In the last year or so a lot of comedians, particularly of a certain age, started speaking out against millennial audiences, who in their opinion, are killing humour with their growing list of what is now politically incorrect to talk about. Like a good millennial, I sat through a number of these complaining comedians on Youtube, stewing with disagreement. But it didn't really hit the mainstream until comedy legends like Seinfeld decided to join it.
Seinfeld tells of his experience of a joke that bombs with the 'college campus type' crowds. "The way you scroll through your phone like a gay, French king" is the punchline to the joke. Seinfeld reports being able to feel the opinion of the audience: "what do you mean, gay?"
"There's a creepy, PC thing going on out there that really bothers me," he says.
Let's contrast this with the kind of comedian who is very popular with the audience he's talking about, the not at all PC Louis CK.
Here he is talking about how much he misses the word 'faggot'.
Political correctness was very much a 90s movement. Needless to say, a white comedian talking about words like 'faggot' and 'nigger' wouldn't have felt comfortable to a mainstream audience at that time. Regardless of why they were being said. Ironically, Seinfeld is very associated with this era. It was a time when he was hugely popular, and one of the things he was most known for was his refusal to even swear on stage. So by the standards of the 'political correctness' movement, Louis CK is hugely more offensive than Seinfeld. It wouldn't even be a question.
Today things have pretty much reversed. That's the problem with these complaining comedians. They have failed to notice that we're not actually living in a time of 'political correctness' anymore, we're living in a time of 'political correctness debate', there's a subtle, but substantial difference between the two.
Why can Louis say 'Faggot' on stage and still be very popular with a modern, mainstream audience? Because of how he's talking about it. Seinfeld's joke bombs because it relies on ignoring debate around LGBT issues. You're just supposed to agree 'gay' is a funny word, or that gay = flamboyant is both true and funny. You're not supposed to think too much about it, he's appealing to subconscious biases.
And indeed... any small amount of thinking about it will beg the question 'what the hell is a gay French King, anyway? Is that a thing?'
Louis CK on the other hand fully engages with a modern audiences desire to debate these issues. He's not saying 'faggot' in the hope that it'll appeal to some unconscious bias you have against homosexuals. He want to talk in a challenging way about the two meanings of the word. Now, no doubt there are still some PC people out there who don't like his crassness, or find his conclusions offensive. But his popularity with millennials shows that over all that's not an issues.
Millennials like being challenged by Louis CK. When he did his episode of Louie called 'So did the Fat Lady', where his character is ashamed to date an overweight woman, I read a lot of feminist pieces that praised the episode for asking interesting questions. Not a single one of the articles I read agreed with him wholeheartedly. Nevertheless, he wasn't vilified, because he's asking questions and aware of right and wrong ways of treating people as he does so.
In his new show Horace and Pete, he again pries into dating biases, this time looking at transgender issues. His character Horace is concerned he's slept with a transwoman. I had to pause before sharing it on Facebook, as I found it interesting, but I wasn't sure if it could offend any of the transgender people in my life. His stuff is never clean, never pandering to what people want to hear. 'Edgy' has become a word I can't take very seriously, but his stuff is 'edgy'. But it does, in a very real way--perhaps for this very reason--embodies the conversations we want to be having at the moment.
Is Seinfeld being edgy? No. That's not anyone's problem with what he's doing. The problem with Seinfeld is he embodies the attitude of not wanting to think about the issues around what is being said. Worse, he feels entitled to say what he wants without challenge. These people often cite freedom of speech, but there's no freedom in privileged people saying what they want and no one being able to question them.
Sarah Silverman spoke last year about her own annoyance at the amount of criticism that a comedian can now get over every little thing they say. But that she had come to realise she was acting like older comedians when she was young, who offended her, because they refused not to called black people niggers on stage. I think that pretty much sums it up.
What's funny will change with cultures evolving ideas on morality. That's a reality. It doesn't mean you have to pander to what people want to be interesting, it just means you have to be smart about it. Has comedy died? No not at all, it's pretty strong at the moment. Has a generation of comedians started to die, on the other hand? Inevitably, yes. As has happened before, as will happen again.