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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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“That’s what she said!”

Posted by jsoliver on February 8, 2007

Since its somewhat rocky start, NBC’s The Office (an adaptation of the BBC series of the same name) has found a foothold in broadcast television and solidified itself as very popular show on this side of the drink. Adopting an unorthodox mockumentary style and an exceedingly dry brand of humor, it’s a far cry from your everyday American sitcom. Usually sitcoms are gracious enough to tell us when to be amused with canned laugh tracks and when to reflect cathartically at what Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane calls the “moment of bullshit” at the end, but The Office doesn’t have time for all that. That’s okay, though, because it doesn’t need any of that.

Often referred to as a workplace satire, it’s generally believed that The Office rings true for many in the American white collar workforce, and therefore was able to take off. Perhaps this is somewhat true, and maybe that’s what attracted its initial audience. A seasoned viewer, however, will note that this show is certainly not a television adaptation of Dilbert. What gives The Office its ability to keep viewers coming back week after week is that under its superficial layer of corporate satire, its essentially about human beings, their wants, their needs, and their desperate struggle against their own unhappiness. It may sound like the bleakest of Bergman’s films, but when good jokes are added, the show transcends mere pessimism and shows us the humor to be found in everyday problems.

Leading the topnotch cast is the supremely talented Steve Carell as Michael Scott, the well-meaning but hopelessly clueless regional manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, a northeastern paper supply company. Michael only wants the best for his employees, who he considers to be his best friends (and really, his only friends), but is constantly finding some way to inadvertently bring about some galactic screw-up. Diversity awareness day turns into “everyone adopt a hypothetical ethnicity and shout racial slurs at each other day,” office parties can’t get funding from the corporate office because he throws too many office parties, good-natured sexist jokes threaten to bring down corporate wrath from fear of sexual harassment lawsuits, sympathetic banter with the warehouse workers stirs up thoughts of unionization…the list goes on. But just when we think Michael can’t be any stupider, he makes a big sale or saves the office Christmas party or motivates just one employee. And unfortunately, as Michael’s personality ensures he has virtually no social life, we also can’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy. He really is doing his best. And thus, we can still love him.

If Carell is the glue that holds the show together, then the substance that makes it worthwhile is the turbulent relationship between Jim Halpert (the uncannily likable John Krasinksi) and Pam Beesly (the adorable Jenna Fischer). Although the two are obviously crazy about each other, situations that are far too complicated to explain here keep them apart. This is why we watch this show. We want nothing more than for these two to finally get together, and we watch like hawks to see each new development. But it still hasn’t happened, and the world keeps turning. Good thing, too, since if they did get together, The Office would effectively die. But there’s something painfully beautiful about their tragic semi-romance; it hearkens back to Woody Allen’s movies from the late 1970s. The general idea presented that plagues so many of us is simply, “Why can’t people just be in love?” The Office examines the question, but fortunately for its entertainment value, it contains no answers.

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“Why’d It Have to Be Snakes?”

Posted by jsoliver on February 1, 2007

Everyone looks back on their childhood with a fond reverence for that which they consider to be the things that shaped their lives.  Or rather, at the very least, they shaped what we would like as we got older. A quintessential example of this would be when my father had me watch Creepshow when I was younger. As it certainly was not a great movie, I wondered why he enjoyed it so much. It was only as I got older and remembered my own formative years that I realized that my father did grow up reading EC horror comics, to which Creepshow was a reverent homage. Of course he was biased in its favor.

When I consider the aesthetic experiences that shaped what would determine not only my taste later in life but also the way I view the world in general, it usually becomes a very convoluted and misguided process of invented memories, misappropriated reverence, forgotten influences; mixed-up confusion on a grand scale. But one thing I can sort out for certain is this: I can remember how Indiana Jones changed my life.

As a kid (and I choose the word “kid” very carefully here, as child just doesn’t mean the same thing), I was in love with the idea of adventure. My friends and I made it our favorite activity to venture off into the woods after school to climb trees, build forts, explore ravines, and the like (social studies homework was far too mundane, after all). An ordinary day at school would typically be spent deciding how recess would be spent: would we play Star Wars or James Bond? I was always Han Solo. In retrospect, I have absolutely no reservation when I say that was because Han Solo was really Indiana Jones in a spaceman’s clothing.

I have no doubt that Raiders of the Lost Ark was of the most important cinematic moments in my life. The entire dynamic of that movie (and later Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but I was never much of a Temple of Doom fan) embodied everything I wished my life could be. All I wanted to do when I grew up was get on a biplane, fly to the Middle East, and get in adventures. Usually the details of said endeavor were left ambiguous, but one could rest assured that Nazis would probably be involved, and the power of God would eventually be called upon in most cases. I imagined that the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant or the original beams of the cross or the actual scissors that cut Sampson’s hair might be buried in my backyard. Logically, it would have been a perfect hiding place. After all, who would think to look in the backwoods of Arkansas for holy artifacts?

I grew up eventually. Actually, perhaps I should say that I grew older eventually—I don’t know how much I grew up. Adventure is still the ideal I try to live for sometimes. Well, I should say that sometimes I’m a staunch realist with a determinedly no-nonsense attitude.  But other days, all I can think about is dropping everything after I graduate, taking all the money I have and my best friends, and going off to Europe for no apparent reason other than the fact that I can. I may not even know when I’m coming back. It’ll be an adventure—no more, no less. Those are the good days.

Sure, Indiana Jones had his problems. But the difference between my everyday problems and Dr. Jones’ problems is that mine are relatively mundane and commonplace, while his are always related in some way to his adventure. He was fighting Nazis, rescuing beautiful women, riding horses through the desert, and all other sorts of dangerous activities. But he never worried about money, or job security, or school, or life, or love, or any of the things that plague the rest of us. He lived for the adventure. He was the hero we all wish we could be. He lived the life many of us wanted when we were young.

As I write this, I wonder if Indiana Jones had anything to do with my decision to study history in college. I’ve always liked history, but before today, I never asked myself if my affinity for one of my greatest heroes had anything to with my interest. At this given moment, I like to think that he did.

One thing is certain: Indiana Jones made it much cooler to be a historian. And yes, I do own a brown fedora.

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“It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy. Let’s go exploring!”

Posted by jsoliver on January 25, 2007

Calvin and Hobbes is undeniably cute. Featuring a six-year-old boy with a penchant for adventure and his stuffed tiger buddy, how could it be anything other than adorable? Of course the daily misadventures of a mischievous boy and his imaginary pal capture the whimsy of youth, but it isn’t until a reader gets older that he realizes why Calvin and Hobbes is important. If Peanuts showed us what it was like to understand that life wasn’t so simple as being a kid, then Calvin and Hobbes shows us what it was like to make that heartbreaking realization on our own.

Calvin, the strip’s protagonist, is a perfect example of a child who simply grew up too fast. Hobbes, his best friend, is similarly the prototypical metaphor of childhood imagination. Bill Watterson sends young Calvin and the faithful Hobbes on countless delightful misadventures, making the reader wonder how any person could lead such a fulfilling life before the age of seven, but Calvin does just that. In a child’s mind, a series of snowman is indeed a grand army, all willing to fight in glorious battle so that their fearless leader can be an immortal hero. But he still has his grownup side, often making quips about the adult world of varying degrees of sarcasm. Here the strip transcends the realm of entertainment and becomes art. As Calvin grows up, he goes through the clichéd process of losing his innocence, but with a character so identifiable, it’s hard not to be moved by that transformation. Homework takes first priority. Parents get angry. The change is inevitable, and it’s painful. But in the final strip, Watterson points out that it’s not all bad. The grownup world, although rough, can still be fun and games. You just have try to make it so.

(Since you probably can’t read this because of size, here’s the link to the page where I found it, as well as some others that I particularly like. Yay! You should read at least the first one, since it’s here.)

Final Calvin and Hobbes

Argument

Academia

War and Peace

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Everything You Did Not Know About Hoboes

Posted by jsoliver on January 18, 2007

At a scant 228 pages, it may be hard to believe that The Areas of My Expertise could actually be an almanac of complete world knowledge, as its author claims it to be. Of course, one would have to be completely imperceptive to any form of humor to think that it is such a book, and would perhaps be the only person not in on the joke. But that aside, what’s amazing about John Hodgman’s complete compendium of world knowledge is the sheer amount of information it does manage to pack into its short length. Admittedly, all the aforementioned information may be completely made up, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be an absolute joy to read.

The Areas of My Expertise is in fact an almanac by all appearances. It’s structured, written, and presented as the sort of reference work so many people have come to trust as a treasure trove of trivia. However, the difference in Hodgman’s work is that although it is a collection of various facts and statistics, none of them are actually true. Hodgman takes his readers on an irreverent journey through assorted realms of fake knowledge, with topics ranging from the basic principles of snowball warfare, a brief history of American hobo culture, the worst men’s haircuts in history, and how to win a fight (appropriately placed immediately after his five secrets to a successful negotiation). Such a broad range of fictional topics may seem a bit dizzying at first, but Hodgman showcases his greatest talent by taking this ridiculous myriad of apparent nonsense and applying an appropriate level of coherency to the work as a whole. The result is wildly entertaining, seamlessly mixing some of the most absurd subject matter imaginable with unusually intelligent delivery. And not only does Hodgman manage adequately apply a common theme to the nonsense of his own invention, he also makes it very funny.

The book is not flawless, however. Although Hodgman is undoubtedly a funny writer, he sometimes has trouble keeping the jokes so crisp. This is hardly surprising—given the unruly subject matter, one might expect a little unevenness in the quality of the humor. This is where The Areas of My Expertise suffers, if only a little bit. These momentary lulls in the liveliness of the comedy seem to stand out unfairly, however, as often they are not particularly unfunny. However, they do fail to garner the same kind of laughs when placed against the truly hilarious stretches, a problem which makes the weak parts seem even weaker than they are. But it’s forgivable—with an almost constant stream of jokes, it’s hard not to find something at which to laugh.

Initially, one might assume that this book’s title is itself a joke. After reading The Areas of My Expertise, however, it becomes clear that this title is quite serious. But the area of Hodgman’s expertise isn’t an accumulation of useless invented facts. It’s the ability to take an accumulation of useless invented facts and turn it into something worth reading.

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Hello world!

Posted by jsoliver on January 14, 2007

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

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