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State, national columnists

Jerry Seinfeld’s bad joke

By From page A11 | February 13, 2014

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 [email protected]

Ruben Navarrette


Discussion | 7 comments

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  • my2centsFebruary 13, 2014 - 5:05 am

    The phenomenon Navarette discusses in this article is not exclusive to Jerry Seinfeld. I've noticed that not that many people have diversity within their pool of friends. I think the ability for people to socialize comfortably amoung different races and genders is actually a pretty rare art. It is acquired in many ways, such as through one's environment from a young age, parents who celebrate culture, music and food of many races, cultures and genders, and a general love of people. Most People spend the majority of their time focusing on ways others are different from them which can foster fear and tension. I have even found that when one of us rare individuals with a diverse group of friends tries to bring along a friend of a different race or culture to a family or social event, it changes the dynamic of the group. That is ok, but it can be uncomfortable and misleading when one is defined by what they look like. I really don't see Jerry Seinfeld as the type of guy who, if dropped in the middle of a group of Mexican or African American men, would be comfortable. The reverse is often true as well. I know a lot of friends who are not white who would be equally uncomfortable dropped in the middle of a group of white people. I feel sort of sad for these people. They miss out on so much of the world. It is not always easy to venture out of your comfort zone in friendships, but it is almost always a worthwhile adventure.

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  • JBFebruary 13, 2014 - 6:12 am

    It is ok to have have all black schools like Grambling and nothing is said about that.It is perfectly acceptable. All black fraternities are good. If a white person does something that does not involve being diversified these days they are looked at as insensitive and closed minded why?

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  • Teach5thFebruary 13, 2014 - 7:12 am

    Looking at this article takes me back to talks of affirmative action in hiring firefighters and in college admissions. Ruben writes that when looking at affirmative action the " most qualified" and the " minority" we're never the same person. I remember discussions years ago about affirmative action and firefighters. Seems like there just weren't enough women firefighters. The discussions always got down to "if your 250 lb. father was in a burning building, who would you want to try to save him?" The logical answer was "the most qualified person". Not much conversation was necessary after that. Now, we have comedians coming under fire. I watch old Seinfeld episodes nightly. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are very funny writers. They have a right to use whoever they choose since they're the ones paying. Jerry Seinfeld might be "defensive" in Ruben's eyes. Maybe it's not him being defensive - maybe he, like so many other Americans, is tired of all the political correct nonsense and simply told it like it is. Not that there's anything wrong with that:)

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  • CD BrooksFebruary 13, 2014 - 7:37 am

    Teach5th, well said we agree on something! :)

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  • The MisterFebruary 13, 2014 - 7:24 am

    Ummm... Bill Cosby? Here's a thought... if the minority comedians would refrain from bad language and overt sexual content, perhaps more people would find them funny. Perhaps, too, if more minorities converted to Judaism, like Sammy Davis Jr, then they would be allowed to become more popular. Also, today's comedy is not nearly as funny as comedy from the old days. Leno was no where near as funny as Carson. A lot has to do with the dumbing down of comedy... comedy lacks wit lately. I don't find them funny because they are minorities, I don't find them funny because they aren't funny.

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  • patrickFebruary 13, 2014 - 3:36 pm

    suppose tv shows should get rid of the canned laughter. just use live audiences. that should be proof of funny.

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  • MarkFebruary 13, 2014 - 10:16 am

    Seinfield has a show, that show ultimately is to attract viewers, which in turn attracts sponsorship which makes him money. He's going to pick the people that he (or his producers) think are going to attract the most viewers. Is it Seinfield's fault if the majority of minority comedians aren't considered funny/interesting enough to be brought on the show? I don't like a lot of today's comedians, not because of their race/skin color/country of origin/whatever but because they aren't funny to me with their foul language, overtly sexual content or just stupid jokes. if we're to the point where we're worrying about what comedian Seinfield brings on his show, then we must have solved a lot of really important issues, like the national debt, poverty, world peace to name a few.

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