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Jerry Seinfeld is right that TV comedy isn’t funny any more - just not about why

The comedian blames ‘PC crap’ and the ‘extreme left’ but spineless sitcom isn’t a product solely of the so-called Great Awokening of the 2010s

In an interview with the New Yorker, Jerry Seinfeld voiced the shared anxiety of every older comedian. That because of the “extreme left” and “PC crap”, TV comedy, in particular, is suffering a crisis of conscience. Studios are afraid to offend their audiences; sensitivity readers smooth the rough edges off the scripts, failing to realise that that is where the humour lies; the demands of contemporary politics are simply incompatible with being funny.

He recalls one of the great Seinfeld gags. The endlessly enterprising Kramer comes up with a clever new wheeze: getting homeless people to pull rickshaws because – as he reminds the gang – “they’re outside anyway”. Seinfeld queries whether a joke like that would make it on the air today; his scepticism is probably fair. It is hard not to be reminded, too, of the famous episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (in some ways a spiritual successor to Seinfeld) where the extremely Jewish Larry David becomes enamoured of a Palestinian chicken joint and is faced with an existential debate between his faith and his appetite. A lot of the best work of David and Seinfeld would be lost at the altar of contemporary mores.

So, Seinfeld is right about the crisis facing the industry but he is hardly at the cutting edge of the issue. Since the 2010s, networks have been thronged with sitcoms that are nice but fundamentally a little woolly. The cable hit Parks and Recreation is a cheering depiction of good-natured employees in the local government of an American flyover state. Brooklyn 99 is a worthy cop sitcom that moralised a little too heavily about police brutality for it to be funny. The Simpsons (now in its 36th season) has entirely lost its teeth: Homer is no longer a deadbeat dad who strangles his son; the well crafted Apu – an Indian convenience store clerk – has effectively been written out for fear of indulging a racist stereotype.

But the spineless sitcom isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, nor the sole product of the so-called Great Awokening of the 2010s. In fact, The Simpsons was originally brought into the world as a sharp antidote to the staid and priggish family sitcoms deemed suitable for the sensibilities of middle America: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Cosby Show, Family Ties. I am thoroughly unconvinced that the world is more sensitive now than it ever has been. Instead, it seems the auteurs are simply happier to capitulate to its worthy audiences; the studios a little less forgiving of jokes about the homeless or the propriety of wearing a yarmulke in a Palestinian restaurant.


This is precisely why Curb Your Enthusiasmtaken off the air after 24 years just last month – will always be remembered among the greats. It was perfectly capable of spotting the cultural weather and political anxieties. It was also simply uninterested in compromising its principles to satisfy them. Seinfeld – who was on the show’s last episode – describes in the New Yorker the task of the comedian as something akin to slalom skiing: “the gates are moving. Your job is to be agile and clever enough that, wherever they put the gates, I’m going to make the gate.” The challenge, it seems, is to observe the culture without cowing to it.

David provides a masterclass. Towards the end of Curb’s life we see flashes of the contemporary world: Larry starts wearing a Make America Great Again hat; he falls foul of the new mores of the #MeToo reckoning; his friend Jeff gets mistaken for Harvey Weinstein all the time. But there is no moralising, nor pussyfooting around the sharper corners of the issues. Instead David remains himself: indignant in the face of etiquette, approaching every topic head on with characteristic disdain. Curb succeeds where so many watery modern comedies fail: the culture is observed; but the spirit of David is never compromised.

David and Seinfeld are smart enough for this cultural slalom. It is an entirely different and more intelligent disposition to the likes of Ricky Gervais, for example. Gervais’s recent headline-grabbing stand-up show, Armageddon, is a barrage of jokes about dying teenagers, paedophiles, disabled people – an attempt to riff on the excesses of wokeism. In reality it is a long rant about how sensitive everyone is, about how no one finds him funny any more because they’re too afraid to be offended. But unlike Curb, Gervais’s cultural weather vane is stuck in 2015, when yes, maybe, pillorying the so-called woke establishment was genuinely unexpected and radical. Unfortunately in 2024 it is simply passé.

It must be galling to age out of your genius, not least when the much older Seinfelds and Davids of the world show no signs of that happening. The Simpsons is another cautionary tale, as it drags the dismembered corpse of its former brilliance into yet another season. Knowing when to quit is a skill. But being both principled and adaptable? That’s an art.