Saturday, June 4, 2016

Was Seinfeld really about nothing?

From the left: Jerry Seinfeld (himself), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus),
Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), and George Costanza (Jason Alexander).
I've never understood when they say that Seinfeld (the television series) was a show about nothing. My reaction to that statement has always been a paralyzing confusion, which reminds me, now that I'm shining a flashlight around in this area, that we are surrounded by so many lies in our culture that we live in a state of frequent confusion and mental lock-down.

Mostly, it was people associated with the show who said it was about nothing—as if it were some absurdist work by Ionesco or Beckett in which four characters sit on wooden stools on a scantly illuminated stage with a black backdrop, and say and do nothing for the duration of the play, as if John Cage wrote 4'33 for the dramatic theater instead of the concert hall. That would be a drama about approximately nothing. I suspect that neither actor nor producer really believed Seinfeld was about nothing, but it was something to say that gained attention. Many newspaper reviewers make a living by rearranging press releases so they can pass Copyscape, and they reprint the press packet's ideas without a critical thought.

No, the show was, first of all, about the lead characters, Elaine Benes, George Costanza, Cosmo Kramer, and Jerry Seinfeld, and every sitcom in the history of television has been about the foibles of its characters leading to an uncomfortable situation at which we can laugh.

Remember how, in I Love Lucy, Lucy always comes up with an idea or scheme, and she often enlists the aid of a reluctant but sporting Ethel to help her, then everything goes terribly wrong? At the end, as Ricky Ricardo learns of Lucy's good intentions but sloppy thinking leading up to the week's disaster, he would always guffaw and chuckle and say, "Oh ho ho ho, Luuuuuu-cyyyyyy. Hohoho. You chould know better dan to teenk! Oh ho ho ho." It was the most blatantly and actively sexist show on television: the female who reaches beyond the domains of kitchen and nursery invariably oversteps her bounds. All shows were sexist back then—important rule: TV reflects the society that makes it, not the other way around—but usually it was passive sexism in which women silently conformed, pleased, and stood by their men. I imagine Ward Cleaver and Darrin Stevens greeted as they return home from work by the savory smell of roast in the oven, pitchers of martinis, and blow jobs. Our world is slightly more sensitive to the plight of women. Donna Reed or June Cleaver in 1950 television's Pollyanna-ish eye now look like Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in The Hours, a Donna Reed dependent on Valium (or whatever they took back then). She is barely holding it together: her friends see how she is shredded, but they only try to exploit her. Her husband sees no further than the roast beef she sets before him at table.

Although it's a bit tangential, I can't resist sharing the scenario of one more show. Davy & Goliath was a claymation children's cartoon series about a boy and his dog that was produced by one of the Lutheran Churches (the Christians have fractured into so many schisms since they left The Church that I can't bother to keep track). The boy, Davy, has little or no moral compass to guide him except for Goliath, his dog, to whom he rarely listens. It's a dramatic device: put the fledgling conscience and incipient Christian values in the mind of a talking dog, and you've got this growth process out there for the kids to see. Every week Davy would say something like:

"Goliath, that new kid that moved into the old house down on the corner said to come by and smoke a joint."

And the dog goes in his deep, mentally slow but ethically acute voice, "Gee, Davy, I don't think that's such a good idea."

So they go down the street, Goliath faithfully following Davy despite the bad turn he's taking, and Davy smokes dope all afternoon with the new kid. The next thing he knows he wakes up in a hospital bed with his worried but relieved parents and Goliath beside the bed. For the sake of dramatic expedience, marijuana the gateway drug has been conflated with heroin and its high overdose potential. After a glossed-over description of what happens after a heroin overdose—just enough to dissuade but not disturb the youthful audience—Davy expresses proper remorse to give the episode its denouement:

"I should have listened to Goliath! Well, from now on, I will. And I'm never going to smoke that Devil's Weed ever again."

"That's right, Davy," says Dad. "We've seen to it that the new kid on the corner has been shipped off to a reform school for criminally disturbed children. You'll never see him again. You won't be able to smoke dope again if you wanted to."

"Thanks dad!"

The good in this mythical world of Davy and Goliath, the Beaver's folks, and Donna Reed lies in conforming to a societal agenda. It wasn't good at all, it was merely the sacrifice of self as an invasive component of the social contract. It was hard on the men—virtually the whole generation been to war, and there were so many expectations to which they had to conform, expectations they had to meet "like a man." Yet it was even harder on the women because their husbands, with whom they were supposed to be best friends and confidants, were made by the mores of the times into total strangers with whom they shared bed and board.

But I digress. The lead characters on Seinfeld are all, each in her or his way, schemers, and that's the other element of what the show is about. They are intelligent schemers who do not get caught up in the madness of crowds. They swim against fashion, fads, and trends, and that's what gets them into trouble. For example, in "The Bizarro Jerry," Episode 8.3, Kramer talks his way into an office environment until people accept him as working there. George has a scam of showing a photograph of his recently deceased fiancĂ©e, Susan, to other women, who become immediately sympathetic and accessible to George. He uses this emotional skeleton key to gain entry into the lives and affections of women. He even gets into an underground nightclub for famous fashion models in New York—a kind of Valhalla of beautiful women—but then he loses his picture and gets thrown out.

In a reversal, Elaine tries to become good when she meets a kind of anti-trio to Jerry, George, and Kramer, and because they're nice and do things like help the homeless and spend their evenings reading books together, she gravitates toward them. Kevin, the Jerry figure, keeps his front door locked and chained, so the Kramer figure from across the hall can't just swing & slide into the apartment, but then the anti-Kramer doesn't mind having to knock. Before you can open Kevin's fridge to eat, you have to ask, and even then there's a good chance he'll say no. Even Kevin's apartment is a mirror image of Jerry's. Ultimately though Elaine realizes that this wholesome normalcy is also terribly boring, so she goes back to Jerry, George, and Kramer. (The episode's title, by the way, refers to a Bizarro Superman in DC lore who is the opposite of the "real" Superman.)

Jerry plays himself, which means he occasionally flies somewhere and does stand-up comedy and gets paid a large amount of money, so he doesn't have to work very often, and he can afford all the food that Elaine, George, and especially Kramer eat out of his kitchen. Elaine has one job or another throughout the run of the show. But for the first half of the show, George doesn't work and lives at home with his parents. Kramer apparently survives by occasionally coming up with a scam that actually pays off. Yet the professional eight-to-five rat race is only one aspect of culture that Seinfeld and his friends avoid. They quickly drop any would-be steady dates who turn out to be unimaginative. The famous and hilarious Soup Nazi creates a dilemma for them: on one hand he makes the best soup that anyone has ever eaten, yet the severely fascistic crowd control that the Soup Nazi has in his shop is precisely the sort of discipline at which they all bristle, and one by one they act out and get 86'd from the soup shop. Even when they don't want to act out so they can have the soup as a high-point in their lives, the acting out happens as if by instinct.

Lucy's dilemmas spring from schemes like working on a pastry assembly line that moves too fast for her to keep up—mostly physical comedy falling out of a bit of thinking. Michael Richards (Kramer) is mostly a physical comic, and he was hired for counterpoint to Jerry Seinfeld's more cerebral approach. Yet Seinfeld's characters think all the time, and that's what gets them into trouble. They occasionally want to fit in with the people around them, but that involves suspending thought and disbelief or at least pretending to go along with the crowd, and it involves not cringing when they embrace the same habits and fads as everyone else. Ultimately they fall back in with their comfortable home group of misfits and malcontents. That takes Seinfeld beyond where any sitcom has gone before. The show is built around how we rush into burdening ourselves with debt, property, long-term commitments in relationships, children! It's built around all those things we must have—money, VHS tapes, fashionable clothing, cars, a sex partner and ample birth control. All those things that thoughtful people might hesitate to do. In nearly every sitcom the full catastrophe has already happened—think Married with Children—but Seinfeld's comedy is built around avoiding the castastrophe for as long as possible. Seinfeld is about being unable to make the necessary sacrifices, mainly sacrifices of thought, in order to mindlessly pursue materialist dreams. It's about refusing to suffocate one's own imagination, and that's quite a lot for a little sitcom to be about. That's more than any other sitcom has ever been about. It's understated subversion.

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By the way, if you follow this link to Hulu, you can get a free two-week subscription, and if you stay with it, I'll get two free weeks with Hulu as well, which is one nice way you can support this Blog. Hulu has not only all of the Seinfeld episodes, but they provide an easy on-demand way to keep up with recent TV shows. And they have tons and tons of classic television programs, most in their entirety. The complete 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone, My Favorite Martian, Mr Ed, and tons more are here. Then my favorite part is a vast collection of movies, many foreign films, and including the complete Criterion Collection, the smartest bundle of movies anywhere around and including films by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, and dozens of other master directors. In short, Hulu contains an afficionado's selection of films. If you're serious about movies, or crazy about comedies, this is where you need to be. Those are a few reasons why it's considered part of the Big Three.

It's funny that this whole blog wound up being about Seinfeld. My intention was to write a series of unrelated paragraphs in a kind of random notes summary to give you an idea of what's going on. But it didn't happen today because Seinfeld took over. Sunday will be about Game of Thrones. And Monday is poetry day. So stay tuned. We'll get to the news and random notes stuff here soon.