Yeah, Yeah, the sneakers. The Americans and their sneakers. Always running from something. Well, sit, stop running, two minutes and I’ll give you the latest manuscript.
In the post-Seinfeld landscape I think the easiest way to see the shows massive influence is to just look at what we have in terms of scripted television comedy (or, equally important to note, would be how much scripted comedy we don’t have; I’ve always thought the huge shadow of Seinfeld led to the cynicism of the reality TV boom. It was akin to studio heads saying, “well, we can’t top that so why even try?”). Now, the vast majority of shows resort to aloofness and irreverence, a full embracing of nonsensical situations and characters. As if whole shows are now filled with nothing but Kramers, forever forgetting that what made Kramer so brilliant was how glaringly he stuck out, akin to a weed amidst the crack in a cement lot. From afar it’d look almost usable, only closer would the delicate, manic intricacies bare themselves. Suddenly Seinfeld created a little bit of wackiness, which to an eye unable to grasp nuance would appear near overloaded with it. But no, Seinfeld was a show wringing so much surrealism from such heightened normalcy that it itself appears in need of reevaluation after its influence is mulled over almost 20 years on.
Just consider the more ‘ground breaking’ comedic shows in Seinfeld‘s wake; the Arrested Developments, the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the 30 Rock‘s, the Office‘s, etc., hell even Larry David’s post-Seinfeld work, Curb Your Enthusiasm would fit here (even if I think his show is more interesting—comedically and subversively—than all the others listed here), all work in a way purporting a world little more deep than a series of in-jokes with the audience. A sort of detached hypersensitivity to what the character say, and what they act like, grounded in a world of the audiences collective ethical vanilla. The shows laugh at their characters and the outrageous things their characters say, as if nothing is real and the situations have no realistic potential. Plus, often whole sitcom set-ups are based on situations bore from complete negation of how things really work without paying any heed to a style of surrealism. Meaning, in essence, the shows all use a documentary style of realism even though nothing, and no one in these shows, could exist in this abundance (As I said earlier they are shows that seem to reverse the Seinfeld ratio; three ‘real’ characters to one Kramer get reversed to three Kramer’s to one ‘normal’ person).* This set up results in audiences laughing in a way removed from the purest essence of the comedic impulse; rather than the uneasiness of subversion and alarming challenging audacity, we are stupefied and mocked. No more WC Fields and in its place something like Doug Heffernan.
The episode that could most successfully argue this I feel is season five’s ‘The Marine Biologist’. The episode has such a creeping strangeness to it, that once everything explodes at the end in one of American sitcoms great crescendo climax punch lines, we perhaps finally fully realize just how much such seemingly banal objects, events, and activities, have been distorted and manipulated to provide such a unique exclamation of irreverence. The settings move so fluidly into each rather than the collisions of two strange characters in say, Arrested Development (can you ever imagine a character there being given anything as banal as Kramer—the usual odd one—is here? I mean, hitting golf balls by himself at the beach) that each scene can pick up one new wrinkle until we’re at the end and they can all bare fruit. There is George recounting a program on Marine Biology he’s watched to Jerry, who turns to thinking it a good idea he claim that the unemployed George works as a Marine Biologist when Jerry is asked about him from an old college friend he runs into (she was, evidently George’s ‘It girl’ in college). George, eager to impress (a perfectly fine comment on realistic human anxiety), runs with the lie until he realizes he might be in over his head (he humorously finally feels out of his depth only on subject matter, as he has no problem with the lie, as he famously asks Jerry later, “why couldn’t you have made me an Architect? You know I always wanted to pretend to be an architect”). It comes to quite a head when he’s actually called to be a Marine Biologist and save a beached whale he encounters when on a romantic stroll on the beach one afternoon. It’s a grand statement, but something small like the unrealistically heard shout of “Is anyone here a Marine Biologist!” is heard off camera (hilariously, it’s Larry David himself who utters the line) that might be the most sneakingly funny thing there.
All the while other stories intersect too; Elaine takes the fictitious alternate War and Peace title, War, What Is It Good For? that Jerry has told her is real and spouts it to a famous Russian writer when talking about the famous Tolstoy masterpiece. Elaine finds herself in hot water when those in the conversation know she’s been fed some Grade A bullshit, and skirts herself along again ashamed at lowering herself to Jerry’s antics. Other stories, involving desktop handheld organizers appear too (one uses the great New York actress Carol Kane to great effect), mingle amongst the oddities as well, and in the end words really can’t explain all that happens here, and just how it all intertwines. It might just be Seinfeld‘s greatest irreverent half-hour, but then, I think, aren’t we just at number twelve?
*I suppose at some point it would be great to note that it took another show built around the exploits of a New York City dwelling stand-up comic to perhaps point the direction back to the expressive observation. Louie, airing on FX, is a show of loud laughter and quiet artistry.