Seinfeldia: Discovering the Show About Nothing
I hate not getting a joke. You know, when the joke-teller cracks the punchline and everyone bursts into laughter and you’re laughing but it’s kind of fake and you’re looking around for other signs of fake-laugh?
It’s the same forced laugh when someone pulls out a Seinfeld quote. ’No soup for you!’ ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!’ ‘Festivus for the rest of us!’
Yada yada yada.
I don’t get it.
It’s Monday morning and I’m lying in bed watching Seinfeld clips on YouTube. Over the years it aired and subsequent rerun flogging, I never watched a single one. Seeing Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George on screen would make me reach for the remote.
I thought I was a culture vulture, a sucker for anything popular but I never found it funny. It was four annoying characters talking about nothing in a New York apartment. None of them worked or did anything, just Kramer skittering into the apartment to the cheers of the audience.
Over time, the more people I met who espoused its brilliance, the more puzzled I became.
It’s the fourth most watched show in TV history (behind M*A*S*H, Cheers and The Fugitive) with the iconic slap bass theme, a soundtrack to the 90s, how could I have missed it? I even got into M*A*S*H!
I’d read snippets on Jerry Seinfeld’s creative processes and political comments. I watched the clip of Kesha trying to hug him. I noticed he’d dropped a new standup on Netflix.
Then in January, we pulled into a carpark in Perth and there on the wall was a huge mural dedicated to the show and its in-jokes. There’s Jerry in a frilly shirt saying ‘I don’t want to be a pirate’, Elaine with her ‘yada yada yada’, Kramer claiming he’s not a pimp and a host of other characters including the soup nazi.
My brain exploded a little. It was time to find out what the deal was.
So I’m watching these clips.
Jerry conspiring a ménage à trois with a girlfriend’s flatmate, the soup nazi (offensive in 2019 along with other Seinfeld jokes according to this Bustle writer) Kramer trying to find a peaceful place to swim and Jerry and Elaine unsuccessfully hiring a car.
A clip on an ESL channel with George doing the opposite of everything he usually would turning him into a romantic hero. Good robust English phrases like ‘I went to the beach!’ and ‘I want the complete opposite of tuna on toast!’ (Let’s picture a German tourist using that line in a cafe for a moment.)
Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld had a ‘no hugging, no learning’ policy in their scripts (I guess Kesha missed that one).
Commentators discuss with academic zeal how Seinfeld embraces the dark side of human nature. It would have been refreshing from the treacly sitcoms of that era, Full House with the all-American family: not perfect but they love each other!
A ’92 Atlantic review recognised that ‘it acknowledges the absurdity in the ordinary’. It goes on: ‘Seinfeld is a sitcom that presents us with characters we might wish to keep our distance from in real life, but whose misadventures we delight in following from week to week on TV’.
OK, so they’re not meant to be likeable.
‘Seinfeld is a sitcom that presents us with characters we might wish to keep our distance from in real life, but whose misadventures we delight in following from week to week on TV’
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David mined their own lives for material. Turning the detritus of life into comedy for the rest of us.
There’s very little redemption and definitely no hugging. The characters rant and rage, riddled with neuroses — there’s even a med school class where you can diagnose the character’s mental illnesses.
After watching a few clips, I decide to give Jerry’s latest standup on Netflix a go: Jerry Before Seinfeld. His opening shtick dissects the use of ‘in’ and ‘on’, we live ‘in’ the city but ‘on’ Long Island, we get ‘on’ a train but don’t get ‘on’ a cab.
I admire comedians who are funny without dissolving into crass quips.
Maybe I did get the joke, it’s just not my usual palate. I was brought up on a steady diet of English humour, the Monty Python variety full of wit and senseless silliness.
Nostalgia has a lot to answer for. It’s a nice place to visit, the 90’s. A time of chunky telephones and big hair. I wonder if all the characters today would be standing around in their apartments hurling one-liners at each other over Snapchat or flicking through Tinder dates.
At the end of this self-directed exercise in pop culture, I have a greater respect for Jerry Seinfeld and what the show achieved. It’s grown on me a little but I doubt I’ll have a back-to-back Seinfeld binge anytime soon.
Not that the show needed my approval.
There’s always going to be another thing.
I’ll do my best not to get FOMO in the meantime while everyone’s talking about the Game of Thrones finale.
Ask me about it in another 20 years.
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