So anyway, I’ve been catching up on some early Seinfeld courtesy of the miracle of DVD box sets, and pontificating on how there are two kinds of people in this crazy, mixed up world. There are those who get Seinfeld, and there are those who don’t. And those who don’t get it, I realise with increasing frequency, are people I will never fully trust.
I caught on to Seinfeld late, thanks to the BBC’s typical foresight and sensitivity in buying this masterpiece and screening it in some graveyard slot on BBC2 round about midnight, instead of in the prime time slot it deserved. The BBC never did understand what a cult hit they had. They just didn’t get it. So it wasn’t until the middle of season 5when I happened upon it.
I was expecting the usual American sitcom fare, but something about this was different and I couldn’t put my finger on it. It had this walking slapstick guy called Kramer in it and he bought a cigar store Indian on a whim, even though it was a terribly politically incorrect thing to do. I’d just come through a decade of po-faced PC bullshit, so at a deep level I needed something that was this irreverent.
I made a point of catching it again and pretty soon I was watching an episode where eternal loser George Costanza pretends to be a marine biologist to impress a date, a lie that backfires spectacularly when he has to rescue a beached whale. The moment he related the story to the others in the diner and said ‘The sea was angry that day, my friends..’ That was the moment I was hooked.
I raved about the show to my best mates. They watched an episode. They didn’t get it. I was deeply disappointed. They tried a few more and then got hooked just like I had. (Phew! That was almost twenty years of friendship down the toilet).
Over the years I’ve given people the Seinfeld test, just to check they’re the kind of person I’d like to hang out with. New girlfriends especially. If a girl lets slip she’s a Seinfeld fan before I’ve even mentioned it, she’s a keeper. If I hear a guy rave about it, I know he’s someone I can have a laugh with.
The people who just don’t get it… I’m sorry, there’ll always be something between us.
This may sound absurd, and rather too imitative of characters who dump their lovers on the flimsiest of pretexts (inappropriate use of exclamation marks, having man hands, dressing like a communist) but if you don’t get Seinfeld, you don’t get something crucial about irony in the modern world, and let’s face it, you probably take life too seriously.
I know people who love Curb Your Enthusiasm but hate Seinfeld. The former they see as cutting edge and radical, the latter as tame and traditional. They just don’t get it.
It’s obvious that many people mistake Seinfeld for a traditional sitcom. It’s true, it’s recorded before a live audience, looks glossy, looks like so many other sitcoms that came before it and many that followed in its wake (yes, that’s you, Frasier, and you, Friends). But to view it as in any way similar to those shows is to fundamentally misunderstand what Seinfeld is really all about.
Watching the early seasons on DVD, it strikes me just how much Seinfeld broke the mould. There were a few years early on when it was just a tiny little cult show about a few disenchanted New Yorkers, where nothing ever happened and they talked about the trivialities of everyday life (and also when episodes seemed to just fizzle out because the characters had run out of things to say – not because any kind of resolution had been reached).
Only with season 4, the breakthrough season, did it suddenly cross over and make it big. Maybe it was because the plotting became tighter and each show involved four throughlines that would be resolved neatly with a twist that brought them all together at the end. Or maybe it was because of a certain episode where the heroes had a contest to see who could refrain from wanking the longest.
Can you imagine Friends doing that? No, me neither. Seinfeld not only dared to tackle issues that no other sitcom would go near, it also flouted the golden rule of Hollywood storytelling with its militant ‘no hugs, no lessons’ rule.
Another reason people don’t get it is Jerry Seinfeld himself. They mistake the show for an absurd vanity project in which this big-toothed, big haired, white trainer-wearing smug comedian plays himself as ultra-cool ladykiller dispensing bon-mots by the minute.
It’s true that some Seinfeld storylines derive their comedy from Jerry doing something successful, usually in contrast to Elaine, George or Kramer suffering the flip side. But these are much rarer than the moments where Jerry is the fall guy.
The ‘Jerry’ of the series is, in fact, the much less successful man that the real world Jerry might have become if his NBC pilot had been cancelled. Bizarro Jerry, if you will. This ‘Jerry’ is a small time stand-up whose success in life is so modest that all of his friends casually dismiss any pretensions he has to working in ‘show business’. Whose parents still want him to get a proper job and won’t let him pay for anything. Who gets ‘bumped’ continually when trying to get the ‘gig’ of addressing his old school assembly. He is, in short, regularly the butt of the show’s cruel, merciless deflating of pomposity.
Are you starting to see where the idea for Curb Your Enthusiasmcame from?
Were it not for Seinfeld blazing the trail in mentioning the unmentionable, deflating pretension and resolutely resisting resolution we wouldn’t have cult comedy like Curb, or The Gary Shandling Show, or Spaced, or The Office.
As Greg M Smith pointed out in his seminal essay, Plotting a Show About Nothing, ‘while Hollywood storytelling tends to confirm the “work hard and you’ll achieve your dreams” myth by repeatedly showing protagonists successfully laboring to achieve their goals Seinfeld turns this central myth of American capitalism on its ear. In this show, working to achieve desires has little to do with whether or not characters actually attain these desires. Usually the outcome is based on factors outside their control. And if they do happen to get what they want, they discover that this is not what they wanted at all.’
The more I watch it, the more I realise I like it because it speaks to something profoundly philosophical in me that has never wanted to grow up, that has always been sceptical about what other people regard as important, that sits in the coffee shop of life watching the real world rush by, making smart arse remarks and debating the excruciating minutiae of nothing and everything.
As Stuart Jeffries put it in Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy, his meditation on a lifetime’s TV viewing, ‘this, I realised, was mostly what I wanted from American TV – decadent, immature lives performed on TV for my pleasure.’
The Seinfeld universe is about accepting that we live in a world where people are rewarded or punished randomly, through no effort of their own; where achieving your goal immediately results in you no longer wanting that goal and having to work hard to get out of it; where actions taken on a whim can have catastrophic consequences.
And if you think life is more than that, you really don’t get it.
15 Seinfeld episodes you must see before you die
The Deal | Season 2
Jerry and Elaine devise an elaborate system wherein they can be both friends and lovers. Features a superb extended opener with Jerry and Elaine negotiating their fuck buddy status.
George : That’s why I don’t have cable in my house. Because of that naked station. If I had that in my house, I would never turn it off. I wouldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t eat. Eventually, firemen would have to break through the door. They’d find me sitting there in my pyjamas with drool coming down my face.
Jerry (to George) : You really need some help. A regular psychiatrist couldn’t even help you. You need to go to, like, Vienna or something.
Mrs Costanza : I go out to get some milk, I come home and I find my son treating his body as if it was an amusement park!
George : You can do better than me. You could throw a dart out the window and hit someone better than me. I’m no good!
Jerry : He’s working on lowering the cholesterol level in whales. All that blubber, it’s quite unhealthy. You know, it’s the largest mammal on earth. But as George says, they don’t have to be.
George : Why can’t we share?
Jerry : I told you not to say anything. You can’t go in there, brazenly flout the rules and then think I’m gonna share with you.
George : Do you hear yourself?
Jerry : I’m sorry. This is what comes from living under a Nazi regime!
Jerry : You can’t have sex with someone you admire!
The Invitations | Season 7
Susan dies from toxic glue on the cheap wedding invitations that George insisted on. Jerry falls in love with guest star Janeane Garofalo, after discovering she is just like him.
Jerry : All this time, I’ve been waiting for me to come along, and now I’ve swept myself off my feet!
The Bizarro Jerry | Season 8
Elaine finds friends who are the exact opposites of Jerry, George, and Kramer. Kramer gets an office job. George dates a model and tastes life in the ‘forbidden city’. Jerry dates a girl with ‘man hands’. One of those episodes that fires on all four cylinders. The George storyline is particularly sublime.
Elaine : I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutiae of every single daily event!
George : I always knew that, once I became a doctor, I would dump whoever I was with and find someone better. That’s the dream of becoming a doctor.
The Yada Yada | Season 8
George dates a very succinct girl. Jerry’s dentist becomes a Jew for the jokes. Perhaps my all time fave Seinfeld episode. Four amazing plotlines that intertwine with dazzling panache. A thing of beauty, scriptwise, and a killer of a twist at the end.
Jerry : I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism purely for the jokes.
Father Curtis : And this offends you as a Jewish person?
Jerry : No. It offends me as a comedian!
The Voice | Season 9
Jerry can’t decide which he likes better: his girlfriend or the funny voice that drives her crazy. I like this one because we’ve all, at one time or another, had to choose between a girl and a joke about her stomach speaking in a funny voice.
Jerry : Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.
Kramer : Wait a minute. You mean to say that you drugged a woman so you could take advantage of her toys?
The Betrayal | Season 9
The Emmy-winning backwards episode, which shows the ultimate mastery of the Seinfeld scriptwriters. How many other sitcom episodes are inspired by Harold Pinter?
Jerry: Well, everybody’s a little cranky on their birthday.
George: Oh, it’s a bad day. You got everyone in your house, you’re thinkin’, “These are my friends?!”
Jerry: Every day is my birthday.
The Dealership | Season 9
Jerry tries to get an insider deal on a new car from David Putty.
Jerry : He keeps asking me to give him a high-five.
Elaine : I thought all guys do that.
Jerry : Slapping hands is the lowest form of primate ritual.