King Edward. King Edward, Jerry.
Yeah, well, King Edward didn’t live in Queens with Frank and Estelle Constanza.
Recently completing a whirlwind watching of the complete series of Curb Your Enthusiasm—a show I hung my head as a Seinfeld aficionado in not being overly familiar with sans 5 episodes or so pre-watching—I was struck by many things most wouldn’t think to contemplate. This isn’t a brag in the slightest, more that I think I was predetermined to see different aspects than others as I had waited to see everything this long (so the shows influences had sunk in), had so immersed myself in Seinfeld (I think I’ve seen every episode at least five times and some as much as 15 or 20 times) over the years, and lastly, the condensed time frame (the entire Series in about 6 weeks or so) allowed for some of the more subtle nuances to expose themselves in what could almost be called ‘glaringly’. The show, as implied with the tongue thoroughly in cheek title, was in many ways a direct commentary on Seinfeld; on the show Larry David created, or more exactly, the show he tried and thought he (co-) created.
That last point, the show Larry David tried, and thought he co-created was one of the more interesting thoughts for me to consider. Largely because it synced with many of my thoughts on Seinfeld as well. Every time we see a cast member from Seinfeld acting as some version of their ‘real’ self (I use quotes because there is quite a bit of sarcasm going on there) a sly point is made; Elaine is a wonderful examination of feminine individuality because David appears to, on some level, see Julia Louise-Dreyfus as overly headstrong and stubborn (can be a negative and/or a positive). Kramer was sublimely aloof and irreverent because Michael Richards is some sort of pie-in-the-sky dreamer, one easily distracted by adult life. Jerry Seinfeld, seemed to get the fairest shake on Curb, always mingling with Larry step-for-step, every bit the equal that their much covered life-long friendship would indicate. Then there is the caricaturization of Larry David himself, in the George Costanza character, as realized by Jason Alexander in the role of a lifetime performance on Seinfeld. Curb handles this relationship in the most interesting manner, breaking from the others by seemingly not saying anything about Jason Alexander as he pertained to the ‘real life’ George Constanza. In fact, the most important thing to take away from their relationship, is how much Larry David thinks he fundamentally didn’t understand what George Constanza really meant and what he symbolized. Jason Alexander is used by Larry David as a mouthpiece to fully confront the prevailing idea in our culture of George Costanza as a liar, a schlub, a bum, or an endless screw up/off. David appears to think—and here is where I agree with him—that where Costanza came from, and why he reacted to every situation the way he did went over virtually everyone’s heads, including, rather ironically, the very actor that played him on screen. It seems to me that Larry David thought people misread him (as he is the original basis of the George character), but also, in the very actions where the character strays from the real life Larry David (and what these actions imply about him and the satire being employed).
This, to me, is where George Costanza becomes one of the most original, and deep characters in the history of the television sitcom form. George seems to me to be a great existential anti-hero of a very specific historical epoch. Seinfeld exhibits itself with a decidedly post-modern edge, so the very archetype of his character is also being skewered a bit. Meaning, that when one calls a character ‘existential’ that implies a set of actions, thoughts, and reactions. George is this, but he’s also commenting on that within the very construction of the character. Take perhaps the greatest exemplification of an existential character in our cultures consciousness: Meursault, from Albert Camus’ The Stranger. He’s born from an unfamiliarity with the standard ethical framework around him, and in that his very existence is forever threatened. He’ll be able to co-exist in the world as presently ordered (and Camus’ brilliance was in showing the problem lay in the world not this specific individual). George Costanza, appears to be this alien to the framework(s) of everyday life, but his twist is that he knows it (there’s the post-modern twist), and knows the idea of a Meursault (though, he’s probably almost assuredly never read the book!). His angst isn’t the dilemma of existing differently then, but knowing he doesn’t exist this way and the additional anxiety that comes from wanting to exist ‘normally’ with those around him. Where this difference comes from, innate, or learned (his parents are shown to be truly deranged) is then where Larry David finds much of the humor in situations revolving around George.
But perhaps the greatest way that George shows this anxiety, and what Jason Alexander, et al don’t understand about him, is just how sincere he is in his yearning. His attempts are often quick-fixes so, perhaps this is where much of the confusion comes from, but I point to that being the satire about how people seek change from Larry David. But since he attempts so many quick-fixes, that becomes the point; he’s constantly thinking and agitated about his deficiencies and measuring himself against a world he doesn’t understand. The over-arching point about him should point to that then, the ‘what’, not the ‘how’.
In ‘The Conversion’, George begins the episode in perhaps the most appealing relationship of his life by his claim (he even goes so far to say that he’s never lied to her, a statement that he has to quickly take back upon thinking). As he begins to tell her this on a date at a nice restaurant, she informs him that they won’t be able to date further because she can only marry a man who shares her religion of Latvian Orthodox. As a thoroughly dejected George tells this to Jerry and Elaine later, Elaine quickly agrees with George when he off-the-cuff theorizes that he should convert to Latvian Orthodox to continue the courtship. Elaine, like George, sees it as a supreme romantic gesture, akin, humorously to Edward the VIII’s abdication of the throne to marry Mrs. Simpson in the 1930s.
The casualness with which the supposed sincere sacrifice religion warrants is the skepticism. Seinfeld isn’t arguing anything really about the existence of God, but the points seem to me to be more profound. They treat the question of religion as the activity, the social constrict, which carries an implied atheistic component and an assumption that religion is only relevant in our lives because it has parasitically latched onto human activities and rituals throughout human history. George flatly says, “what do I care?” about suddenly changing faiths, and then other activities, such as the conversion test, are roundly mocked. The ceremonial acts and dress are also given a nice run-through (my favorite is when George sips the wine and it spills on his vestment), plus the area in which religious authority is given credence is the backwards, fictitious ‘kavorka’ (when Kramer asks why women are so attracted to him, as if to be a problem, he seeks the help of the priests and “the lure of the animal” is the given diagnosis) that seems pulled straight from Medieval era medicine.
Still George sits within the action arguing just how different he is compared with what the general consensus is about the character. He’s one of romantic idealism, following the matters of his heart no matter how he’ll inevitably be crushed. Not only is his flesh, his being, on an existential journey set to doomed, but it appears that his soul, his sense of (experiencing) love is too. The very thing that religious people would say God implants in us, continually eludes George and the house of cards that religion is shown to be in the skepticism just helps advance this narrative. George seeks a life with someone else, better than the one he’d (almost) get with Susan eventually. These don’t happen, and yet somewhere deep within George, he just keeps trying. He isn’t a void, but rather he’s in a void, and though he should believe otherwise, thinks the light is eventually coming. Mersault sees the situation in the opposite (people created the void, or more acutely, the void is a nonsensical paradox), and this is why George seems to advance the existential narrative—he’s highly aware and offering a visible spirit pushing onward within it.
I’d initially singled out ‘The Conversion’ because I’d found it purely a wonderfully original piece of religious skepticism, and as an atheist loved how accurate and whole the absurdity of it all was. It was about 10 years ago that it began being placed in my mind as my favorite Seinfeld episode, so watching it thereafter became a constant activity (and thrill). It was in this, these repetitive watches, that I began to formulate the deeper, larger ideas of this episode and George. But, the roots are both there; the points about religion and my understand of the George Costanza character—and either can be cited as why this is such a truly special episode in the Seinfeld catalog. He’s not someone to be mocked, but someone to be cherished and emulated. Who could have ever thought that?