A collision of arrogance, youth and political correctness

There is perhaps no more insufferable creature on the planet than a college student who thinks himself wise.

An arrogance that outpaces actual knowledge or experience is sometimes necessary when a person is first making his way in the world; the “fake it till you make it” strategy is one that most of us have deployed to some extent at the dawn of adulthood. But care should be taken to be sure the gap between the two doesn’t get too wide lest the inevitable fall to earth becomes too much to bear.

Such a creature has entered the conversation about comedy, colleges and political correctness that has been swirling around Jerry Seinfeld for the last week or so.

If you haven’t been following the story, here’s brief recap: Seinfeld commented, in a radio interview with ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, that he and a number of accomplished comedians like him — Chris Rock, for example — no longer play colleges because the audiences are too politically correct and easily offended. “They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist’; ‘That’s sexist’; ‘That’s prejudice.’” Seinfeld lamented. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The comments echoed a theme that came up a few years ago for Mr. Seinfeld when an interviewer wondered why the first 10 guests on his web series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee (which is exceptional, by the way) were all white men. At the time, Seinfeld’s typically Seinfeld-ian response was to shrug it off. It’s just a silly comedy show, after all. Why does everything have to reflect an exact racial/gender breakdown of the American populace?

Seinfeld returned to the theme recently during an interview on Seth Meyers’ late night show and again in a conversation with Steve Harvey, also on CICGC. In each case, Seinfeld offered the same lament: political correctness is run amok and it’s hurting comedy. What can’t everyone just relax and enjoy a little levity?

Enter Anthony Berteaux, a sophomore at the San Diego State University who offered, via The Huffington Post, some advice to Mr. Seinfeld on how he could modify his comedy to better suit the sensibilities of the earnest youngsters matriculating at America’s colleges and universities. “It isn’t so much that college students are too politically correct,” Mr. Berteaux suggested, “it’s that comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive.”

Now, presumably Mr. Bertreaux is all of 19 or 20 years old so, though people in my demographic might be loathe to admit it, it’s possible that a person his age has never actually seen Seinfeld, which would have aired its last season when he was 3. But if you are going to profess expertise in “the role that provocative comedy holds today in a progressive world” and offer instruction on what does and does not “work as humor”, you might want to do a little research on who you are talking to.

Jerry Seinfeld, as most humans of a certain age know, is one of the world’s most successful comedians. He needs no instruction how to find the funny. He’s been delivering funny to audiences for four decades and his recent foray into web comedy proves he has not lost his touch. And the suggestion that Mr. Seinfeld might want to curb the crassness and provocative nature of his comedy is a little like telling Julie Andrews to dial back the lewdness. (I know, another reference that college sophomores won’t get — look it up).

But Mr. Bertreaux trudges on, undeterred by his apparent unfamiliarity with his subject, to suggest a comic that Mr. Seinfeld might be wise to emulate in order to present a brand of comedy that is palatable to the current college sensibilities. The paragon of millennial-friendly comedy he offers: Amy Schumer.

Now, Amy Schumer is a popular comic and a rising star in the comedy world. But, recognizing that comedy is subjective and reasonable people are entitled to differ on what strikes their particular funny bone, it’s fair to say that there is not a single person on the planet, including I suspect Ms. Schumer herself, who would suggest that Amy Schumer is a better comedian than Jerry Seinfeld.

Bertreaux’s explanation for highlighting Schumer as the taste of a new generation is that her comedy, while unquestionably crass and unapologetically provocative, carries with it a progressive social message that college-age audiences find agreeable and therefore redeeming.

The problem is that Mr. Bertreaux’s is in such a rush to pontificate that he misses the entire point. If every bit of information you receive, comedic or otherwise, is forced through a filter of political correctness — processed and analyzed for sexism or racism or ageism — and then scoured for a determination of whether any identified –ism is, in fact, acceptable because it’s being delivered ironically and in conjunction with a pre-approved social message, then you have eliminated any hope that the comic has of making you laugh, which is all the comic cares about.

That is the problem with Mr. Bertreaux and the college kids he wants so desperately to defend. They are so conditioned to see life through a lens of accusation and offense, so saturated with trigger warnings and microagressions, that they are incapable of just laughing something off.

The scary part is that these are the people who will be making the rules in the not-to-distant future. If we don’t figure out a way to temper their hyper-sensitivity, the world of tomorrow will be a very humorless place.

So for everyone’s sake, we beg you: lighten up, Mr. Bertreaux. It’s just a joke.