The Morality of Immorality… and the Immortality of Seinfeld

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This blog has had, from its inception, an open invitation to anyone who would like to have something posted on a relevant topic, to have it presented here. Robert Taylor, a longtime friend, wrote this piece on Seinfeld, in conjuncture with our Seinfeld countdown. It appears unedited, as all guest pieces will.

I am of the “Jerry Generation”. A senior in high-school the same year the show went off the air; my life has been impacted in a real way by the show’s presence. I still own my original copy of the Wizard of Oz-themed send-off issue of Rolling Stone. As some type of bizarre trophy for my decades long love of the show, I proudly still preserve a number of unlabeled VHS tapes which we used to record the episodes we weren’t home to watch. I am of the population who’s use of Seinfeld quotes and references is as normal as saying “Hello” when I leave and “Goodbye” when I arrive…see how I did that? Admittedly, the show’s dialogue and circumstances ring through my mind daily and influentially; almost mantra-like. I often find myself smiling while choosing whether to refrain from alerting friends and co-workers that our current situation (whatever it happens to be) is similar to one that George, Jerry, Elaine or Kramer fumbled through. I point these things out not just to acknowledge that I write this with an everlasting adoration for the show, its actors, characters, and creator (so I confirm some amount of nostalgic-bias) but also to set up my true motive: to contend that TV (and we) will never be the same.

I suppose I should acknowledge that Seinfeld means something very different to me today than when I was glued to its original run in the 90’s. As the silver years have passed, I still softly chuckle at the show’s undeniable physical humor. No less funny now are Elaine’s “kicks”, her exaggerated shoves, her tantalizing head tilts; George’s sweatpants, his Dennis Franz idolization and pre-teen bedroom décor; Kramer’s unceremonious entrances, his spastic collapses, even his eccentric hairdo; Jerry with his sneakers, his knowing smirks, and his propensity to crack mid-scene under the weight of his co-stars’ incredible comedic presence. These are all engrained in the show’s DNA. What has unquestionably surpassed these intricate comedic details though, as my (and I know many others’) personal watch counts of each episode have elevated beyond good taste, is the recognition and appreciation of the show’s commitment to its original rules of humor. In doing so, they not only perfected their satirical (yet irresistible) colliding story-line formula but jolted opened the doors for an entirely new era of TV and put away for the good the notion of taboo network subject matter. Thus the show’s immortality in both quality and influence is indisputable.

I won’t venture into the voluminous examples (there are countless articles available to read up on this) but I think it is fair to say that many subsequent, successful and (in many cases) funny television hits adopted or adapted essential Seinfeld elements of serialization, the continuous breech of social contract, and/or non-pathos. This last, that is the rule of not allowing (or forcing) the audience to feel sorry for any character, became such a function of Seinfeld that, in hindsight, its final episode seems almost predictable…where else could these 4 end up but behind bars? This is incredible and beautiful irony given their (particularly George and Elaine) endless misfortune. Often overlooked is the fine balance that the show achieved in poking fun at our societal conventions, norms and boundaries (often through tongue-in-cheek) but in a way that does not alienate us. This, of course, was aided by the fact that each character was delivered in such a brilliant way by very funny (and likeable) actors.

That all being said, the show is not for everyone. Consider that before Seinfeld really took-off, the dominating sitcom was The Cosby Show… Year after year, it was Cosby; #1. (look it up!). Cosby = the Seinfeld antithesis. Cosby’s format, and that of the infinite others like it, was back-boned by maintaining (and preaching) a moral framework in each unrelated episode. Once a week, it provided another snapshot of family drama wrapped-up nicely by an episode-ending proper resolution. In a sense it was a weekly shot of right and wrong presented by safe and “good” characters. This was replayed over and over and over, week by week by week in countless other shows (Fully House, Roseanne, Growing Pains, Family Ties…how many other family sitcoms with the same formula can you name?)…Then crept in Larry David, very quietly at first at the end of the 80’s. Think of this: with Jerry and friends- never, never, were we eased into episode ending scenes of family group hugs with soft soothing music. Never were we made to feel sorry for Newman, despite his lot in life as the (self-proclaimed genius) outsider. Never did the show fall to the temptation of the ongoing true-love (even though Seinfeld’s use of the multi-episode “arc” has become legend: Kramer in LA, the Susan Ross foundation, “Jerry”). George and Susan, in fact, represented the opposite of the conventional love-story. Siblings? An occasional reference to Elaine’s never-seen sister. Parents? Only as peripheral (particularly in Elaine and Kramer’s cases) characters serving to further emphasize the Big Four’s dysfunction rather than any true roots. These “tweaks” represent the cornerstone of truly comprehending the show’s brilliance and influence and recognizing Seinfeld as the quintessential post-modern sitcom.

This is not to say that Seinfeld invented the adult/singles sitcom or even some of the aforementioned elements that it went on to master. We need not look any further than Cheers to see the mature urban setting, the kid-free storylines, the dicey material, etc.  On the other-hand, Cheers relied heavily on morality both as a cornerstone to each episode’s closure as well as the arcing theme of curtailing Sam’s womanizing ways. The bar itself represented a temple of sorts; a place of ironic decency and common ground: “where everybody knows your name”. Even Seinfeld’s refusal to use a typical introductory theme song signaled its departure from the norm. Instead it was a clip from Jerry’s relevant stand-up routine which set up each episode (this of course was later replaced with the now legendary silly musical sequence of “pops” and “pings”).

Seinfeld, of course, gave multiple nods to Cheers as a respected predecessor (See George Wendt cameo and Ted Danson references). It was Jerry and Co. though that took it over the morality line by being hush only on the topic of right and wrong and offering no refining “wisdom” to the audience. Instead it was a series-long crusade to provide us a pure humor and as 4 very convincing (and oddly lovable) characters simply lived their minutia. In doing so, they allowed us the freedom to laugh without guilt at some damn-real societal issues, questions, and situations that, quite frankly, are usually hard to see humor in. The show actually liberated us from the preaching and hugging that so often repressed television by forcing a cookie-cutter formula down our throat. This is not trivial; it represents a breakthrough in what previously was a very conservative and predictable medium. Suddenly everything was in-bounds and everything could be funny (including assassinations, dictators, abortion, same sex marriage, religion, homelessness, masturbation, special needs, and addiction).

Of course someday the series will be shelved and essentially forgotten except for the nostalgic and historic (most of television, certainly sitcoms, fall by this sword). It just won’t be on TV and younger viewers (being younger viewers) won’t commonly seek it out. Even today, the re-runs are harder to find and the “90’s-ness” of the show is palpable: see Jerry’s sneakers, George’s fanny-pack, Elaine’s early episode hair wall, Kramer’s…ahhhh? Seinfeld may be particularly susceptible given its reliance on current events and pop references to shape its episode story-lines and one-liners. One day only the most astute viewer will be able to connect the dots and make humorous-sense out of the Magic Luggy, Marlboro-Man billboards, the idea of running into Saddam Hussain on the street in New York or determining sponge-worthiness of mates. The dated images and lost references become trivial when we consider the show’s collective contributions. This cannot be said for those forgettable family sitcoms. Perhaps these passé elements of the show position it all the more perfectly as a time capsule in history. We can’t go back; but Seinfeld did happen and we’ll never be the same.

For many, particularly for the fans from my generation who grew up as these “grown ups” were initially revealing themselves to America each Thursday night, Seinfeld holds an untouchable place in our hearts.  That place of innocent, unbridled laughs which came from those brief 22 minute recesses when we could see the world through our TV’s just a little bit more clearly. Those weekly rituals grew and grew to become the colossal cultural influence that has tilted all television and, in some sense, all of our lives. Thanks to Seinfeld, we will forevermore have a different lens available for which to view our worlds, a lens of: from “nothing” comes everything.

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