Monday, October 17, 2005


1) I never watched Seinfeld during its original run. Started watching the show on DVD a few months ago and suddenly couldn’t get enough.

2) Half the plot complications in Seinfeld would evaporate if the characters had cel phones, but they hadn’t yet conquered the planet in the early ‘90s. Weird to think how very quickly the whole world can change when the right options come along.

3) First I watched the fourth season, then the first season. Together they formed a lesson in sitcom production. Nothing was together during the first season. Everything ran more slowly and quietly. Characters said whole sentences that weren’t funny, just to move the story along. Kramer acted as though he wanted to be liked, which was just creepy. The whole cast behaved like kids who were afraid their parents would get divorced if they made any noise. Things got better after the first few episodes.

4) The show has the reputation of being “about nothing”, but that’s not quite it. What’s unusual about the Seinfeld is that each story pivots on minor details, and each one is spread over several episodes. Great importance is given to insignificant events, and no importance is given to finding direction or resolution for the characters. Small distractions are plentiful; big gestures are futile. That this is a particularly urban, kinda pathological way of looking at life was not lost on the fearful executives who were hesitant to green-light the show.

Each story element (a jacket, a car, a relationship, etc.) is mentioned in one episode, reincorporated in the next as a joke, then reincorporated in yet another episode as a plot device that pivots the whole story. Each episode consists of jagged parts of several stories, like parts of different photographs stuck into one frame.

5) I think the cultural phenomenon that has the most in common with Seinfeld is the Peanuts comic strip. Each character suggests one fragment of a modern human psyche – the everyman, the loser, the haunting romantic past, the weird neighbor-creature with mysterious powers. I’ve had dreams involving the Seinfeld characters. The main difference between Seinfeld and Peanuts seems to be that in Peanuts, Linus occasionally says wise things, while Seinfeld exists in a world without wisdom. The show’s motto, after all, has been described as “no hugging and no learning.” Wisdom is replaced by Jerry’s standup routines, which present as objective a view of reality as can exist on the show.

6) Kramer became the best character. He’s a walking interruption of the routine, turning any conversation into a scene and any drama into comedy just by walking in the door. Where he goes, the scene follows.

Like all great characters, he’s full of contradictions. He’ll go to great lengths to stand up for his principles, yet his behavior is amoral and unpredictable. He has no social skills, yet he’s a ladies’ man. He’s a fearless slapstick character on a show about sophisticated neurotics. Nothing is too over-the-top for him to do. I love Kramer.

7) Jerry is the everyman character, and the everyman character is often mistakenly thought to be unnecessary in comedy. Charles Schulz ended his career thinking Snoopy was the true protagonist of the Peanuts cartoons, and the result was twenty years of strips that weren’t funny.

Jerry Seinfeld is the host who invites the viewer into the strange world of otherwise self-absorbed, neurotic, bizarre characters. His standup comedy bits at the start and end of each show aren’t always very funny, but they make it clear that he’s our guide through the story that follows.

I’m guessing this was the reason for the “Seinfeld curse”. I never saw the shows that the other three actors launched when Seinfeld ended its run, but they might have tried to build their comedy around a central character better left on the periphery. When we’re asked to see the world through the eyes of a weird character, that character stops being weird – or, less comfortably, we start to feel weird ourselves.

8) George became more of a loser with every episode. At the start he was employed and mild-mannered. The interview footage on the DVD shows the actor, Jason Alexander, to be quite handsome and charismatic when his character isn’t trying to lie his way out of his latest catastrophe. I get a bit wary of George’s total inability to do the right thing, but it does keep the stories moving forward. The stories work better when George gets stuck between doing two “right things” – such as quitting the job he hates, and maintaining an income – and decides to try doing both.

9) Elaine mostly shares the everyman role with Jerry, but she also slips into whatever role the story needs her to play: she can be obsessive and manic, or she can play the voice of reason.

I may be missing or dismissing some key aspects of her character, but the show clearly needs her to be both sane and crazy; consequently, she winds up acting reasonable most of the time, yet surrounding herself with lunatics, such as her series of over-the-top bosses. She seems to be a rational person, but her career and life are controlled by irrational people. She's extremely rational in her idealism, but she takes it to irrational extremes.

10) Elaine winds up as the emotional core of the show. Jerry wears one facial expression through most of the series, yet Elaine can project affection, exasperation, anger or anything else she might feel. She's Jerry’s romantic past, right there in the room with him - judging his present relationships and offering limited emotional support. The scene where she and Jerry negotiate a return to their physical relationship might as well be Jerry cautiously inviting emotion back into his life. If Jerry realized this kind of thing, of course, he'd be well-adjusted, and probably unemployed. Instead, we have Seinfeld.


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