Comedy is often based on quick jabs and rapid-fire remarks. Answering serious questions, however, takes a bit longer.
An interviewer asked Jerry Seinfeld a question: why most of the guests on his Web TV series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee were white men.
Seinfeld got pissed off and rushed headlong into deflecting the question. “Who cares? People think [comedy] is the census or something, it’s gotta represent the actual pie chart of American.”
Many media reports followed suit.
“His job is to make people laugh, not fill quotas.”
He is “entitled to prioritize humor over diversity.”
Don’t forget that Seinfeld has lots of black comedian friends
Why don’t non-white men and women of all colors just create their own shows?
The usual reactive fare.
The conversation could have gone another direction. What would have happened if Seinfeld stopped to ask himself why he thought that 21 of the 25 guests chosen to be on his show had been white men?
The depth of my reaction to Seinfeld’s rant, however, wasn’t about him. It was about me.
I’ve spent far too many years reacting and getting offended when someone asks me a challenging question, especially one that I fear casts me in a light that is diametrically opposed to my stated values.
I may feel justified in my defensiveness, but my response doesn’t make any changes in me or in the world around me.
I am done with that. I am working like crazy to take responsibility for myself, to keep up my curiosity and to remember my commitment for a more just and joyful world.
I wanted Seinfeld to do what I didn’t do for so long.
Listen to the question.
Turn inward and try to stay open, without judgment or shame—both of which will stop us in our tracks. See what honest answer emerges.
Sometimes I hadn’t thought about it before. I was still asleep as to how race (or class or gender) influenced my choices.
Sometimes I was behaving in ways that felt comfortable or familiar.
Sometimes prejudice was lurking in the shadows.
Sometimes though my behavior mimicked injustice in the culture around me, in truth, I was acting justly.
Seinfeld could have stopped to understand his authentic answer underneath his bluster. Likewise, the interviewer could have wondered why his BuzzFeed Brews audience was predominantly white men and women, as the angry Seinfeld had pointed out. For me, I want to know my own truth.
We each get to make our own choices, hopefully after reflecting inwardly.
However, it becomes more complex when the perspective widens from the personal to the culture milieu. In fields like comedy, white males have more access to performances, especially lucrative gigs. The same is true for institutional or political appointments. Or philanthropic foundation grants going to pet projects of the (often white male) donors.
We live in a world with unequal access to power and position. For someone who has access, like Seinfeld, to say that he “has no interest in race or anything else” means that he is still unaware, or doesn’t care, how race and gender continue to unjustly influence opportunities available to equally qualified people.
In 1987 I became a charter member of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. When I saw their first exhibit of women’s art through the generations, I was stunned. Though the quality of the exhibit was equal to any I’d seen in a wide array of museums, I’d never heard of most of the artists. The standard curator’s excuse, like the one Seinfeld used, “if you are funny [or a good artist], I’m interested” doesn’t account for the extensive, high quality art/comedy of non-whites and females that has been overlooked for thousands of years.
Seinfeld, and all of us, have a right to make our own choices. But we live in a world that is still deeply divided. To react, rather than seriously ponder challenging questions, comes at a high cost to us all.
When we can wake up to ourselves and to the world around us, we can notice the rich variety of comedy, art or leadership that comes from the full diversity of who we are as humans. With exposure we can grow to appreciate something more than what comes through others who look like us.