What Jerry Seinfeld and Lorne Michaels Are Really Saying: White Men Are Just Funnier

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The debate over women and people of color in comedy continues apace this week with two new entrants. In one corner, we have a new interview from Saturday Night Live‘s Lorne Michaels. Asked by Vulture when he realized SNL had a diversity problem, he said he’d noticed it “last summer,” which seems a little late in its just-about-40-year history. Then he went on to justify his own inability to solve the problem once he noticed it as follows:

Then we didn’t find the right person. You look at an audition and go, “Is she as good as Kate? Is she as good as Nasim? Is she going to get a writer to write for her and be taken care of and given the chance for success?” Nothing would have made my life easier than somebody popping, but nobody popped. But also, this past year, having lost Fred, Jason Sudeikis, and Bill Hader and knowing I was losing Seth, we were focused on finding guys. Nobody wrote anything about the three girls we brought in the year before.

Mmm. The defensiveness piled on further as he talked on:

What’s interesting to me is, show business was clearly in the lead on diversity—way before sports, way before business, way before educational institutions, way before newspapers, way before almost anything else. We’re about talent. When you see it, you’re not fussy about where you find it or who it is. You just go, “Oh my God.” I mean, you watch Jennifer Lawrence at 23 years old, and nobody’s writing an article about how she’s got a long way to go. You just go, “Oh, it’s there.”

And when Lane Brown, the interviewer, pointed out that the record so far has only seen one black female cast member added since Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007, Michaels demurred thusly:

People say, “Who’s going to play Michelle Obama?” Obama is probably the first president in a long time that we’ve been doing less of. Reagan was that way, too, oddly enough, until Jim Downey and Al Franken figured out that Reagan mastermind sketch. He was an actor, and the public already knew that, and they voted for him anyway. We couldn’t find a way in.

In other words, the interview is a post-hoc rationalizing train wreck. Sure, there are few women on this show and fewer black people, but it’s because they’re not talented and what the show happens to “need” right now is more white men. Showbiz is a very progressive place, which is why it took years for the Hollywood Issue cover of Vanity Fair to look even remotely diverse.

Then, today, we get Jerry Seinfeld opining on the matter of diversity in comedy generally:

People think it’s the census or something… This has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? It’s just funny. 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.

Let’s get one thing straight. No one is on a crusade against funny in comedy. No one wants Saturday Night Live, or HBO specials, or stand-up clubs, to employ mediocre comedians. No one thinks that the writing staff of Saturday Night Live should make jokes about Obama merely for the sake of making jokes about Obama. (They seem to be doing way too much straining as it is, frankly.) There simply isn’t anyone proposing such nonsense. The only people putting it forward are people like Michaels and Seinfeld themselves, and the defensiveness of their posture is pretty easily discerned, and dismissed.

Once we shove the straw men out of the way, the only remaining question is whether these men really believe it to be the case that white men are simply funnier and more competent comics than just about everyone else. They might say no in the abstract, but then they have these results in front of them, these oceans of comics who only answer to a couple demographic descriptors. Somehow whiteness and maleness seems to be baked into their concept of funny. Which makes “funny” a disturbingly rigid and stable thing, when we know that funny is actually anything but! Isn’t it comics who are always telling us that comedy is subjective and contextual? They always seem to forget that, don’t they, when they make these excuses.