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Much Ado About Nothing

Posted by jsoliver on February 14, 2007

From 1989 to 1998, NBC aired a sitcom that shouldn’t have gone over well. Broadcasting to a nation that was largely conservative, Christian, and populated by millions simple folks, one mightn’t expect much to come from a show whose very essence exuded a distinct brand neurotic New York Jewiness. But somehow Seinfeld became the flagship sitcom of the nineties, in spite of its nature as a definite acquired taste. How millions of people managed to acquire that taste, however, might have to do with the fact that Seinfeld spoke to the neurotic New York Jew in us all.

But seriously, what’s up with that?

Actually, it’s really not so hard to fathom. Brandon Tartikoff, an NBC executive in 1989, claimed confidently it was just “too Jewish” for broadcast television (his words, not mine). But although on a superficial level Seinfeld was typical of that particular brand of humor (particularly in terms of characters who were paranoid, obsessive-compulsive, cheap, liberal, neurotic, and paradoxically atheist), it was at its heart a show about social values and how they affect us all. There was not a single episode in which one of the main conflicts did not hinge on a debate over some particular social nicety.

Week after week, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer would, for lack of a better phrase, get into misadventures. If the idea behind drama is to take the stakes as close to life-and-death as possible, then Seinfeld took it upon itself to break every aspect of that rule: indeed, it wasn’t important the little old lady upstairs died, because all that mattered was that Elaine could get her apartment for a bargain price. By avoiding larger issues such as death, politics, love, life, or any of the other themes that a higher form of art might try to address, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld did their best to make mountains out of molehills. Does it matter than Elaine’s boyfriend, a devout Christian, believes that she’s going to hell? No, what matters is how she’ll be able cope with dating a Christian, and more importantly, break up with him.

One of the major social themes addressed in Seinfeld is dating and relationships. It should be pointed out that love is not one of those themes. Indeed, relationships and love very rarely coincide in Seinfeld’s version of Manhattan. Again, this is not because love isn’t a theme worth exploring, but rather because the social interaction between people in the name of love is also a theme worth examining. This is really why this show was able to gain such an audience; whether we admit it or not, we’ve all found ourselves guilty of obsessing more over our interaction with members of the opposite sex rather than our actual feelings for them. The four friends rarely discuss whether or not they love someone, but quite often ponder the nuances of how a girl will interpret an ineptly-recorded answering machine message. Similarly, college students in today’s world might spend hours calculating exactly what to write in a masterfully-scribed Facebook message to that certain special someone.

This is why I find the assertion that Seinfeld was “a show about nothing” a little misleading. True, its main conflicts are almost always derived from some sort of triviality. But this really is a reflection of how so many of us actually are in everyday life. Jerry and George can’t see the forest for the trees (or in many cases, for the leaves or the twigs), and we laugh at them for their neuroses. But we do the exact same thing with almost the same frequency. Because of this, Seinfeld is different from many other artistic endeavors. It’s easy to find a film or a book that addresses the meaning of life or the nature of the universe, usually with characters that are supposed to represent mankind to some degree. But really, how often do we, real people, actually take time away from our busy lives to examine such unanswerable questions? Compared to the amount of time we spend discussing things such as the underrated virtue of Postum, it’s fairly miniscule. Combine that with time for sleeping and eating, and for most of us it almost disappears entirely. That’s why Seinfeld is important to our culture: because it’s about us. It’s not about how we see ourselves, or what we aspire to be; it’s about what we are, here and now. And although it may be buried under levels of sardonic humor and absurd situations, we can still recognize it for what it is.

Therefore, Seinfeld is not a show about nothing. Not really. It’s actually a show about everything, or at least, a show about everything that’s important to us. Maybe the idea behind the whole show was that everything that’s important to us is actually nothing worth worrying about, but that leads to the debate as to whether something can be everything and nothing at the same time. The question is far too complex to address here, but there’s a nifty book out there called Seinfeld and Philosophy for anyone who might care to look further into the matter.

Admittedly, I’m biased. I grew up watching Seinfeld for as long as I can remember, and have a certain nostalgic affinity for it. It probably had as much to do with shaping my sense of humor as any other aesthetic experience (and since humor plays a role in every way I approach the world, perhaps one could say that Seinfeld changed the way I see life, but that sounds a bit sad). Furthermore, it is a stone cold fact that Jerry Seinfeld single-handedly taught me what the papacy, the Nazi Party, and One Hour Martinizing were. Although admittedly, he didn’t tell me which one was more important. As a result–and this is not to brag–I was smarter than the other kids growing up. Thank you, Jerry and Larry, for making me pompous and neurotic at an early age. How can I ever repay you?

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9 Responses to “Much Ado About Nothing”

  1. thesimmons said

    You did sienfeld…YAY…YAY x2. I like your comments about the “much to do about nothing” aspect of the show. My question is…What is your thoughts on girls with manhands?

  2. jsoliver said

    Oh yeah, Authors note (still getting used to this): Here I was trying to address why Seinfeld managed to be so popular in in the 90s, or rather, why it was the MOST popular sitcom of the 90s. It’s not simply that the show was funny, but the fact that the show reflected our contemporary life more effectively/intelligently/humorously that any other show of the period; perhaps even more so than most other shows ever. I think this is significant because it’s like looking into a mirror: who the hell are we? What the hell are we doing? And why are we doing it? The goals we pursue is a theme addressed often, but the means we used to obtain the ends is less than important in most works. Not Seinfeld.

    AND TO ANSWER THOUGHTS ON MANHANDS: I’m in Jerry’s camp; I wouldn’t be able to date someone with such hands. But then, maybe there’s a reason that the nickname “Jewy McJew” has stuck with me since freshman year (not kidding, this is actually true).

  3. snookju said

    I love this witty analysis. The importance is in the details. This is true in everything. Seinfeld is like a microscope for reality, zooming in on the very specific components of our lives and featuring them up close when the general trend is to back off an try to focus on “the big picture.” It really is great stuff. I am happy with the way you bring the analysis into a personal perspective at the end, too.

    Watch out not to slip into past tense when otherwise describing something in the present as in the fourth paragraph (counting the stand-alone sentence).

    Don’t think I fail to notice your continuing adherence to the exact WC. If you ever write for a publication, your editors will be very pleased.

  4. donnadb said

    A wonderful exploration of what that common appellation “about nothing” might really mean. I disagree that it’s about “everything that’s important to us,” because the mundane concerns of our lives are not everything, but they do deserve elevation into consciousness to be explored precisely because we don’t typically think of them as important — yet they are where we live 90% of our lives. So what’s important in the show is that it refuses to engage what we’ve all agreed is important, and its perverse insistence on treating “close talkers” and the etiquette of housewarming gifts as critical questions, while simultaneously condemning its lovable characters for their shallowness (something the characters themselves realized). But enough of my analysis. 🙂 You carry through your thesis very well, although you overstate the matter to a certain extent to my way of thinking. I would like you to acknowledge that very Jewish, very New York humor is nothing new on TV — those were the characters and comedians who populated the early days of television, so there is a tradition there that we’re used to. And it would have been nice to hear about how co-creator Larry David’s show Curb Your Enthusiasm takes the discomfort of these social niceties and makes it even more humiliating and uncomfortable, without the lovable characters and without the laugh track.

  5. rawra said

    I like your take on Seinfeld, that it’s about everything instead of just nothing.

    Plus it’s Seinfeld. So, in the words of Anthony, “Go you.”

  6. You know, Jacob, Seinfeld’s one of those shows where it’s hard to claim a favourite. I was thinking about how light Seinfeld is. What I mean is, there isn’t really any cold hard morals to learn or correctional statements about society. Seinfeld is a nice hiatus from thinking critically about the state of humanity. Instead, it’s chuckle about some of the more complicated, though enjoyable, moments of life.

  7. Mark said

    jsoliver, nice analysis of “Seinfeld.” Your thesis was well-stated and well supported. To say that “Seinfeld” is really a show about nothing is ridiculous when you think about its ability to cover topics that actually are very important to us as individuals and as a society. You mentioned that the show is “about what we are, here and now” and although I agree completely with that statement, I like to think it’s about even more than that.

    With its great popularity, “Seinfeld” was not only able to cover topics of our everyday lives that were important at the time, but also more controversial topics that may have been less acceptable in our culture had it not been for the show’s influence. With its ability to make people laugh, “Seinfeld” was able to cover rather taboo subjects such as homosexuality and masturbation to make its audience and our culture more comfortable with these issues. For example, in the famous episode entitled “The Contest” Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer make a bet to see who can go the longest without masturbating.

    At the time, masturbation was not yet a subject widely discussed in our society and the fact that “Seinfeld” was able to air an entire show based on the topic was relatively controversial. Throughout the episode the characters have various conversations inferring that they all masturbate regularly, with Kramer claiming he does it everyday and George explaining how he got caught doing it by his mother. The show was able to come up dilemmas for each character that many people were able to relate to, thus making light of the subject and making it a more comfortable topic of conversation. Also, the fact that Elaine, the female symbol of the show, was included in the contest and ultimately lost introduced the subject of female masturbation as well. “Seinfeld” was able to assist in what we have become as a culture because it was not only about what we as individuals and a society were really about at the time, but also about what important topics were on the horizon and where we were headed as a society.

  8. I’ve always enjoyed watching Seinfield. It was one of the few shows my mom and I would especially sit through the reruns of. But it was also one of the few shows i would elect to watch on my own without her. There was something very adult about their problems and something extremely childish about how they handled them that I found attractive and funny.

    Nice write-up, Jacob. You pulled a “me” and wrote a word or two quite a few times into the post (like “admittedly), but otherwise, a damn good job.

  9. Sarah said

    I like this post. I have never watched Seinfield regularly, but I have seen my share of episodes over the years. I love what I have seen, and I agree with a lot of your analysis. A lot of what we care about is nothing, at least to the world. Some of my favorite interactions between Seinfield characters is when they are ll trying to have their own conversation and are all talking at the same time. That’s how it is most of the time. We are thinking what we are thinking, and we hardly care about our surroundings. Maybe Seinfield doesn’t talk about love because that requires sitting down and talking to someone- really caring about that person and their thoughts. And who has time for that?

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