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, 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.
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
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
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.
Elaine Benes Julia Louis-Dreyfus
George Costanza Jason Alexander
Kramer Michael Richards
PRODUCERS Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld
May 1990-July 1990 Thursday
January 1991-February 1991 Wednesday
April 1991-June 1991 Thursday
June 1991-December 1991
December 1991-January 1993
February 1993-August 1993 Thursday
August 1993-- Thursday
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John. Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History.
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Carla. "Luckless in New York: The Schlemiel and the Schlimazel in
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Elayne. "The Seinfeld Syndrome." The Progressive (Madison,
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