Longtime fans of Seinfeld know that the buzzkill squad at the “standards and practices” office — the comedy Comstockers, the prom chaperones — gave a wide berth to the show’s writers. An episode spoofing the JFK assassination? Shrug. Thirty minutes about masturbation? Fine. About the only thing the censors ever nixed was an episode that began with George reflecting, “I have never seen a black person order a salad.” NBC couldn’t handle the risk of being tagged as salad racists.
George’s alter ego and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David went on to create and star in Curb Your Enthusiasm, though, and it’s pretty much all “I have never seen a black person order a salad.” Revived for a ninth season this fall after a six-year break, Curb kicks things off in its first episode with Larry in trouble for failing to hold a door for a masculine-looking lesbian, a choice he made because he surmised that such a person would be offended by being treated like a lady. Naturally he receives nothing but hostility in exchange for being well-meaning. By the end of the show Larry, having made some jokes about the Ayatollah on TV in the course of preparing a Broadway musical called “Fatwa,” was himself the target of an actual fatwa. Once that news got out, all of the producers who had signed up to back him ran for cover and Larry found himself shunned by his secular supposed allies against the jihadists.
Curb, in other words, is so real it hurts because we’re right there with Larry David, trapped helplessly in the thicket of political correctness. In the six years the show wasn’t being produced, everything Larry finds baffling got worse. The Curb brand of comedy became even more important, more relevant.
Prestige comedy these days has divided roughly into two camps. There are the late-night jokesters who sit behind desks and riff on current events, usually meaning Trumpland’s latest misstep. Then there are the standups, some of whom (like David and Louis C.K.) build sitcoms around their routines. They go deeper. The desk comics’ material is all about them — can you believe those confounded politicians? — whereas the standups are about us. Trevor Noah delivers zingers. Dave Chappelle offers insight. The two camps differ the way newspaper reporters differ from novelists.
Each group presents a different diagnosis of what’s off, and hence what’s funny, about America today. For Stephen Colbert, it’s simple: the existence of Republicans. Sweep them away, and everything would be fine. It’s a utopian view. The standups are our national shrinks, calling us on our neuroses and hypocrisies and the self-defeating nature of our incessant whining. They unpack how we went mad. Louis C.K. began his 2008 special Chewed Up with a lengthy, and very funny, reflection on why he was determined to keep using three slurs nobody (excepting comedians) can say anymore: the c-word, the n-word, and the f-word for gays. He used the words so many times in so many light-hearted and non-hateful ways that by the time he was done it seemed bonkers that we’ve attached such mystical, harmful properties to these terms. Dave Chappelle, in his 2017 special The Age of Spin, muses about the Filipino politician and ex-fighter Manny Pacquiao, who lost his Nike sponsorship deal over some rude remarks about gays. “Some people just can’t get over themselves,” says Chappelle. He has a Filipina wife and says a lot of men in the Philippines felt emasculated because their wives were the breadwinners: “And then suddenly, a boxer rises from amongst them and reinstates their manhood with his motherf***ing fist. This is not the guy you’re supposed to ask, ‘What do you think of homosexuals?’ He’s not your champ.” Here are some headlines that greeted Chappelle: “Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais and Comedy’s ‘Ironic Bigotry’ Problem” (the Guardian). “Dave Chappelle Didn’t Change with the Times — and That’s the Problem” (GQ). “What Is Dave Chappelle’s Problem with Gay People?” (The New Republic). Chappelle is on notice: He’s officially a Problem.
The comic who desires media worship will stick to approved targets, no matter how ridiculous. John Oliver spent most of one episode of Last Week Tonight doing a Chicken Little bit about the onrushing menace that is Sinclair Broadcast Group, a right-leaning owner of local TV stations that will expand its reach if its buyout of Tribune Media’s network of stations goes through. That proposed combination, Oliver warned with the kind of frantic urgency that suggests your favorite eighth-grader informing you that she will expire on the spot if you don’t get her the cool sneakers today, could enable Sinclair’s nightly newscasts to reach — deep breaths, folks — as many as 2.2 million U.S. households, leaving only the remaining 124 million untainted by Sinclair’s pernicious messaging on any given evening.
Against that meaningless sign-the-petition grandstanding, the standups offer honesty. Chappelle tells about how he was heading to Flint, Mich., to do a benefit for victims of the city’s water crisis. The phone rings. It’s Chris Rock. Does Dave want to be Chris’s guest at the Oscars? “And I was like, ‘Sure, n****r. I’m on my way to the airport right now.’” The audience sucks in its breath. “Come on, man,” says Chappelle. “What am I gonna do about that water? What am I, a f***ing superhero? I need to have fun. . . . I’m sorry, everybody. I’d never been to the Oscars. You’ve seen the movies I make.” “Save the country!” cry Oliver et al. David, C.K., and Chappelle explain that we can’t even save ourselves.