Here’s Seinfeld’s set:
Having a daughter with Down syndrome, I didn’t think it was funny to hear “mentally handicapped” be used as part of punchline (at around the 3:30 mark of the video).
If you didn’t watch the clip, here was the set up. Seinfeld is observing how absurd the modern-day postal system is in this age of text and e-mail. The jokes about how antiquated the postal system is and the Postmaster General sweating raising the price of stamps a penny are hilarious (you can see Fallon doubling over with laughter in the background). Regrettably, those jokes are bookended by jokes just ridiculing the postal service.
The lead-in is joking about the uniform postmen wear and the jeeps they drive. The postmen are described as bumbling around in their shorts, while
driving four miles an hour, twenty feet at a time, on the wrong side of a mentally-handicapped jeep.
“Mentally-handicapped jeep”? Really?
Seinfeld’s appearance was, in part, to promote his latest project, an on-line series he hosts called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” I love the show. Seinfeld interviews his comedian friends about the art and craft of comedy. In an interview about the show, Seinfeld spoke about the criticism the first season received for not featuring any comedians who were women or non-Whites. For him, that’s political correctness gone awry, when his only standard is what’s funny.
But, I didn’t find his joke about the mentally-handicapped jeep funny.
In a comprehensive and insightful interview with Howard Stern, Seinfeld talks about the work that goes into making a joke. Stern’s example is an old bit of Seinfeld’s about how apparently the only qualification needed to be a New York cab driver is a face and how the drivers’ names are a series of consonants, with letters that look like the symbol for the element Boron. Seinfeld explains how the choice of Boron wasn’t random, or by luck, but was the result of sitting with the joke and choosing what was the funniest sounding element.
And, that’s my problem with the jeep joke: Seinfeld’s use of “mentally-handicapped” was deliberately chosen because he thinks that’s funny.
In reflecting on what metaphor he would use, Seinfeld thought it’d be funny to liken the jeeps to individuals commonly considered slow and insulted as being stupid. And he did so because he knew there wouldn’t be any backlash.
Seinfeld chose to mock the mentally-handicapped in a big-time format–the second show of the new version of the Tonight Show with the Olympics as the lead-in–without any hesitation that mocking the mentally disabled wouldn’t be tolerated by polite society–quite the contrary. And, his calculation proved correct. The audience laughed. The write-ups of the show praised Seinfeld. And no one thought, “hey, that’s not cool that Seinfeld gratuitously insulted those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
If you think I’m making too big a deal of this, consider if Seinfeld had mocked another minority group. In 2006, his sitcom co-star Michael Richards went into an on-stage tirade using the “N-word.” It wasn’t premeditated, like Seinfeld’s use of “mentally-handicapped,” but spur of the moment, in reaction to a heckler. Richards was shunned for years–so much so, that Seinfeld seems to have purposefully featured Richards on the first season of Comedians in Cars.
To be fair, earlier in the set, Seinfeld does refer to another minority group–homosexuals–as part of a punchline. But note the distinction. Unlike the jeep joke, which is all about ridicule, the reference to a “gay French King,” is to a person in power, dismissively excluding those he no longer wants to associate with. That’s an enviable position, versus being used as a metaphor for something slow and unnecessary, the point Seinfeld is making about the Postal Service.
Finally, the conclusion of the set has a very troubling inference.
Bookending the bit, Seinfeld closes by saying the Postmaster General should feel free to raise the price of stamps to a dollar and if there’s extra money, then the Postal Service should “go buy a real car.”
Given the thread of the bit, there is no other logical inference than that the comparison of mentally-handicapped jeeps versus “a real car” means those who are mentally-handicapped are less-than-real, less-than-worthy of respect. And, this inference is supported given Seinfeld’s love of cars.
Three of Seinfeld’s greatest loves are in the title of his on-line series: Comedians, Cars, and Coffee. Each episode features a classic car chosen by Seinfeld to reflect the personality of the featured comedian. So, Seinfeld has an opinion about what are “real cars” and what are not. Labeling a jeep that he clearly disrespects as “mentally-handicapped” suggests a similar disrespect for those with intellectual disabilities. (It doesn’t help that in the sit-down with Fallon, Seinfeld jokes about “moron books” he has to read to his kids at bedtime (around the 4:30 mark of this video)).
I tried to share my concern with Seinfeld’s deliberate choice to mock those with conditions like my daughter’s. The only contact info I could find publicly available was his Twitter account: @JerrySeinfeld. So, I share all this here because 140 characters fail to adequately express the concerns I have about Seinfeld’s set last night.
It is my hope that perhaps he’ll read this. Seinfeld is a brilliant, creative, hard-working, and wise man, as well as a loving father. And, yet, his set last night reveals the cultural biases, the structural violence, that persists in our society against those like my daughter. That such a devoted craftsman to his art would choose as one of the finite number of punchlines in a 5 minute set for a national audience to hold those up with intellectual disabilities to ridicule, without any concern of backlash or public reprimand, shows how mocking the disabled remains fair game for comedy still to this day.
Seinfeld loves words and appreciates the importance of them. I hope he’ll choose other words in the future than those that sanction the ridicule of innocents like my daughter and those like her.