Much ink has been spilled untangling the references that bore the American and British Punk rock movements of the mid to late 1970’s, often correctly stating that what it was was as much about what it was not. What they weren’t (bloated and tired arena rock) was why they needed to exist so forcefully; rock music had reached a point in its history where the early rebellions of the 50’s and mid 60’s were such a distant memory that many now believed the point of rock music was to try and make enough money so that you could tour in a 747. Punk took the music and the topics of songs back into where it should have been at that point of its evolution. Finally, over almost a decade in the wilderness, rock was ready to recommence its originally stated thesis: to be subversive music for oppressed working class (young) people.
Now when one looks at mainstream television you can see somewhat of a parallel. Granted, the original thesis’ aren’t the same, but at some point in the 1970’s the bulk of comedic television became pretty damn turgid, mirroring much of the 1970’s music scene. And when it wasn’t turgid it was so damn cute as to make one want to puke. It was quite a fall from the original golden age of television, of just a decade or so prior. By the time the mid to late 1980’s rolled around, seeing anything resembling fresh, subversive, or new was about as possible as seeing a sow take flight over the pasture. When you consider what was actually considered subversive at the time in American television you start to realize just how inherently conservative everything actually was. One show endlessly lauded the fact that an African American family could actually be the focus of a major television series (The Cosby Show), and that they could actually be affluent; while one had the breathtaking audacity to imagine that people did exist in the lower middle classes (Roseanne). Both shows actually worked to (inadvertently?) rearticulate the oppressive ideologies in direct counter to what classic comedy is usually attempting to exploit and lambast (The Cosby Show was mostly concerned with steadfast conservative family values, while Roseanne was busy projecting an image that the working class was best projected as uneducated white trash). Adding to that was the destructive fact that they were both born from two comedians whose standup careers where rooted in relatively fresh and original prospective for their respective times coupled with the fact that they were coming from an era (late 1960s to mid 1980s) that featured a boom of sorts for that medium (stand-up comedy) and you begin to understand how necessary a ‘punk’ like revolution was needed in American television as well.
And that wasn’t even the half of it.
You’d have to add in all the childish junk—some of it fun on its own terms (The Wonder Years)—and all the similar ilk for the other end of the age spectrum, those in their twilight, to get a more accurate, full view of the entire television scene at the time. Full House, Doogie Howser, M.D., Family Matters (a very low brow Cosby Show), would round out the childish stuff to name just a few, while the Cocoon set enjoyed their Golden Girls and its spin-off, Empty Nest, for much of the decade. Most of these shows existed on the most base level ideas of comedy; getting a child to say something you wouldn’t expect a child to utter, or having an elderly person word something raunchy. Of course, these are mainstream television shows, and often very lame ones at that, so the ‘unexpected’ was only really outlandish to someone who didn’t get out very much (which in the case of children or the elderly covers pretty much everyone).
Even the more adult themed comedies like Murphy Brown and Cheers (the show Seinfeld originally followed in NBC’s evening rotation), which was on its last legs by 1989, often ventured into the realm of attempting to offer some sort of populist sentimental guidance at the episodes conclusion. Their radical nature, when they were radical which they always weren’t, was built almost entirely on premise (Murphy Brown supported a women in a position of power in the workplace, while Cheers was gleefully rude and highly self-aware) and often succumb to status quo maintenance whenever the show was in need of quickly wrapping up. This was an era not that far removed from M.A.S.H., or even the whacky Get Smart (to not even mention something glorious like The Honeymooners from a bit earlier) but nevertheless a groundbreaking, mainstream defying show seemed virtually impossible (even if the newly born pay channels, such as HBO, began showing they could feasibly support this type of entertainment in the coming years). Something to return television to the world of a filmed, tightly compacted theater piece where language and idea was king. One that could make anyone laugh at any time. It’s a hoot then to consider that when it did come, it all started as simply as this;
You know why we’re here? (he means literally here in the comedy club that the standup is being conceived in) To be out, this is out…and out is one of the single most enjoyable experiences of life. People… did you ever hear people talking about “We should go out”? This is what they’re talking about… this whole thing, we’re all out now, no one is home. Not one person here is home, we’re all out!
Most people think The Seinfeld Chronicles started with a diner discussion on the placement of buttons on a men’s dress shirt, and while that’s true to a degree, it actually started here with that partial standup routine over the opening credits. The radical ethos is right there in the beginning; all these shows I’ve talked about above wanted to get back to the home to deal with the anti-liberating family ideal, while Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David envisioned something much wider, a terrain much bigger than the mere living room.
About the smallest of things.
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(This introduction piece kicks off a coming series of my Top 25 episodes of Seinfeld that should appear on a regular basis every few days. Each listing in the top 25 will feature an essay accompaniment and upon completion I’ll present my Top 75 Seinfeld episodes as an ordered list. In the meantime, enjoy these small appetizers;
Favorite season: 5 (though Season 4 remains the most consistent to me on objective grounds)
Favorite semi-returning character: Poppie
Favorite one off character: Jiffy Parking lot attendant (though he’s actually in two episodes; the most predominant being ‘The Wig Master’ (Season 7, episode 129)), played by actor Chaim Jeraffi.
Favorite regular character: Elaine Benes (though the uncharacteristic way her character changes in the last 2 non-Larry David seasons is both disappointing and the chief reason I think so lesser of these two)
Favorite Jerry girlfriend: Katya (played by Elina Löwensohn) from ‘The Gymnast’ (Season 6, episode 92). This changes frequently however. Recently it was Shelly (played by Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, who also had the lead female role in Fletch), from the episode ‘The Doodle’, before that it was Lois (played by Renee Props), from episode ‘The Race’.
Favorite fictional film: Prognosis: Negative
Favorite episodes for each character (these are compiled off the top of my head, so they are subject to change on a whim):
Kramer: ‘The Friar’s Club’ (Season 7, episode 128)
Jerry: ‘The Trip’ (part 1 and 2) (Season 4, episodes 41, 42)
Elaine: while I think Elaine is quintessentially her ‘Elaine’ persona (physical ticks and mannerisms) in Seasons 3 and 4 (she more than any other character became worse as the Series became more and more absurd and highly situationally based) so naming a ‘favorite episode’ would be more a smattering of several small moments from several episodes (for example, I think her quirky anxious and embarrassed dance in ‘The Truth’ [Season 3, episode 19] after revealing to Jerry that Kramer has seen her naked is my absolute favorite). But for the sake of this list I’d say the thing about Elaine I like the best is her personification of realistic modern American feminism, so I’d cite ‘The Revenge’ (Season 2, episode 12) and specifically ‘The Couch’ (Season 6, episode 91) as really prime Elaine episodes.
George: (tie) ‘The Scofflaw’ (Season 6, episode 99) and ‘The Puffy Shirt’ (Season 5, episode 66) )