Seinfeld: a television series
It is just another day in the Republic of Entertainment, and as always a major story is taking shape. DANGER SEIN, reads the headline of the Daily News for May 9, 1997, over a photograph of the stars of NBC’s phenomenally popular sitcom Seinfeld: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards. They are clearly out of character, huddling cozily together and beaming with an appearance of warm feeling entirely inappropriate to the needling and conniving personae they embody on TV. The issue in the story is money, specifically the one million dollars per episode that each of Jerry Seinfeld’s co-stars is demanding for the impending ninth season of what the News reporter describes as “television’s first billion-dollar sitcom.” THREE STARS HOLD OUT IN HIGH-STAKES BATTLE OVER NBC MEGAHIT: only the language of hostage-taking and terrorist attack (the actors “imperil” the series with their “hard-line demands” and “it is essential that the impasse be resolved soon”) can do justice to the drama of the event. (The impasse was resolved a few days later for roughly $600,000 per episode.)
A few days later, a counterattack of sorts takes place, in the form of a New York Times Op-Ed piece in which Maureen Dowd professes shock at the “breathtaking” salaries demanded by the “surreally greedy” actors and proceeds to a ringing denunciation of the “ever more self-referential and self-regarding” Seinfeld: “The show is our Dorian Gray portrait, a reflection of the what’s-in-it-for-me times that allowed Dick Morris and Bill Clinton to triumph.” For backup she cites Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, who describes the show as “the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption.” (Neither addresses the question of why it is greedy for veteran actors who are indispensable to the most successful show on television—and who cannot reasonably expect another comparable windfall—to insist on a fair chunk of the money that would otherwise flow into the NBC kitty.)
In any event the diatribe scarcely registers, crowded out by celebratory cover stories in TV Guide (“Michael Richards: Still Kramer After All These Years… Seinfeld’s slapstick sidekick strikes it rich!”); Business Week (“Seinfeld: The Economics of a TV Supershow, and What It Means for NBC and the Industry”); and an encyclopedic special issue of Entertainment Weekly—“The Ultimate Seinfeld Viewer’s Guide”—including a plot summary of the series’ 148 episodes to date (an admirably meticulous piece of scholarship, by the way).
The ramifications extend: a franchising company will turn a soup restaurant called Soup Nutsy (inspired by the Seinfeld episode about the Soup Nazi, itself inspired by the allegedly intimidating proprietor of Soup Kitchen International on West 55th Street) into a name-brand chain, that is if it is not outflanked by another chain, Soup Man Enterprises, which (according to another story) has struck a deal with the man from Soup Kitchen International (although the latter is duly appalled by “‘the hateful name’…he had been given on Seinfeld“); the New York Times interviews Canadian comic Mike Myers about Seinfeld as emblem of American comedic values (“that observational comedy—observing the everyday minutiae and creating a glossary of terms”); the New York Post reports that a Miller Brewing Company manager has been fired for talking in the office about a Seinfeld episode (the one about the woman whose name rhymes with a female body part)—SEINFELD RHYME IS REASON BEER EXEC GOT CANNED—and the ensuing trial is covered by Court TV; in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, Jerry Seinfeld himself poses with shoe polisher, goldfish bowl, and boxes of cereal as an advertising representative for the American Express Card; a discussion in New York about the erosion of Jewish identity cites Seinfeld as a supreme and troubling example of the assimilation of Jewish cultural style into the mainstream; and TV Guide enshrines two Seinfeld episodes in its special issue of the “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” (an issue produced in conjunction with the cable channel Nickelodeon in order to promote a “Greatest Episodes of All Time Week,” which will promote, in turn, a spinoff channel called TV Land, which is lobbying to be added to the roster of Time Warner’s New York cable).
In exposure it doesn’t get any better in this republic, all to make people even more conscious of a show they would probably have been watching anyway, since, quite aside from the hype, it happens to be inventive and suggestive and consistently funny in ways that television rarely permits. How weirdly, in fact, the speed and rigor of the show contrast with the elephantine and intrinsically humorless mechanisms of publicity and subsidiary marketing that accrue around it. My feelings about Seinfeld—a show I had long since gotten into the habit of watching in reruns, as a welcome respite from the execrable local news at eleven—might have been different had I known I was watching (in the words of a spokesman for what Business Week calls a “top media buyer”) not merely a funny show but “one of the most important shows in history.”
Once there wasn’t anything that seemed quite so overpoweringly important, at least not anything short of World War II or space travel. I can remember, barely, what it was like when television was still a distinctive and somewhat raggedy presence in a world to which it was foreign. The memories have a pastoral quality, mixing in bushes from the other side of the window, perhaps, or a vase of flowers adjacent to the TV cabinet. Into that world of rich colors and complex textures emanated—from the squat monolithic box in the corner—a vague and grayish mass of moving figures, characters in a story line which often (given the vagaries of reception, the inadequacy of early TV amplification, and the clatter of household interruptions which people had not yet learned to tune out) had to be deduced from partial evidence.
The memories are imbued as well with a flavor of voluptuous indolence—an indolence associated with sofas, pillows, bowls of candy or popcorn, and apparently endless stretches of disposable time—which only at later ages would come to seem more like the flavor of weakness or compulsion or simple lack of anything better to do. (It took about a generation for the culture to acquire the absolute sense of the TV watcher’s ennui that provides a major subtext for Seinfeld, which often ends as the characters are just clicking the set on as if in resignation to their fate.)
It doesn’t seem to matter particularly what programs were on. Between the ages of five and ten, for instance, I absorbed any number of installments of a stream of television comedies, including The Abbott and Costello Show, Amos and Andy, You Bet Your Life, The Jack Benny Program, Private Secretary, Mr. Peepers, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Make Room for Daddy, My Little Margie, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Life of Riley, Ethel and Albert, Father Knows Best, December Bride, Mama, The Bob Cummings Show, and Bachelor Father. Of all these, barely a single specific episode has engraved itself in memory, although each left behind a vivid impression of its essential nature, a sort of Platonic episode embodying all possible variants.
The plots, as I recall, tended to revolve around failed practical jokes, embarrassing household mishaps, doomed get-rich-quick schemes, ceaseless unsuccessful attempts to get the better of one’s next-door neighbor, misinterpreted telephone calls, misdirected packages. A well-meaning husband would sell his wife’s heirloom to the junkman by mistake, or invest his savings in a con man’s Florida real estate scam; a household pet would knock Aunt Flora’s elderberry wine into the punch bowl; Junior would go to elaborate lengths to lie about the window he knocked out playing softball; a secretary would mix up the dunning letters and the party invitations, or uproariously blow off her boss’s toupee by turning up the air conditioner full blast.
There were also other and better comedies—The Phil Silvers Show, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy—of which, with the reinforcement of endless reruns, I retain a much sharper recollection. But the overall effect was of an ill-defined, continually shifting flow not altogether unlike the movement of fishes in an aquarium, soothing, diverting, and (with the exception of certain programs—such as The Web or Danger—given over to tales of the eerie and uncanny) incapable of causing upset. It was stuff that danced before one’s eyes and then never came back; that was its charm and its limitation.
The sheer quantity of programming was already impressive in the Fifties. In retrospect—as I scan complete schedules of network shows and realize just how many of them I watched—it seems unaccountable that there was ever time for other important cultural activities like going to the movies, reading comic books, listening to LPs of Broadway show tunes, collecting bubble gum cards, or studying with the utmost seriousness each new issue of Life and Children’s Digest and, of course, TV Guide. Yet the evidence is inescapable as my eye runs down the listings and recognizes one forgotten companion after another, The Court of Last Resort, The Millionaire, Mark Saber of London, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Name That Tune, To Tell the Truth, not to mention Schlitz Playhouse and The Gisele MacKenzie Show.
Of course nothing was ever as unconscious as early television programming appears in hindsight. In fact, we thought television was a big deal then too; we just didn’t have any idea what “big deal” really meant. Only by comparison with the present day do those rudimentary efforts take on the improvisational air of a reign of accident, where words and images washed up—anything to fill ten minutes here, twenty minutes there—as if their purveyors had given only the faintest glimmer of a thought to the overall design they formed.
The big deal which is Seinfeld is also just a quick little thing, a concentrated dose of farcical invention which seems to be watched by just about everybody. People watch it for reasons as varied as its uncannily precise analysis of miserable but inescapable relationships, its evocation of the bizarre randomness of urban life, its pratfalls and grimaces, its original contributions to the language (the “glossary of terms” to which Mike Meyers refers, evolving out of an almost Elizabethan fondness for protracted quibbles), its affinity with the fantastically mutating formalism of Edmund Spenser, or the platform it provides for the fantastically mutating eyes and eyebrows and mouth of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It is a brief and reliable pleasure.
The most obvious source for this pleasure is a cast capable of unusual refinements of ensemble playing. Seinfeld himself (originally a stand-up comic whose routines revolved around rather mild evocations of life’s minor absurdities) is the indispensable straight man, the perfect stand-in for anybody, just a guy in sneakers who lives alone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, watches television, hangs out with his friends, and only gradually reveals himself as the homme moyen obsessionel, whose mania for neatness keeps incipient panic at bay. Seinfeld’s manner, so understated as to make his lines seem thrown away, works beautifully against the relentlessly goading, operatically whining style of Jason Alexander’s George (a character apparently modeled on the series’ co-creator, Larry David), in whom the classic Woody Allen neurotic persona is cranked to a far more grating level of cringing self-abasement and equally monstrous self-serving. Alexander is the real workhorse of the series, and inhabits the role so thoroughly that he can get away, for instance, with an episode in which he knocks over small children in an effort to escape from a smoke-filled building.