Jerry Seinfeld, the fantastically successful comedian, once told an interviewer that he didn’t like performing his comedy at universities because, in his experience, young people no longer know how to laugh. The prevailing culture of political correctness, according to comedians like Seinfeld and others, has turned college kids into grim-faced humor police, monitoring every textbook or lecture or visiting performer for politically unacceptable forms of discourse.

Of course, you can’t forget how to laugh. Laughter, as anyone who has ever laughed uncontrollably in an embarrassing and inappropriate location can tell you, is pretty much an involuntary response. Laughter erupts from a mysterious place, grabs hold of your breathing apparatus, and temporarily takes over your body. That’s why a full-on, unrestrained belly laugh is so satisfying—you’ve surrendered yourself to the physical experience.

Young people these days, steeped in a brew of politically correct and highly elaborate sensitivity training, haven’t forgotten how to laugh. They’ve just become frightened of it. Because laughter is essentially a non-intellectual activity—you laugh first, think second—it’s entirely possible that you might end up in the audience of a Jerry Seinfeld show, hear him tell a joke, laugh uproariously, and only then discover that you weren’t supposed to, that the joke was “offensive” to some group or organization, that by laughing at it you’ve become complicit in the dominant hegemonic paradigm of…well, I’m too old to really know how to talk this way, but if you know any young people, you can ask them to finish that sentence.

All of which is a shame, because comedy was a terrific business. For nearly 30 years, the most surefire way to get rich and famous in Hollywood was this: First, be a stand-up comic with a solid 20 or 30 minutes of material. You didn’t need much more than this, but if you had a distinctive point of view or represented the voices and aspirations of a target audience, your network talent deal would be that much richer. Then you’d get a network contract, called a “holding deal,” and meet with television writers and producers to create a situation comedy around your comic persona. Finally: Shoot a pilot, get a series on the air, and begin the process of becoming rich and famous and (probably) impossible to work with.

For most of the 1980s, ’90s, and early ’00s, this was a pretty solid career path for a lot of talented comedians. To list a few of the hits: Seinfeld, Roseanne, Home Improvement, Ellen, King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Cosby, The Bernie Mac Show, The Drew Carey Show, Last Man Standing, The Jamie Foxx Show, Martin, The Steve Harvey Show, Mad About You, George Lopez…

And those are the multi-season hits. I’m not including the so-so performers or the unsold pilots—many of those, alas, have my name on them—but there was a time in Hollywood where you could make a pretty solid living writing, producing, and starring in sitcoms based on stand-up comedians and never get a show on the air.

When I was a writer-producer with a production deal at Paramount, and later at Sony and Disney, each network held “showcase” nights many times per year where they would rent out a local comedy club and invite sitcom writers and producers (me and my ilk) to watch the performers they had under contract perform a bit of their acts. And there was a continual parade of stand-up comics coming into our offices for meetings to see whether there was “chemistry” between us, after which we’d all shake hands and say how excited we were to work together, and the comedian would go to another meeting with another set of writer-producers—sometimes in the next office or down the hall—and repeat the experience.

Stand-up comedy was such a giant show-business category that it spawned its own mini industry. Live performances by marginal comedians were on television at nearly every hour. The cable outfit Comedy Central had over a dozen versions of stand-up shows, including Stand Up Stand Up, Premium Blend, Comedy Central Presents, and programs hosted by Russell Simmons and Gabriel Iglesias. The A&E network aired A&E’s Evening at the Improv nightly.

And then there were just too many sitcoms, too many stand-up comedians, and way, way too many stand-up comedy shows with exposed-brick backgrounds and a generic guy in a denim shirt and a microphone saying stuff like, Hey, dating in the ’90s! What’s up with that? By 2010, there was nothing older or more stale than a comedy club.

As the stand-up-to-sitcom world was shrinking from oversupply, the That’s Not Funny, That’s Offensive movement was growing. Seinfeld first began complaining about college audiences in 2015, and nine years later it’s reasonable to assume that some of those scowling college kids now work and thrive in the entertainment industry, where they fret about “representation” and “inclusion” and “safety”—everything, that is, except funny.

Punch-drunk from the one-two of a bursting bubble and a cultural reset, it’s easy to understand why comedies—both the feature-film version and the sitcom—are having a tough time. Giving the green light to a big, noisy, out-of-control feature comedy like Zoolander or Anchorman is a scary move, especially when these kinds of projects often have all-white casts and zero interest in combatting transphobia. And the hallmark of a successful sitcom is that it says something universal and relatable about big themes, like friendship (Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers) and family (Roseanne, Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond). But if deep down you don’t believe that there are any universal themes at all, or that the only one is race, how on earth could you put on King of Queens?

There is, however, some very good news. Once the direct line from stand-up to sitcom was severed, comedy clubs themselves could return to their original purpose, which was to provide audiences with funny, slightly risqué, and utterly unapproved things to laugh at from someone with a distinct point of view. Those tired old places with the exposed brick wall and the microphone stand have, quietly but everywhere, become hotbeds of free think. Audiences go there not to see the next big sitcom star, but because most of those comedians will never be allowed on television. Comedy on the screen may be dead, but it’s thriving IRL.

And many comedy-club acts are bubbling up onto social media. If you tune your Instagram algorithm correctly, the experience of a contemporary comedy club will be delivered to your pocket in a nearly endless reel of snippets from young comedians making fun of everything you’re not allowed to make fun of. Comedians and sketch artists like Caitlyn Reilly and someone called @heyitatay are delivering funny and weirdly offbeat monologues. Ryan Long (no relation) has won nearly 1 million followers across social media for his material that’s sharply critical of woke progressive culture. And the shining example of this pattern is Shane Gillis, who was famously hired and then immediately fired from the cast of Saturday Night Live when some of his loutish and offensive tweets were resurfaced. He went back on the comedy circuit and returned to SNL in February of this year—this time as a host.

Some of these performers are right-of-center, some are gleeful iconoclasts, some are impossible-to-categorize character performers, but they all have one thing in common: They are not in my office looking for a sitcom because that just isn’t the way things work anymore.

Now that places like the Improv and the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and the Comedy Cellar and Gotham Comedy Club in New York, no longer function as audition spaces for comedians looking for a holding deal, the performers themselves are free to tell the kinds of stories, and use the kinds of words, that can offend and surprise. In other words, they’re free to be funny again.

Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

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