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?