Jerry Seinfeld, American standup comedian and author of the best-selling book SeinLanguage (1993), is now best known as the eponymous hero of Seinfeld, a sitcom that has been a great success for NBC for the last five years. Yet hero, for the show's fans in the US and around the world, is not the right word for Jerry in Seinfeld. Nor would it describe the show's other main characters, Elaine, George, and (Cosmo) Kramer, all thirtysomething and leading the single life in New York. The program's distinctiveness lies in being a comedy made out of trivia and minutiae, a bricolage of casual incidents and situations of everyday metropolitan life, all of which belie any conventional notion of "heroism," any notion, indeed, of distinction. We see Jerry in his apartment, with bizarre neighbour Kramer constantly dropping in, and Elaine and George visiting, or in the café where they are all regular customers, or at Elaine's office where she worked as a publisher, until she lost her job. (She has since worked in a series of situations, usually as personal assistant to eccentric, bizarre, individuals.) Seinfeld himself, in an interview, suggested that Seinfeld was adding something new to television comedy, some new representation of the quotidian that might be influencing other TV and film culture. He cited some of the coffee shop conversation between the John Travolta and Samuel Jackson characters in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino in turn has admitted to being a big fan of Seinfeld.
Seinfeld does not mix seemingly trivial conversation and incidents with sudden unnerving violence as does Pulp Fiction, whose main characters, gangsters, create a world of shattering absurdity. Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer instead lead a life of quiet absurdity. They appear always to be relentlessly superficial. Even to say they are friends would be too kind. If they do help each other, it is out of self-interest only. They create a comic world out of the banally cruel and amoral, of trivial lies, treachery, and betrayal. In their relations with each other, with anyone else they encounter, or with their families, they rarely find it in themselves to act out of altruism, kindness, generosity, support, courage, caring, sharing, concern, neighbourliness, sense of human community, trust. Like comedy through the ages, they say the unsayable, do the undoable, as they casually ignore sanctioned morality and recognised correctness. Watching someone being operated on, they pass callous remarks, and accidentally pop a chocolate ball into the body.
George in particular, is freely given to making trouble and then denying all responsibility; to boasting, deceiving, lying. We wait for him to do disgusting things, expecting, hoping, he'll do them. And George rarely fails. He tries to get money out of a hospital when someone falls to his death from the hospital's window onto his car. He makes love on his parents' bed and leaves behind a used condom. He sells his father's beloved old clothes to a shop, saying his father had died and this was his dearest wish. He hopes an artist will die so his paintings will go up in value.
Jerry and a girlfriend, who can't make love in his apartment because his parents are visiting, entwine themselves in the flickering darkness when they go to see Schindler's List and consequently miss most of the film. Their behavior is reported to Jerry's Jewish parents by another acquaintance, the treacherous Newman. Much of Seinfeld involves similar comic humiliation, and so recalls and reprises a long Jewish tradition of humour that has flourished this century in vaudeville, radio, then film and television: in the figure of the schlemiel (think of Woody Allen), making comedy out of failure, ineptitude, defeat, minor disaster.
In Seinfeld disasters multiply for each character, except for the mysterious Kramer, a trickster figure, who like trickster figures through the ages always gets out of daily work, is a renowned sexual reptile, generally out-tricks every adversary, and ignores the havoc he insists on causing. In Seinfeld Kramer functions as pure sign of folly, misrule, turning the world upside-down at every chance.
Elaine is Jerry's former girlfriend. With George she has a relationship of uneasiness, if not sharp mutual dislike. Elaine is sassy and spunky, but her spunkiness usually emerges as irritability and impatience (especially in restaurants or waiting to see a film). She picks arguments with almost everyone she encounters, including any boyfriend. In mattes of romance, Elaine constantly self-destructs. So, too, do Jerry and George, usually quickly allowing a trivial difference or unfounded suspicion to end a relationship. Once Jerry insisted that he and Elaine make love again, but he can't get it up, and here Elaine emerges as similar to the irrepressible female carnival figures of early modern Europe (as discussed by Natalie Zemon Davis in her famous essay "Women on Top"), overturning men's power and self-image.
Seinfeld also recalls a long comic tradition of farce that descends from Elizabethan drama. In the plays and the jigs following, the audience was presented with a contestation of ideals and perspectives. Whatever moral order is realized in the play is placed in tension with its parody in the closing jig. There the clown dominated as festive Lord of Misrule, creating, for audiences to ponder, not a definite conclusion but an anarchy of values, a play of play and counterplay. Similarly, Seinfeld continuously presents an absurd mirror image of other television programs that, like Shakespeare's romances, hold out hope for relationships despite every obstacle that tries to rend lovers, friends, kin, neighbours apart, obstacles that create amidst the comedy sadness, pathos, and intensity.
The possible disadvantage of a genre like absurdist farce is repetition and sameness, comic action turning into ritualised motion. Seinfeld himself comments that in Seinfeld, "You can't change the basic situation or the basic characters." Nevertheless, he rejected the suggestion that even the show's devotees think the characters are becoming increasingly obnoxious and the jokes forced (TV Week, 4 March 1995). While some contemporary satirical comedy such as Married... with Children may have fatally succumbed to this danger, Seinfeld remains one of the most innovative and inventive comedies in the history of American television.
Jerry Seinfeld .........................................Himself
Elaine Benes ...........................Julia Louis-Dreyfus
George Costanza ........................Jason Alexander
Kramer ....................................Michael Richards
Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld
May 1990-July 1990 Thursday 9:30-10:00
January 1991-February 1991 Wednesday 9:30-10:00
April 1991-June 1991 Thursday 9:30-10:00
June 1991-December 1991 Wednesday 9:30-10:00
December 1991-January 1993 Wednesday 9:00-9:30
February 1993-August 1993 Thursday 9:30-10:00
August 1993-May 1998 Thursday 9:00-9:30
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Johnson, Carla. "Luckless in New York: The Schlemiel and the Schlimazel in Seinfeld." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1994.
Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Rapping, Elayne. "The Seinfeld Syndrome." The Progressive (Madison, Wisconsin), September 1995.
Wiles, David. Shakespeare's Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.