I don’t even drink wine. I drink Pepsi.
You can’t bring Pepsi.
Because we’re adults?
You’re telling me that wine is better than Pepsi? Huh, no way is wine better than Pepsi.
I’m telling you George, I don’t think we want to walk in there and put a big plastic jug of Pepsi on the table.
I just don’t like the idea that every time there is a dinner invitation there’s this annoying little chore that goes along with it.
You know, you’re getting to be an annoying little chore yourself.
Seinfeld‘s chief argument about being a ‘show about nothing’ has always been one that can’t wholesale be trusted. Firstly, its ‘nothing’ is one of purely philosophical meander; the discussion of the weighty on the topic of the mundane. Its ‘nothing’ is purely topics deemed ‘trivial’ by most, but often not in the least when contemplation occurs. Perhaps that is what Seinfeld was always getting at, but then they themselves confuse the point, when, in pitching the hypothetical fake show to NBC they don’t say merely, “we’ll do a show about nothing…” but they add on the implied action of, “everybody does something, we’ll do nothing”. The confusion is right there; though the show constantly and consistently showed that their nothingness is contemplative in nature they point that it’s first and foremost a lack of action, a lack of doing and showing, which as I’ll show in point two was never really the case. They state that other shows were doing something, when one looks at the nature of television comedy (or even drama) from the era, most were doing very little on the point that Seinfeld was generally making.
Secondly, and most importantly, if often wasn’t about nothing. As these pieces have shown, the episodes where filled to the brim with plot lines and situations, perhaps based on trivial ‘nothingness’, but if the ‘about nothing’ ideology is to be used as a signifier of how Seinfeld is different, I can’t see the nothingness of their jam packed plots as any more trivial to life’s mundanities than say the ones presented in Cheers. I suppose you could see a break from the organization of most typical sitcoms being around a specific (work) environment (Cheers had the bar, Taxi had the garage, Wings a small airport hangar, etc) to which the show got its thrust and united characters that wouldn’t normally exist in such regularity together. Seinfeld‘s ‘nothingness’ was the plainness of a small living room then (or a booth in a simple diner), which again, doesn’t seem all that unique to many shows (All in the Family, or its predecessor, The Honeymooners, saw much of the action presented inside a living room). When you go down this path, the thought most urgently becomes the Seinfeld‘s that are radically ordered within a single setting, with an actual ‘nothingness’ to the plot (and, it’d be here I’d think that Larry David, as George, had his sights set on when the idea was pitched). I’m thinking of episodes like ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ (Season 2, episode 16), or ‘The Parking Garage’ (Season 3, episode 23), or perhaps even ‘The Parking Space’ (Season 3, episode 39), but then, what of a stated thesis that only appears less than a half-dozen times in 9 seasons? But, I suppose it is enough, when they are watched and seen to be how radical they actually are, and, surprisingly how funny too (though with the brilliance of this show I suppose maybe it is of no surprise. But I do mean, just how much humor and situation is wrung from the these simple episodes). Then, there is the crème de la crème of this sub-genre of Seinfeld episodes, the truly intricate void of Season 5’s ‘The Dinner Party’. An episode so strikingly modern (I’ll avoid the post-modern semantics for now), as if to be happening on the streets right below my computer perch that I sit at and write this very sentence.
To me it’s the most glaringly Seinfeldian of all these types of episodes because it is so centered around the skewering of a mannered bourgeoisie enterprise, the dinner party. All the other episodes listed above—’The Chinese Restaurant’, ‘The Parking Garage’, ‘The Parking Space’—all are decidedly lower activities, or maybe not ‘lower’ (as in eating in a perfectly fine Chinese restaurant), but they aren’t ones in born of privilege. The doldrums of parking (after buying a window AC unit, or going to a flea-market no less) are decidedly middle class, so much so that you must infer that that is partially what you must enter the episode with in your mind, while, the struggle George sees in the hypocritical nature of being invited somewhere to only have it be an invitation to bring a gift, is obvious from virtually the episodes first scene. The episode then builds steam by a somewhat unusual ordering to most Seinfeld episodes by pairing off George with Kramer and Elaine with Jerry. George and Kramer are set off to procure the wine, while Elaine and Jerry are determined to purchase the dessert to have with the wine, the (chocolate or ‘lesser’ cinnamon) babka.
All that happens in the remainder is beautifully rendered with equal parts simplicity and fully measured eccentric reality. There is a simplicity to needing change for a large bill, but then there is humorous exactness with adding a Clark bar, newspaper and Penthouse Forum to make the transaction possible. There is nothing very special about waiting in line at a bakery, but then there is in the minutia detail of conversation on dessert types (cinnamon or chocolate, black and white cookie), a throwing-up streak broken, a toe being smashed by a rude customer. I could probably say that ‘The Dinner Party’ is Larry David’s supreme masterpiece, a piece so wonderfully illustrating the concerns he’s returned to time and time again over his two decade writing career. Equal parts manically subversive and totally inane and irrelevant. A mind like a blender for all this stupid and outlandish, out came ‘The Dinner Party’ that was as mundane and nothing as it was highly intricate and precise (how everything comes full circle in the car at the end, or how the Gore-tex coat is introduced as subject, to then being the chief proponent in the action later on is remarkably thought out and realized). The episode features not a single unnecessary action, line or joke. Yes, Larry David often embraced his whims, many times at the sake of the forward working plot, but here the form of his comedic concerns are born into the entire concept of the episode. Nothing can be more truthful in that, when the concept and thesis becomes the form of the medium and it’s pulled off with this much glorious aplomb.
Perhaps in the end, the ‘nothingness’ was the implied lack of morality, or pathos. There is another in Seinfeld‘s many major original inventions for the sitcom form, and in the end, probably its most original and its most trailblazing (and in the years since, its most copied). Could we go back and switch the line, “everybody feels something… we’ll feel nothing!” ‘The Dinner Party’ drops us at the end, the gang ringing the door bell angry and spent, just waiting to hand over the bounty of wine and babka. Everything from race relations (black and white cookie) to geo-political leaders (“you’ll catch a bit of cold” Saddam Hussein) have been elevated and mocked, while, while our sentimentality has gone in reverse; in the words of Ian Curtis (of Joy Division fame), and lived fully in the Seinfeld universe, “no love lost”. Arms extended with drink and food, Good bye!