SAN DIEGO — Unlike the theme of the hit television show he helped create, the brouhaha involving Jerry Seinfeld and comedians of color is not about nothing.
For me, it brings to mind a distant memory. Almost 30 years ago, in a dorm room on the Charles River, I found myself in a heated argument with a white roommate over affirmative action. At one point, he insisted that when it came to doling out admissions spots at universities or professional opportunities in the job market, the benefit should go not to the underrepresented minority but to “the most qualified” applicant. The problem was that – in his worldview – the minority and “the most qualified” were never the same person.
Now, Seinfeld seems to be making the same mistake. Apparently, there are those comedians who are funny – the vast majority being white males. Imagine the odds of that. And then over here, in a separate pile, there are those comedians who are African-American, Latino, Asian-American or Native American. And the really enlightened approach is to only draw talent from the funny pile. Anything else is political correctness, which has no place in the serious world of comedy.
We know this because of how defensive Seinfeld became during a recent interview when he was asked on “CBS This Morning” about the criticism that he has received for the glaring lack of racial and ethnic diversity in his quirky new Web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”
The concept is simple enough. Seinfeld pulls up to a fellow comedian’s house in a vintage automobile, and the two then go have coffee and talk about, well, nothing in particular. By the way, it’s usually a “him” given that, out of more than two dozen clips, only two women were invited for coffee. There were also two non-white comedians who made the cut.
Questioned by BuzzFeed Business Editor Peter Lauria about the lack of diversity, Seinfeld got aggressive. “People think it’s the census or something,” he said. “This has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that.”
Again, see above. It’s not either/or. Women and minorities can be funny. And there are plenty of hilarious comedians out there who are women or minorities. Paging George Lopez, Chris Tucker and Margaret Cho.
Seinfeld made things worse when he went on to say that approaching comedy through a racial lens was “anti-comedy” because “It’s more about PC nonsense than ‘Are you making us laugh or not?’”
So looking at the world through a racial lens is “anti-comedy?” Who knew? It seems that Seinfeld has never heard of Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Dick Gregory, or Cheech and Chong. He doesn’t know what he’s missing.
Besides, it’s not like the comedian has the best track record on diversity. As others have noted, “Seinfeld” – the hit show that he co-created with Larry David and which lasted nine seasons (1989-1998) – seems to have been set in a bizarro world version of New York where one of the most diverse cities in the world was depicted as almost exclusively white.
Actually, that’s not totally fair. I’ve seen just about every “Seinfeld” episode, and I remember a few Latino characters. There was the thick-accented cockfighter, the thick-accented hotel maid, the thick-accented street thug, the thick-accented rioters at a Puerto Rican Day parade. You know, ordinary folks – the sort that I run across every day in my community.
Besides, take a look at the Web series. This isn’t “Masterpiece Theater” we’re talking about. What does it take to be qualified for this gig? You have to be funny, enjoy coffee and be willing to get into a car with Jerry Seinfeld.
I would venture a guess that there are, in the vast universe of comedy in America, a number of comedians of color who have the chops to pull this off. It just seems that Seinfeld doesn’t know many of them. He really needs to get out more – and not just for coffee.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.