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.
The blank zone inhabited by Jerry and George—their trademark ennui punctuated by ricocheting gags—is made richer and stranger by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jerry’s ex-girlfriend Elaine and Michael Richards as the perpetually mooching across-the-hall neighbor Kramer. Less striking in the earliest episodes, Louis-Dreyfus’s brand of facial comedy has evolved into a distinct art form. Analyzed in slow motion, her shifts of expression are revealed as a complex ballet in which eyes, nose, mouth, neck, and shoulder negotiate hairpin turns or spiral into free fall. The smirk, the self-satisfied grin, the effusion of faked warmth, the grimace of barely concealed revulsion: each is delineated with razor precision before it slides into a slightly different shading.
As for Richards’s Kramer, it seems hardly necessary at this point to praise what has become probably the most familiar comic turn in recent memory. Kramer as a character embodies all the expansive and ecstatic impulses which are severely curtailed in the others, creating an opportunity for the mercurial transformations in which Richards adopts by rapid turns the masks of Machiavellian intrigue, righteous anger, infant rapture, jaded worldliness, Buddhistic detachment, down-home bonhomie. Richards practices a refinement of the school of manic role-shifting of which Robin Williams and the Michael Keaton of Beetlejuice were earlier exemplars, and seals his performance with pratfalls which by now are legendary.
Seinfeld’s singular intensity has everything to do with its brevity, the twenty-two minutes of programming paid for by eight minutes of commercials. (In this case it works out to more than a million dollars a minute.) By straining at the limits of what can fit into a twenty-two-minute slot (rather than visibly struggling to fill it, like most shows), Seinfeld distends time. Its best episodes feel like feature films, and indeed have busier narratives than most features. (The periodic one-hour episodes, by contrast, sometimes go weirdly slack.) There is no padding; plot exposition is relayed in telegraphic jolts. An episode normally encompasses three separate plots which must converge in some fashion at the end, and the management of these crisscrossing storylines, the elisions and internal rhymes and abrupt interlacements, is one of the show’s delights.
The sheer quantity of matter to be wrapped up enforces an exhilarating narrative shorthand. Comic opportunities that most shows would milk are tossed off in a line or two. The tension and density of working against the time constraint is a reminder of how fruitful such constraints can be. If Count Basie had not been limited to the duration of a 78 rpm record, would we have the astonishing compression of “Every Tub” (three minutes, fourteen seconds) or “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (three minutes, eight seconds)?
The enormous budget, of course, makes possible frequent and elaborate scene changes which would be prohibitive for most shows. (It also makes possible a brilliant and constantly shifting supporting cast of taxi drivers, doormen, liquor store owners, television executives, German tourists, midwestern neo-Nazis, and hundreds more.) We are far from the primal simplicity of The Honeymooners, whose aura owed much to the rudimentary and unchanging space of Ralph and Alice Kramden’s impoverished kitchen. Seinfeld—despite the recurrent settings of Jerry’s apartment and Monk’s Café—is not about space in the same way, only about the psychic space of the characters and the catchphrases and body language which translate it. They carry their world with them into elevators and waiting rooms, gyms and airplanes and Chinese restaurants.
It is a world in sharp focus (rendered with an obsessive concern for surface realism of speech and clothing and furniture) in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, undergoes permanent uncomfortable scrutiny. The prevailing mood of Seinfeld’s protagonists is hypercritical irritation. Deeply annoyed by others most of the time, the four leads are only erratically conscious of how much annoyance they generate in turn. The spectrum of self-awareness ranges from George’s abject self-loathing (“People like me shouldn’t be allowed to live!”) to the blissed-out self-approbation of Kramer, with a special place reserved for the scene where subtitles translate the comments of the Korean manicurists on whom Elaine is bestowing what she imagines to be a friendly smile while she waits impatiently to have her nails done: “Princess wants a manicure…. Mustn’t keep Princess waiting.”
The mutual kvetching of Jerry and George—of which we’re given just enough to know how unbearable continuous exposure would be—serves as the ground bass over which Kramer, Elaine, and the expanding circle of subsidiary characters weave endless comic variations. The relationship of Jerry and George is much like that of talk show host and sidekick, marked by constant obligatory banter indistinguishable from nagging. In short, a comfortable level of hostility and mistrust is maintained, upheld by everyone’s fundamental desire not to get too closely involved with other people.
Seinfeld is defined by a series of refusals. Romantic love is not even a possibility, although deceptive or obsessive forms of it occasionally surface. Sex figures merely as a relentless necessity and an endless source of complications, and the intrigues that surround it have a detached, businesslike tone. (Seinfeld succeeds in making a joke not only out of sex but, more scandalously, out of sexual attractiveness, the “telegenic” currency of the medium.) Nor does the show succumb to the feel-good impulses which are the last resort of American movies and TV shows; it remains blessedly free of that simulation of human warmth evident in everything from weather reports to commercials for investment banking. There is a tacit contract that at no point will Seinfeld and friends break down and testify to how much they really like one another. It’s clear that each thinks he really could have done better in the way of friends, but happens to be stuck with these ones and can’t imagine how to survive without them.
The emotional tone is a throwback to the frank mutual aggressiveness of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello (the latter frequently acknowledged by Seinfeld as a prime influence), who never made the error of thinking their characters lovable. Seinfeld likewise keeps in sight the comic importance of subjecting its characters to cruelty and humiliation, of forcing them constantly to squirm and lie and accept disgrace before disappearing into the ether until next week. (The humiliations in question are often physical; the show has tirelessly enlisted body parts, bodily fluids, disgusting personal habits, diseases, and medical operations into its scenarios, as if the comedy of the lower body were necessary to keep in balance all that disembodied verbal riffing.)
What a relief to encounter comedy which does not mistake itself for anything else. Its characters are free to start from zero each time, free to indulge the marvelous shallowness which is the privilege of the creatures of farce. Nothing counts here, nothing has consequences; as one of the show’s writers (Larry Charles, in Entertainment Weekly) has observed, the crucial guideline is that the characters do not learn from experience and never move beyond what they intrinsically and eternally are.
They cannot better themselves: a condition with positively subversive implications in a culture of self-help and self-aggrandizement where has-beens no longer attempt comebacks but rather “reinvent themselves” and where a manual for would-be bestselling autobiographers advises how to “turn your memories into memoirs.” There is a wonderful moment when Kramer, swelling with indignation at some petty trespass of Jerry’s, asks him: “What kind of person are you?” and he replies in squeaky desperation, “I don’t know!” The characters can only play at self-knowledge; any real consciousness of who they are—unless in some alternate world, along the lines of the celebrated “Bizarro Jerry” episode, in which the leads are stalked by uncanny near-copies of themselves—would be like the cartoon moment when Bugs Bunny looks down and realizes he’s walking on air.
Although they cannot evolve, they do change form ceaselessly. The fact of not really being people gives them an ideal flexibility. If Kramer is convinced in one episode that Jerry has been a secret Nazi all along, or if sexual abstinence enables George to become an absurd polymath effortlessly soaking up Portuguese and advanced physics, it will leave no aftertaste the next time around.
If Seinfeld is indeed, in the words of Entertainment Weekly, “the defining sitcom of our age” (one wonders how many such ages, each defined by its own sitcom, have already elapsed), the question remains what exactly it defines. Deliberate satire is alien to the spirit of the enterprise. Seinfeld has perfected a form in which anything can be invoked—masturbation, Jon Voight, death, kasha, deafness, faked orgasms, Salman Rushdie, Pez dispensers—without assuming the burden of saying anything about it (thereby avoiding the “social message” trap of programs like Norman Lear’s All in the Family or Maude).
The show does not comment on anything except, famously, itself, in the series of episodes where Jerry and George create a pilot for a sitcom “about nothing,” a sitcom identical to the one we are watching. This ploy—which ultimately necessitates a whole set of look-alikes to impersonate the cast of the show-within-a-show Jerry—ties in with the recursive, alternate-universe mode of such comedies as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Groundhog Day, while holding back just this side of the paranormal. If conspiracy theories surface from time to time, it is purely for amusement value, as in the episode where a spitting incident at the ballpark becomes the occasion for an elaborate parody—complete with Zapruder-like home movie—of the Single Bullet Theory (figuring in this context as the ultimate joke on the idea of explanation).
The result is a vastly entertaining mosaic of observed bits and traits and frames. Imagine some future researcher trying to annotate any one of these episodes, like a Shakespearean scholar dutifully noting that “tapsters were proverbially poor at arithmetic.” It would not merely be a matter of explaining jokes and cultural references and curt showbiz locutions—“He does fifteen minutes on Ovaltine” or “They cancelled Rick James”—but of explicating (always assuming that they were detected in the first place) each shrug and curtailed expostulation and deftly averted glance.
Where it might once have been asked if Seinfeld was a commentary on society, the question now should probably be whether society has not been reconfigured as a milieu for commenting on Seinfeld. If the craziness enacted on the show is nothing more than the usual business of comedy, the craziness that swirls around it in the outside world is of a less hilarious order. Comedy and money have always been around, but not always in such intimate linkage, and certainly not on so grandiose a scale. In the fifteenth century, the fate of Tudor commerce was not perceived to hinge on the traveling English players who wowed foreign audiences as far afield as Denmark.
The information-age money culture for which Seinfeld is only another, fatter, bargaining chip clearly lost its sense of humor a long time ago, a fact that becomes ever more apparent as we move into an economy where sitcoms replace iron and steel as principal products, and where fun is not merely big business but seemingly the only business. The once-endearing razzmatazz of showbiz hype warps into a perceptible desperation which registers all too plainly how much is at stake for the merchandisers. One becomes uncomfortably aware of them looming behind the audience, running electronic analyses of the giggles and nervously watching for the dreaded moment when the laughter begins to dry up. It all begins to seem too much like work even for the audience, who may well begin to wonder why they should be expected to care about precisely how much their amusement is worth to the ticket-sellers.
As for the actual creators of the fun, I would imagine that—allowing for difference of scale and pressure—they go about their work pretty much the same way regardless of the going price for a good laugh. Some years ago, in a dusty corner of Languedoc, I watched a dented circus truck pull up unannounced along the roadside. The family of performers who clambered out proceeded to set up a makeshift stage, which in a few hours time was ready for their show: a display of tumbling and magic which could have been presented without significant difference in the fifteenth century. After two hours of sublime entertainment, they passed the hat around and drove away toward the next bend in the road. It is strange to think of the fate of empires, even entertainment empires, hinging on such things.
August 14, 1997