Oscar non-winner gets mad at Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld presented the Oscar for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards last week, and he used the opportunity to go off on a couple of Seinfeldian tangents. Here is a transcript:

A few years ago, I was the subject of a documentary called “Comedian,” which won nothing and made even less. But it was good, it was so good that as a direct result, I have been asked to be here tonight to present the award for outstanding documentary feature. And I love documentaries. I find them to have a very real quality.

And I know all the nominees are excited, because when you are nominated, you’re being told, “We think you might be the best. MIGHT. We won’t know definitely until you get all dressed up and get in a room together with all the other people, and on TV, because if by some chance it should turn out that you are not the best, we all want to see the look on your face when you get the news.”

I’m a huge fan of movies in general. I go all the time. I’ve noticed in theaters now they’re running some announcement trying to get you to pick up the garbage from around your seat. Oh, OK! Let me bring my orange jumpsuit and a wooden stick with a nail in it, too! Maybe I’ll work my way down the highway after the credits roll.

I’m not pickin’ nothin’ up! I’m the one that threw it down. How many different jobs do I have to do here?! There is an agreed-upon deal between us and the movie-theater people, it’s understood by every single person in this room. The deal is, YOU rip us off on overpriced, oversized crap that we shouldn’t be eating to begin with, and in exchange for that, when I’m done with something [holds out hand as if holding a soda cup], I open my hand [opens hand, letting the cup fall]. I’m not stickin’ my hand down into a dark hole to try and pry out three Goobers that have been soda-welded there since “The Shawshank Redemption” — which is not a nominee this evening, but these five incredibly depressing movies are. [Lists nominees; presents award.]

It was a good routine, typical Seinfeldian observational humor, and it got laughs. Not laughing, however, was John Sinno, producer of the nominated documentary “Iraq in Fragments.” On Friday, every movie critic and industry writer in the universe (even me) got this whiny e-mail from him:

An open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

I had the great fortune of attending the 79th Academy Awards following my nomination as producer for a film in the Best Documentary Feature category. At the Awards ceremony, most categories featured an introduction that glorified the filmmakers’ craft and the role it plays for the film audience and industry. But when comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduced the award for Best Documentary Feature, he began by referring to a documentary that features himself as a subject, then proceeded to poke fun at it by saying it won no awards and made no money. He then revealed his love of documentaries, as they have a very “real” quality, while making a comically sour face. [I guess that’s open to interpretation. I didn’t take Seinfeld’s expression on that joke to be “sour,” merely deadpan.] This less-than-flattering beginning was followed by a lengthy digression that had nothing whatsoever to do with documentary films. [What?! An irrelevant tangent?! At the OSCARS?!?!] The clincher, however, came when he wrapped up his introduction by calling all five nominated films “incredibly depressing!”

While I appreciate the role of humor in our lives, [Do you really? Or are you just saying that?] Jerry Seinfeld’s remarks were made at the expense of thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre. [Then how come you’re the only one complaining about it?] Obviously we make films not for awards or money, although we are glad if we are fortunate enough to receive them. The important thing is to tell stories, whether of people who have been damaged by war, of humankind’s reckless attitude toward nature and the environment, or even of the lives and habits of penguins. With his lengthy, dismissive and digressive introduction, Jerry Seinfeld had no time left for any individual description of the five nominated films. And by labeling the documentaries “incredibly depressing,” he indirectly told millions of viewers not to bother seeing them because they’re nothing but downers. [Actually, I think what he did was make a joke that was funny because it reflected what most people think about documentaries. It was based on a generalization, like 90 percent of all humor.] He wasted a wonderful opportunity to excite viewers about the nominated films and about the documentary genre in general.

To have a presenter introduce a category with such disrespect for the nominees and their work is counter to the principles the Academy was founded upon. To be nominated for an Academy Award is one of the highest honors our peers can give us, and to have the films dismissed in such an offhand fashion was deeply insulting. The Academy owes all documentary filmmakers an apology.

Seinfeld’s introduction arrived on the heels of an announcement by the Academy that the number of cities where documentary films must screen to qualify for an Academy Award is being increased by 75%. This will make it much more difficult for independent filmmakers’ work to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Award, while giving an advantage to films distributed by large studios. Fewer controversial films will qualify for Academy consideration, and my film Iraq in Fragments would have been disqualified this year. This announcement came as a great disappointment to me and to other documentary filmmakers. I hope the Academy will reconsider its decision.

On a final note, I would like to point out that there was no mention of the Iraq War during the Oscar telecast, though it was on the minds of many in the theatre and of millions of viewers. It is wonderful to see the Academy support the protection of the environment. Unfortunately there is more than just one inconvenient truth in this world. Having mention of the Iraq War avoided altogether was a painful reminder for many of us that our country is living in a state of denial. As filmmakers, it is the greatest professional crime we can commit not to speak out with the truth. We owe it to the public.

I hope what I have said is taken to heart. It comes from my concern for the cinematic art and its crucial role in the times we’re living in.

John Sinno
Academy Award Nominee, Iraq In Fragments
Co-Founder, Northwest Documentary Association

Sinno does make a good point in stating that most awards are prefaced with some kind of tribute to the craft involved (writing, editing, art direction, etc.). But that is not true of the “best picture” awards. When they present Best Picture, Best Animated Film, Best Foreign-Language Film, and Best Documentary, there’s usually just a little banter and then a list of the nominees. They don’t talk about how animation works, or how amazing it is that movies are being made in foreign languages. They just do some shtick and hand out the trophy. True, they don’t usually make fun of the category, either, but come on. Lighten up a little.

And Sinno completely loses me with his next-to-last paragraph, the one about how there was no mention of the Iraq War during the Oscars. Guess what, John: There was no mention of pedophile priests or fundamentalist Christians, either (the topics of the other nominated documentaries). And there wouldn’t have been any references to global warming (and I’ll grant you there were too many) were it not for the fact that “An Inconvenient Truth” had been discussed and debated extensively in the media for the past year and was now the frontrunner to win, with a former U.S. vice president in attendance to support it.

Mention of the Iraq War was not “avoided,” as you put it; it just didn’t come up. Do you really think liberal Hollywood has somehow magically forgotten about the Iraq War and how much they’re against it? That’s absurd! Believe me, everyone in that room (along with most of America) was just as opposed to the Iraq War as you are. The fact that they failed to turn the Oscars into an anti-war demonstration does not indicate that they have gone into a state of denial and are pretending Iraq doesn’t exist. Global warming didn’t get mentioned last year, but I assure you, lots of people were still concerned about it. The recurring themes of any given Oscar ceremony don’t necessarily indicate the Number One Thing People Are Thinking About. They mostly just reflect what’s “big” at the moment with regard to the nominees, and “An Inconvenient Truth” was the high-profile “message” film this year. That’s all it means, nothing more.

Also: I would bet money that if “Iraq in Fragments” had won, this letter would not have been written.

So I ask you, readers: Were you offended by Seinfeld’s appearance at the Oscars? (I’m talking about if you actually saw it. You can’t go by my transcript; it’s always funnier in the delivery.) Did you think, at the time, that he was out of line, or that it was inappropriate? Or did that viewpoint not even occur to you until you saw John Sinno’s letter? I was astonished at the idea of someone as mainstream and un-edgy as Jerry Seinfeld being considered offensive, but I’m curious what others think.