”, an episode of the show that never made it past the draft stage in 1991 after members of the cast and crew – as well as the show’s network NBC – expressed their unease with the material. In it, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine tries to buy a firearm for protection, while Michael Richards’s Kramer is accused of fabricating a tale of mile-high club sexcapades with a steward.

Shock comedy: Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards in an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ (Shutterstock)
Shock comedy: Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards in an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ (Shutterstock)

“In my opinion, guns aren’t funny,” the episode’s would-be director Tom Cherones once said. Larry Charles, who scripted the episode, also admitted to “pushing the envelope” too far, and told The Daily Beast last week that he regretted some of the “misogynist language” in his draft. The script is almost Gervaisian in its eagerness to be outrageous – it’s no real surprise that everyone involved had cold feet.

But the decision to abandon “The Gun” also cements the fact that trying out material, and figuring out whether it’s working, is very much part of comedy. Seinfeld seems under the impression that this kind of humming and hawing is an unwelcome product of today’s sensibilities, that it’s a form of censorship to think a joke feels “off” and then axe it entirely. What a bleak worldview, at odds with history, and yet another regressive, knee-jerk judgment of both leftist and young audiences by a comedy great who should really know better.

Seinfeld is giving interviews to promote his new film, by the way. Unfrosted, hitting Netflix on Friday, is about the birth of the popular American breakfast snack known as the Pop-Tart. I’m guessing, based on his comments, it’ll be a real, two-middle-fingers-up-to-political-correctness hootenanny, right? Anything less won’t suffice.