An Article About Nothing

Monday, 1 September, 2014

Image courtesy of Vandelay Industries

TV giant Seinfeld turns twenty-five this year—which is exactly the sort of round number that justifies Farrago publishing a nostalgic puff piece in recognition of the show.

While growing up, I watched the ends of an uncountable number of Seinfeld episodes while waiting for The Simpsons to begin at 7:30pm on Channel 10. As dictated by the norms of our generation, however, you can’t really say you’ve seen a TV show until you’ve mastered it in complete box-set form, ensuring you haven’t missed one episode, punch line or running gag.

I’ve been working my way through the collection for the past eighteen months, and still find myself just over half-way through the series. Rounding out at 180 episodes, the magnum opus of comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld is equal parts brilliant and equal parts banality.

The more I watch the show, the more impressed I am with how easily the talented screenwriters turn everyday life experiences into memorable twenty-something-minute mini-masterpieces, of worldly observations and kooky character studies. The representations are so strong that George, Elaine, Kramer and Jerry almost don’t need a plot line for the jokes to come hard and fast—hence Seinfeld being dubbed the “show about nothing”.

These thirty-something New Yorkers are somewhat drifting though their existential life with no overarching purpose while pulling gags over first world problems.  From a post-‘something’ generation, the characters are depicted with some life-goals—such as George’s search for relational satisfaction or Elaine’s career progression—but ultimately the events of their lives seem pretty trivial.  And the more their aspirations for satisfaction fail, the more we find the characters human and endearing.

Perhaps this is why we find George so amusing, with his insecurities about his weight, hair, height and phallic endowment. Who can forget when George goes for a swim in the cold pool while on a couplesey summer holiday to the Hamptons, and is walked in on afterwards while changing his clothes by Jerry’s then-girlfriend? When she sees Mr Costanzo in his birthday suit, he feels short changed about his mini main-sail, bemoaning later, “What does a woman know about shrinkage?”

The Seinfeld four are shown to be happy with being somewhat unhappy about life. Much like the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine we are told that real happiness in life comes from enjoying the little moments of joy for what they are.

Consider The Parking Garage episode, where the awesome foursome meander through a ubiquitous car park, unable to locate each other, nor their car. Almost like an allegory for the entire show, or wandering around in the dessert for forty years, they cleverly weave a cutesy little story and punchy one liners into the dialogue.

Seinfeld is often a tragedy of miscommunication or lack of modern technology. Much like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julietwhere all would have been well for the star-crossed lovers if only Friar Laurence and his donkey had delivered that all-important letter in time—the conflict in about half of the episodes could have been avoided if the characters just owned a cell-phone.

For a show that had only one recurring catch phrase—“Hello Newman”—it had an uncanny knack for producing some of the most quoted television lines of all time, each being more absurd than the other: from “no soup for you”; “these pretzels are making me thirsty”; to Elaine yelling “Stella!”

But as the exercise of working through the box set seems to last forever, I am disappointed at how the characters often work so very hard to try to make ‘nothing’ into ‘something’ entertaining. Not only are much of the mobile-phone-less common experiences outdated, but also the pop-culture references and not-so-understated product placements. Although we love the characters for their antics and pet-hates, they are essentially quite selfish and hollow—only caring for their tiny circle of friends at best of times. And after 100 or so episodes I find Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up interludes causing me to yell at the screen, “What’s the deal with all the “What’s the deal with?” observations?”.

Watching Seinfeld in 2014 makes me both laugh and cringe at how blatantly un-PC this sitcom could be, with its mildly homophobic, xenophobic and sexist undertones present throughout all nine seasons of this primarily male-dominated show.

Of course looking back the funniest thing about the show now is the characters’ fashion sense: from Elaine’s early 90s shoulder pads, velvet dresses and perms, to George’s wide checks, to Kramer’s freewheeling shirts. Though nothing quite beats Jerry’s denim jeans and runners combination, or junners for short, a fashion faux pas that even the most mod hipsters of Brunswick are too afraid to claim back ironically.

The biggest joke is on us, however, as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David end up getting away with making an insightful and reliable show about nothing, with vacuous but loveable characters having a laugh at both themselves and life.