Saturday, 26 July 2014

Seinfeld: 25 Years after its 1989 Debut

Celebrating and Deconstructing the Greatest Ever Sitcom

by J. Albert Barr

On July 5, 1989 the pilot episode of "the show about nothing", The Seinfeld Chronicles (its short-lived title before being renamed simply Seinfeld), debuted to a spectacular level of indifference with television viewers. NBC decided to pass on the show, and so it was, ostensibly, relegated to the overflowing "never was" dustbin of the not-so celebrated annals of television's then 4-decade existence. However, a lone visionary NBC executive, Rick Ludwin, claimed that he saw "potential" in the show, and gave it a big enough budget to produce four more episodes to conclude its historically-short first season run.

However, there were some necessary changes that were made to facilitate a much better audience reaction than the all-but-ignored pilot episode. First, the show would be known simply as Seinfeld. And secondly, a significant female character would be introduced as part of the already male-dominated cast: Elaine Benes. Little known actress (at the time, of course), Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was cast to play Jerry's ex-girlfriend, Elaine. She had been best known for being a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1982-1985, and more contemporaneously for having played a snobbish yuppie neighbor in Christmas Vacation.  

Having been created by its titular star, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David (who would be one of its principal writers for the first seven seasons; would make an occasional cameo appearance; and eventually did the wacky voice of volatile Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner), Seinfeld, initially, was a "comedy of manners" poking fun at contemporary people's neurotic and narcissistic hang-ups and foibles, their petty grievances with one another, and self-absorbed insecurities, which were typically blown out of proportion. The situational set-up and tone of the show also turned the notion of the "sit-com" on its head by transgressing the traditional form, dynamic and style of the standard half-hour comedy show.

This was most immediately expressed with Seinfeld's "no hugging, no learning" policy on the set and at the table-readings. There would be absolutely no moments during an episode where any character would emote in a serious and convincing manner depicting honest human drama, and no moments of character progression and personal growth; in fact, any given episode may, and did, mock those very qualities found in all previous sit-com's that came before Seinfeld.

Many of the ideas for the episodes actually came out of the real lives of Jerry Seinfeld, and especially Larry David, such as "The Stake Out" episode from Season 1, where Jerry meets a woman he's attracted to at a social gathering while accompanied by his ex-girlfriend, Elaine. Feeling hindered by his desire to flirt with said woman in front of Elaine, and ultimately accrue personal information from her leading up to asking her out, Jerry decides instead to stake out her workplace and feign bumping into her by sheer chance, thus enabling him to get her name and ask her out. This actually happened to Larry David. Another example was the Season 2 episode where Jerry spends an obscene amount of money on a suede jacket (lined inexplicably with a silly-looking striped design) only to have it ruined when he was forced to wear it during a snow fall, because Elaine's intimidating father (played memorably by Lawrence Tierney, who, "mother-fucker, looks just like...The Thing!"), whom Jerry and George were meeting for the first time, refused to be seen with him wearing the jacket inside-out with the silly lining exposed for all to see. Again, this actually happened (though it was slightly tweaked for greater comedic effect, of course, in the episode) to Larry David.

Though Seinfeld instantly distinguished itself from other sit-com's, the first three to four seasons were mostly based in "reality". Also, because the show hadn't yet hit its stride, both creatively and popularly, its budget limited the show to fairly cheap and contained scenes, set-wise, although during Season 3 there were signs that it was beginning to branch out of its initial limitations as the budgets began to allow more elaborate settings, particularly outside of Jerry's apartment.

Two particular episodes from Season 2 proved to be revelatory for the show's creative growth and overall sense of originality. First, there was "The Chinese Restaurant" episode in which Jerry, George and Elaine
attempted to get a table at an Asian restaurant before going to see the infamous cult film, "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (Kramer, incidentally, did not appear in this episode, because, at the time, his character, strangely enough, didn't venture outside of his apartment building - actor, Michael Richards, was displeased by these circumstances). However, after being informed by the maitre d' that it would be "five, ten minutes" before they'd get a table, the three main characters are then put through an entire episode's time-frame waiting for that alleged table. All that happens happens in "real time"; Jerry trying to remember a woman he sees already seated; George trying to use the pay-phone to call his supposed date; and Elaine dealing with her hunger pangs. It's a very interesting episode even when talking about it with fans of the show, or casual ones, because "The Chinese Restaurant" became a rather polarizing episode - you either "loved it", or "hated it/bored by it". Regardless, it conveyed a palpable realness that many could relate to, further distinguishing it from other shows, and additionally pushing the envelope of what could be done within a sit-com's framework.

The second key episode from that season in terms of the show's creative growth was "The Busboy" episode. This was the episode where the show's creators and writers had a "light-bulb going off in their collective heads". The basic plot (and I use the word "basic" here for good reason) of the episode revolves around George having inadvertently gotten a busboy fired from his job at the restaurant they were eating at (many, many Seinfeld episodes feature scenes in restaurants; a great metaphor for the pressured confines of "good public behavior", or bad behavior as the case was innumerable times throughout the show), and George trying to apologize later by going to the busboy's cheap apartment with Kramer. Meanwhile, Elaine unwittingly picked up a guy whom she quickly becomes annoyed with and tries to get rid of by driving him to the airport. However, when she fails in this attempt (despite driving amazingly through hectic traffic before taking a wrong turn) and then goes to Jerry's place, simultaneously, the busboy suddenly shows up there as well to thank George for saving his life, due to the restaurant he was fired from having suffered an explosion that killed his replacement. As the busboy leaves, Elaine's jilted suitor, who was outside parking the car, bumps into the busboy in the hallway off-camera. The show's stars, and we, the audience, suddenly hear the busboy and spurned guy get into a heated argument which escalates into a full-fledged fight. For the first time on the show, two seemingly separate plot-lines intersected with one another to great levels of coincidental hilarity. This dynamic would become Seinfeld's modus operandi from Season 3 and onwards to greater and greater heights of absurdity not seen before in a situation comedy.

The third season was the first "full" one with 23 episodes in all. Some of the more memorably hilarious episodes were "The Note": where George gets a massage from a man, and then questions his sexuality afterwards because he thought "it moved" during the experience; "The Pen": Jerry visits his parents in Florida with Elaine and accidentally compels next-door neighbor, Jack Klompus, to give Jerry his beloved pen all because Jerry liked it so much in front of his parents and Elaine. Jerry politely refuses the pen, but Jack insists that he take it (also out of politeness), to which Jerry finally gives in to Jack's aggressive persistence even though he didn't really want to give it up. In Zizekian terms, this is, socially speaking, an example of "traversing the fantasy", when something is offered to you by someone who doesn't actually want to give it up. The social custom is to, of course, politely refuse it, thus relieving the pressure off the giver, who was only feigning the offer as genuine in the first place. One "traverses the fantasy" (and therefore bucks social convention) when one actually accepts the offer; "The Library": a classic episode where Jerry is confronted by an intense, Joe Friday-type "library cop", a Lt. Bookman ("That's actually his name?"), looking for a copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer that has been overdue for about twenty years! A great early example of intersecting stories among the cast, Kramer begins dating the attractive librarian, George is harassed by a bum, hanging around outside of the library, who looks like his old phys-ed teacher from high school whom he got fired because the teacher gave him a wedgie. We learn at the end of the episode that the bum was in fact said teacher, and that he actually had the copy of Tropic of Cancer that Jerry had signed out of the library all those years ago!

Expanding on "The Chinese Restaurant" concept, there were a couple of 3rd season episodes depicting "real time" and confined to a specific enclosed area. One was "The Parking Garage" and another was "The Subway". One of the best episodes of that season was its first ever two-part (or hour-long) episode: "The Boyfriend". It was a send-up on the then new Oliver Stone film, "JFK", and also featured baseball great, Keith Hernandez, playing himself. This episode also established a new, frequently appearing, supporting character, Newman (Jerry's arch nemesis, or "Lex Luthor"), wonderfully played by Wayne Knight. "The Red Dot" was yet another classic episode that featured perhaps the defining moment of character, George Costanza, when he was confronted by his boss, Mr. Lippman, for having sex with the cleaning lady on the desk in his office: "Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell ya, I gotta plead ignorance on this, because if anyone had said anything at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon,...because I've worked in a lot of offices and people do that all the time." Season 3 did not get the attention it deserved the first time around.

After three seasons of failing to hit the Top 40 on the Neilsen Ratings it finally started to pick-up steam with audiences when Season 4 was rated #25 that television season in 1992-93. This was the season that Seinfeld started becoming a "water-cooler show", in which viewers would talk about the previous night's episode with co-workers, friends and such the next day. Season 4 is also remembered for providing a season-long story-arch which reached into the postmodern realms of "self-referentiality". At the beginning of the season Jerry is approached by a couple a NBC execs, after he came off stage doing one of his comic routines at a club, offering him the opportunity to star in his own sit-com. This was a classic case of "art imitating life/life imitating art". So Jerry pitches the idea to his best friend, George, hoping to get him involved in the writing aspect of it, but has difficulty trying to establish an angle for the show, to which George suggests that they do "a show about nothing", meaning to simply depict everyday, mundane existence. Ironically, besides the sheer irony of basing an entire season on such a self-referential premise, the pilot-show of "Jerry", within the Seinfeld show, was not picked-up by NBC. Perhaps the single greatest, or certainly the most popular and memorable episode in Season 4 was, of course, "The Contest" episode, where the four main characters bet on who among them was "master of their domain". In other words, who could hold out masturbating the longest? One of the most risque episodes in sit-com history, the entire episode never once mentions the word "masturbation", but instead brilliantly circumvents around it all the while making it unequivocally sure to the audience what is happening and being discussed. The proverbial "envelope" got an especially big push with this classic episode to be sure.

Another new, and groundbreaking, so-called "sit-com", The Larry Sanders Show, debuted around this time as Season 4 of Seinfeld was re-writing the possibilities for situation comedies in the early 90s. It too challenged the hitherto norms of society and culture, and television etiquette in general, by realistically depicting the behind-the-scenes running of a late-night talk show. The show displayed coarse language and highly sexually-charged material and scenes. It was clearly influenced by Seinfeld, by including as one of its ongoing tropes, the petty behind-one's-back kind of behavior known to be quite normal in such an environment as the "dog eat dog" world of show business, as well as everyday life. Such harsh, sometimes hilarious, sometimes not, social honesty was rising to the surface of our culture's collective consciousness in the 90s, not only on television (particularly with Twin Peaks, and then Northern Exposure, besides the new breed of sit-com) but even more harshly in film (Pulp Fiction, GoodFellas, The Silence of the Lambs, Trainspotting, Fargo, Se7en) and music (the grunge movement, hip-hop/trip-hop, industrial/electronic). And much like the self-referentiality and culture referencing on Seinfeld, so too was this burgeoning social phenomenon being expressed in everyday culture with more and more culture-savvy people, especially within the so-called "Generation X", popping up everywhere, because cultural media had expanded so exponentially and ubiquitously.  

By the end of Season 5 Seinfeld was a runaway hit and cultural phenomenon. It finished in the Top 3 of the Neilsen Ratings during its last five seasons, including two #1 spots for Season 6 and the ninth and final season. Unlike the previous four seasons, the show's, now always, intersecting plot-lines became more ridiculous and less realistic without compromising the show's astounding comedic quality (although there were detractors at this point who lamented over the show's ante-upping on the more outrageous situations the cast were finding themselves in). It went from a "comedy of manners" to an "absurd comedy of manners". The crazier culture became throughout the 90s, it seemed the crazier, zanier and more ludicrous Seinfeld became. Thus more of "art imitating life/life imitating art" became the very air we breathed in our wholly postmodern landscape by decades/millennium's end. Seinfeld presented this "postmodern situation" in real life every week, under the guise of its episodes, right under the unsuspecting noses of many of its viewers (and no doubt its own people: actors, writers, producers, etc) who were not conscious of that fact (hindsight being 20-20, of course). A fish doesn't know its in water, because, unconsciously, its environment is all it knows. The same could be said of human culture for most who exist in it.

Despite it's absolutely groundbreaking accomplishments, its monumental plethora of endlessly funny episodes and individual moments, and, of course, its unforgettable array of characters (many guest-stars who went on to have "careers" simply because they appeared on Seinfeld), let alone its magnificent main cast, what was Seinfeld about? Because it was anything but "about nothing", that's for damn sure.

It featured four despicable, if affable and occasionally charming, excuses for human beings. Four so-called "friends", who would turn on the other in a heartbeat if it meant saving their own ass, or face, or gaining something over the other, even if there were odd times when they actually helped one another as a genuine friend. The show was a cultural mirror that reflected back at us our true nature in this inherently flawed society we have built over millennia. It was an infinitely clever and penetratingly written and performed, 30-minute long television program by a greatly talented crew of actors, writers, producers and directors. And it was gut-burstingly hilarious! Whatever, the dark realities of our very real human nature, Seinfeld was always funny as hell, probably because it was so fiercely honest in its, albeit, but no too far off, exaggerated depictions of justifiably, ridiculously shameful human behavior. One is supposed to watch it with an always sense of ironic self-perception, not being directly attached to the situations on display, of course, but having them still ring true in one's own life. We laugh at these characters and rarely with them. And hopefully we learn, through this televised reflection, that we should not act like that ourselves, that we should be above such petty behavior, especially as apparent adults.

But has that actually happened in the ensuing 16 years since Seinfeld ended its celebrated 9-season run in 1998? When you look around society and culture in general now, what do you honestly see? What is the main draw of most reality television shows? The petty, self-absorbed, duplicitous, lying, immature, backstabbing behavior between the contestants and/or participants isn't it? Be honest. This is the norm in our society now let alone how it's depicted daily on television, or on the Internet. It's the very air we breathe. And accusations of mere cynicism is too facile, and ignorant, a conclusion to make, I tenably believe. Almost 15 years since the first season of Survivor tellingly debuted in 2000 - the first official "reality t.v. show" - we still can't get enough of it, as television today is incessantly flooded with such brainless and moronic programming. As much as I love Seinfeld, how much of an overarching, negative influence did it unwittingly have on culture, ultimately, despite its light-hearted, brilliantly funny antics on the surface? Most people would likely bemoan such a seemingly outrageous allegation: "That's absurd! It's just a show for Christ's sake! You're reading too much into it". Perhaps. Oh, the humanity! indeed, huh? Still, I continue to watch Seinfeld fairly frequently on DVD. It makes me laugh to this day, which I find comforting. It all makes me laugh. How about you?


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