April 1, 2014

There’s No Art In Hate - By: Reena Calm

I want to start this by saying; I LOVE COMEDY. It is my world, my joy, my dream, my work, my
passion. I love Stand Up, I love Sketch, I love Improv and I love Chicago. I love the people I’ve met and watched living their dreams, and I love myself so much more than ever before for following my own. Comedy is truly an art form, and like any other creative expression, the varieties and possibilities are endless.

I recently got involved in what I can only describe as a Facebook race-war while trying to defend another artist, Jerry Seinfeld. Maybe you’ve heard of him. What happened on Facebook was par for the course asinine, and maybe it’s because I felt bullied out of the conversation that I decided to write this as a retort, maybe I thought posting an article about Jerry Seinfeld and racism would get me a lot of Internet attention, all I’m missing is a cat video and being able to edit this down to a sassy meme or gif… Or maybe I have every right (even as a white girl) to be frustrated with what is an epidemic of segregation that ridiculous online smart-mouth tournaments will never alleviate.

Seinfeld was interviewed by BuzzFeed a while ago, and during the interview he was asked based on the suggestion of fan tweets, why his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, predominantly features white men. The excerpt in question, which has been grossly misinterpreted, looks much different in writing, especially when dressed up to look like something it never was. Even the title of one Gawker article is in itself incredibly misleading; "Who Cares" About Diversity in Comedy, Says Jerry Seinfeld."

That is not what he said. Not even a little bit. Oddly enough some of the more intelligent opinions I’ve seen related to his statements are found in the comments on YouTube. There’s a first time for everything.

His actual quote reads as such;

"People think it's the census or something … who cares? 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, but everyone else is kind of with their little calculating – 'Is this the exact right mix?' – to me, it's anti-comedy, it's more about PC nonsense than 'Are you making us laugh or not?”

Let’s be very clear about one thing here; he was asked about diversity on his show, he was talking about his show, the web series he produces and stars in. He earned his fame with unequivocal talent and a whole lot of hard work. His fame and success have earned him the right to produce his show, his art, any way he chooses. He has certainly earned the right to prefer spending time with his friends over pandering to social pressure. Why should he be any different than anyone else? Everything is cliques. People say cliques are ‘just like high school,’ I actually think social constructs in high school are hormonally charged, exaggerated glimpses of the real world.

For the most part all of us stick to what we know, even someone who is up on a stage defying what many people consider the confines of their comfort zone, for instance, even myself. I mostly talk to people who are in Comedy or in my apartment or at my job. I mostly go to shows, social events, and grocery stores I can get to off the Red Line, mostly the on North Side of the Red Line. Not because I avoid the South Side, or the West Side, or the flip side, but because it’s universally known that a longer commute can suck it. When I get the chance to perform somewhere outside of my usual hangs, I’m thrilled to be out of my element and meeting new people.

I was scrolling through Facebook on my commute home from my glamorous showbiz funding lifestyle as a full time employee of a call center, and came across a status which was posted to share an article that was written recently for Steamroller about Seinfeld’s interview. The linked article puts Seinfeld on blast, calling him an "out-of-touch millionaire" and suggests that he has "absolved himself of responsibility" to... diversify showbiz? I don’t read most of the junk people post online, but I just couldn’t help myself when this Facebook status began with the words, “Hey white people, listen up.” This status was written by a black female Improviser (actual article by a white guy) that I met once, and have since learned has had several if not many similar battles with other people in the community.

First of all, just because you like something you read doesn’t mean it isn’t propaganda.

Some fans may remember when Seinfeld was criticised in the 90s for not having more black friends on his show, and the issue is very cleverly referenced in an episode called The Diplomat’s Club. When asked if they ever felt pressure from the network to make the show more diverse, Peter Mehlman*, a Writer and Producer on Seinfeld shared,

“No, never. The truth is, it was so fucking hard just to come up with story lines, let alone bringing in the question of diversity... as a group, we were super left wing, bleeding heart liberals and still, all those leanings were brushed away by the need to be funny.” 

Also, in reference to Comedians in Cars:

 “...the demand must be incredible to be on the show. I imagine he’s making several enemies among people he’s not asked.”

It’s understandable why Jerry would be annoyed being asked about race. He said that calculating colors for the sake of being politically correct is “anti-Comedy.” He did NOT say a certain kind of people aren’t funny. I actually consider his remarks to be anti-racist.

In no way do I mean to diminish the fact that our society is lacking all kinds of equality, but there are hundreds if not thousands of people of every color, sex and size just in Chicago who are here to get the kind of huge break only a handful of artists might experience. A majority of people will not make it as far as they would like, but that’s similar to literally almost every single kind of career a person could pursue. There are just not enough big breaks for everyone to get the one they want, because if there were, they wouldn’t be as big. Chicago is a giant pond, and everyone is looking for a river to go upstream, you have to swim hard. I also believe though, that if you keep on working and stay true to yourself, there is no match or measure for the gratification that comes from this journey.

I rarely participate in squabbles online, but these topics are something we should be able to talk about openly, because open discussion is the only way to effect positive change. I know people get upset about diversity in Chicago showcases and then some. The issues are bigger than some guy’s web series. There are plenty of things a person could watch online, you could even make your own show! (That’s what Jerry did.)

It’s like a plot line on a never ending episode of The Twilight Zone how segregated this City is in general, but I don’t think it’s helpful to see that as a wall up. Continuing to add bricks, hating on each other, widening the gap. There are now 2 different Facebook groups for Chicago Stand Up Comedy, seemingly a North Side group and a new, separate South Side group. Bottom line; everyone is in it for themselves. I don’t think I’m going to be recognized by any room or show I don’t support, and when it happens that’s a total bonus, so I start supporting. I’d agree that there is so much going on in this City a level of compartmentalization could be helpful, but let’s also keep in mind that WE are continuing to pursue and perpetuate this divide. Not Jerry Seinfeld, WE are responsible.

The impudence of an online exchange can morph into real life anger, even racism. And yes, hating white people counts as racism. We all have different challenges and strengths, it will only help your act to find a way to relate to as many people as you can. Being relatable makes you good at this, being relatable and unique makes you great. Seinfeld is one of the ultimate greats and I think his response in that interview was spot on perfection. In the words of this random fan, “LEAVE JERRY ALONE!

* My amazing roommate Amber Linde happens to be pen-pals with Peter Mehlman. Thank you to them both but especially her for shouting across the house with me all week about Seinfeld and racism.

Contributing Writer - Reena Calm
Reena is a comedian/writer/producer in the Chicago comedy scene. You can catch her performing all over town and also at the popular Tuesday night showcase Hoo Ha Comedy which she co-produces.