Saturday, 17 November 2012

"Like an old man trying to send back soup in a Deli" - The Seinfeld Supremacy

I trust we're not forgetting about Seinfeld? Fourteen years on from when it concluded, it remains unsurpassed, and probably always will be. If you've never seen it, or are starting to think of it as dated, get hold of a DVD right now and start with season 5 (or go straight to the season 6 episode The Jimmy) The first two seasons are good but quite gentle. The third season features some terrific episodes and the fourth even more, but the fifth season sees the show reach perfection, with the plotting and characterisation exquisitely balanced and every line, plot idea and nuance funny in a unique way. Seasons 5 and 6 are probably the show's peak, although 7, 8 and 9 are not very far behind.

Seinfeld is pure comedy: it isn't about detailed and believable characterisation, satire or tragedy. It must be understood in this way; no time for any of that "The Office is painfully real / Steptoe and Son is like a Pinter play / Basil Fawlty is quite a tragic figure really" stuff here. The same goes for the oft-cited "no hugs, nothing learned" rule: although it's true, this is never used to give the show airs of something more than comedy (as it happens, there is an episode of Seinfeld - The Betrayal - based on a Pinter play, but crucially it's a lot funnier than Pinter). Even the death of George's fiancé Susan is never allowed to be anything other than funny. Instead, the show plays with language. Choosing an episode at random for this piece, a glance at The Chicken Roaster reveals two linked throwaway lines with the signature flourish which none of Seinfeld's writers can stop generating but which British comedy writers these days can only dream of. Jerry runs into Seth, an old college buddy, who's got a meeting at work to go to, but Jerry insists they catch up on old times and asks "whatever happened to Moochie?" as they walk off arm-in-arm: "he's dead." "is that right?" Over lunch, Seth discloses that the meeting was rather important: he works for a big investment firm, and it was their first meeting with their latest investors. Seth subsequently loses his job, and stays cheerful, insisting it was worth it to catch up with an old college buddy: "I only knew you through Moochie," replies Jerry. Those two exquisite Moochie lines, almost throwaway by Seinfeld's standards, contain the show's aesthetic, and one that only comedy could have produced. The pleasurable effect of hearing a funny name like Moochie is linked to the poignancy of Seth's predicament and the destructive effect of friendship with Jerry.

 This linguistic playfulness can be found in every episode. "I don't WANNA be a pirate," says Jerry in The Puffy Shirt, adding a child-like high-pitched whine to "wanna" as he reprises a variation of the line in subsequent episodes each time someone demands he take on a role. "You're killing independent George!" wails George in The Pool Guy. "So Biff wants to be a buff," says Jerry in The Boyfriend. The Voice sees Jerry unable to kick the habit of saying "Hellooooo!" in a stupid voice, The Yadda Yadda is based in the idea that the titular phrase can be used to conceal important information, while The Summer of George sees Elaine irritated by men's tendency to make miaowing noises whenever a woman criticises another woman, even if the men made the criticism first. The title character in The Jimmy has an irritating habit of referring to himself in the third person. Lines from the Buddy Rich tapes - "I'm gonna show you what's it like", "this guy - this is not my kind of guy" and "we'll see how he does up there, without all the assistance" - are gleefully inserted into the dialogue of The Opposite, The Understudy and The Butter Shave respectively. Jerry Stiller's performance as George's father Frank - one of the funniest things ever caught on camera - peaks with those moments when what seems like the actor's struggle to remember lines lends them something you could never have imagined: "He had this big smiling face: it was like a pie" (The Understudy). "I saw a provocative movie on cable last bight. It was called The Net, with that girl from the bus" (The Serenity Now). Best of all is this exchange with George's mother (the wonderful Estelle Harris) from The Puffy Shirt:

Estelle: Georgie, would you like some Jello?
Frank : Why do you put the bananas in there?
Estelle: George likes the bananas!

The bizarre staccato roar in which Stiller delivers the last line is as good an example of what an actor can do to a line one could hope for. Phil Morris as the ultimate ambulance-chasing lawyer Jackie Chiles and Steve Hytner as Jerry's least favourite stand-up Kenny Bania also create their own verbal style, but to describe what they, Wayne Knight as Newman, John O'Hurley as J. Peterman and Len Lesser as Uncle Leo can do with a line would render this piece book-length.

   Sometimes it might be a non-verbal gesture that creates the poetry of comedy. The Pie starts off with the simple conceit of Jerry's girlfriend shaking her head when he offers her some pie. This baffles Jerry, but later on they eat at a restaurant run by Poppy (played with gusto by Reni Santoni), and Jerry sees him leaving a toilet cubicle without washing his hands. His girlfriend insists he tries some pie: all Jerry can do is shake his head in an identical way. Later, George is having lunch with prospective new employers and they pass him some pie, but George spots the chef watching furtively and realises he's an enemy from earlier in the episode who has contaminated his food in revenge. As his potential new employers demand he take a bite, warning him that they have no time for those who aren't team-players, George just shakes his head. A simple, funny physical movement, played with and threaded through a neatly-structured plot so that it becomes funnier and funnier: that's why this show is comedy in its purest form.

Other episodes of Seinfeld take a casual allusion and gleefully turn it into a riff. A episode about Jerry being nagged by his parents to see Schindler's List (The Raincoats) sees the episode's other central plotline - Elaine's latest boyfriend Aaron and his overbearing friendship with Jerry's parents - turn into a reenactment of that film's climax, nicely performed by Judge Reinhold:

No, I could've called the travel agency, got them on another flight to Paris, I coulda got them out. [...] This watch, this watch could've paid for their whole trip. This ring, this ring is one more dinner I could've taken them out to. Water, they need some water They'll get dehydrated on the plane! Get the Seinfelds some water. Please! Please!

An episode that has seen Kramer act increasingly like a dog (The Andrea Doria) throughout ends with a full on Lassie parody. An episode about condo elections (The Cadillac) in Florida ends with Jerry's dad recreating Nixon's exit from the White House. The Wig Master is painstaking in its goal to have Kramer become a pimp. First, another of the episode's plot strands provides him with a silver cane, then another one provides him with a Technicolour Dreamcoat from a production of Joseph, then someone's hat is blown away by the wind, then Kramer catches it and puts it on, accompanied by appropriate music and hip members of New York's nightlife exchanging the equivalent of high-fives with him as he saunters along the streets before reaching his car, and inadvertently stumbles into another of the episode's plotlines: prostitutes have been using the carpark in which George and Kramer park their cars to "turn tricks". After a 'John' flees the car and a hooker attacks Kramer for frightening away her trade, Kramer is apprehended by the cops as he is fighting her off. The punchline to this joyous riff - and to the episode - is Kramer's poignant cry as his mugshot is taken: "I'm not a pimp!": a child caught playing at being grown-up.

  Then there are the extraordinary textures the writers can create from playing with the convoluted nature of comedy itself, using its ludicrousness as a strength rather than a weakness. In The Chinese Woman, George spots his father talking to a man in a cape, (a cameo by Larry David, adopting an unashamedly ludicrous posture), who turns out to be his divorce lawyer. After the inevitable Superman comparison (one of the few things Jerry's interested in), we end with a scene in which the subject of the episode's other plot (a woman Kramer has apparently got pregnant) is about to throw herself off a bridge. A caped figure sidles towards her and gently guides her away. "Who are you?" she asks. "I'm Frank Costanza's lawyer," he replies. There are no astonishing moments like this in British comedy these days, and few the other side of the Atlantic. The caped lawyer can't give any other answers because that's all there is to him. In my pieces on Family Guy and Father Ted, I tried to pinpoint those extraordinary poetic moments unique to comedy, in which the gag folds back upon itself, and the writers revel in everything undefinable about it. This is one such moment: the fact that the character has been created purely because it is amusing to have George's father hold mysterious meetings with a man in a cape, and that the only reason for his appearance on the bridge is that it makes aesthetic rather than logical sense as those are the 2 plots left to be joined up, are all allowed to shine and refract as if through a prism. The example from Father Ted I used was Dougal's line, after Ted has raised the question of why they don't just take the rabbits back to the pet shop he bought his from: "It was a travelling pet shop, Ted, they won't be back till spring." Other examples include Sideshow Bob's line in The Simpsons "Well if it isn't my sworn arch enemy Bart Simpson, and his sister Lisa to whom I'm fairly indifferent." and numerous lines in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy such as this exchange:

Arthur: It's not so much an afterlife, more a sort of après vie
Zaphod: Hey, you dead guys! We're missing some ultra important thing here! Something somebody said and we missed it!
Arthur: I said it was more apres vie
Zaphod: Yeah, and Don't you wish you hadn't?

I love how that final line doesn't appear in the radio series, but was added for the TV series and the novel adaptation The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: an afterthought by Douglas Adams and an afterthought for the characters, acknowledging that they have to hear all these gags and don't always find them funny. All four examples use the way the gag works, the requirements of the gag, our expectations of that particular narrative and even the implausibilities it results in as walls to bounce the comedy off. They all parse earlier gags, and render everything funnier.

Other episodes take relish in distorting the shapes that we tend to associate with comedy narratives. The Bizarro Jerry sees Elaine encounter a group with the exact opposite qualities of Jerry, George and Kramer. Jerry makes the natural comparison with the Bizarro Superman. The episode ends with Bizarro Jerry saying "Me so happy, me want to cry" - we've gone from a reference to Bizarro Superman to using his very language, a quintessentially Seinfeld dynamic (the technique is one of displacement: compare it with the aforementioned climaxes to The Raincoats and The Cadillac, or The Jimmy, which starts with the title character's irritating habit of referring to himself in the first person, but by the end has George cathartically responding to his own storyline with "GEORGE IS GETTING UPSET!"). The Opposite sees George do the exact opposite of what he would normally do, resulting in the fortunes we've come to expect after five seasons being reversed. One has to marvel at Joe Queenan's bizarre claim that the sitcom has seen no innovation since the days of I Love Lucy: how can he say that when Seinfeld had such fun playing with the conventions and texture of the sitcom itself?

   Seinfeld is based around four people who aren't nice, demographically friendly or carefully constructed according to current audience interests, as those in Friends and The Big Bang Theory are. The scripts understand that not only are these not wonderful people: they aren't realistic either. What's most cloying about Friends and The Big Bang Theory is the constant insistence that these six people (in the case of TBBT it comes down to 2: girls and boys) are the only ones in the universe. Both those shows believe they are mimetic. Seinfeld, by contrast, revels in the fact that Kramer needs no job and yet has no money, that Elaine can't be bothered to keep up her anti-fur stance, that Jerry's "whole life revolves around cereals and Superman", that Jerry and Newman's enmity is little more than a kid's game that they both abandon when a more interesting game to play comes along. It also revels in the fact that these are not good people. To return to The Chicken Roaster, when Seth, jobless purely because of Jerry but bearing no grudge, is on his way out of Jerry's apartment, he picks up a newspaper and asks if he can keep it for the classifieds. Jerry replies "actually, I haven't read Tank McNamara yet..." and takes it back from him (Note that this occurs immediately after the "Moochie" line I mentioned earlier: in Seinfeld, these character details, grace notes, inflections, allusions to earlier lines and returns to earlier moments in a different key are combined to make comedic rainbows. It's why the delight the show gives never lessens after multiple viewings. You can watch it forever). The ingenious closing two-part episode - The Finale - was based around the idea that these are four odious individuals. They watch a fat man get carjacked with great amusement, and find themselves afoul of a new "Good Samaritan" law. They end up in prison, but the episode's tone is not self-consciously "dark": it's gleeful.

   The oddest thing about Seinfeld is the sublime effects they can get from Jerry Seinfeld's poor-yet-wonderful acting (Similar to the magnificent effects achieved by Larry David's awful-yet-brilliant acting in its sister show Curb Your Enthusiasm). This seems to be part of the same gag-parsing technique: when Jerry has to roar "Manya died - MANYA DIED!" out of a window in The Pony Remark, the phrase is made funnier by his inability to shout convincingly, as if the convoluted nature of a sitcom plot (Manya dies shortly after Jerry and Elaine offend her by saying they hate people who own or ever have owned ponies) is bounced back into the comic mix, strengthening rather than weakening it. It's because of this inexplicable effect that The Blood, in which Kramer has been storing blood everywhere, feels like a collision between Rabelais and Nabokov. When an accidentally-propelled scalpel falls toward Jerry, his whimper of terror sounds like a joke on the ridiculous nature of the moment. When he comes to and learns that Kramer has provided blood for a subsequent transfusion after the scalpel badly wounded him, all he can do is scream, and Kramer had no choice but to scream back. When the same thing happens with Newman stepping in as donor, all three of them scream. There's body horror here (Kramer has to store his blood in Jerry's car engine: it clots), and yet the script and actors are making us laugh at the absurd nature of that horror itself. If Jerry could scream convincingly, this effect would not be achieved. Jerry Seinfeld is actually a brilliant actor.

Jason Alexander as George Costanza gives one of the greatest performances in the history of television. As surely as with James Gandofini in The Sopranos or Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, every little movement, every expression, just the way he walks into a room, tells us exactly what is going on inside his character's head. He brings tremendous rage and suffering to the part, outacting the entire cast of many 'serious' dramas. Consider the scene in The Boyfriend where George has given Jerry's address as his current place of employment, claiming to be a latex salesman for Art Vandelay. The unemployment office ring Jerry's apartment while George is using the bathroom, and Kramer answers. "VANDELAY! SAY VANDELAY!" roars George's voice from the bathroom. Kramer ignores him and tells them that they have the right address, but this is just an apartment. As he hangs up, George bursts in with his trousers round his ankles, and lies defeated on the floor. Jerry enters: "And you want to be my latex salesman...". Alexander's investment in his character is so intense, in the physicality of his rage and in his ability to perform pratfalls and emotion with equal integrity, that moments like this are simultaneously hysterically funny and a point at which we feel we know this person as well as anyone in fiction.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine overcomes all of the stereotypes attached to women in comedy. Firstly, she's a natural clown: think of her and the first image that comes to mind might well be her signature violent shove while exclaiming "Get out...?", her inability to dance or the increasingly ludicrous facial expressions she pulls why saying "You think I have grace...?". Secondly, her character is as obnoxious and as base as the male ones, with none of the gender-essentialism of The Big Bang Theory or Friends. The gag about men who are "sponge-worthy" in The Sponge, her detestation of the sex scenes in The English Patient in the episode of that name ("Give me something I can use!") and her struggle to keep up with the no-masturbation competition in The Contest are the kind of vulgar comedy gold all often seen as the province of men (The Big Bang Theory, by contrast, sees the scenes with its female characters as the space for jokes about clothes-shopping, nail-varnish and Eat Pray Love).

When Michael Richards, as Kramer, made his entrance in the first episode of Seinfeld I ever saw - The Couch - my Dad, watching it with me, remarked, "oh God, there's the standard wacky neighbour: look at his funny haircut..." but a moment later, Kramer collided with a sofa a removal man was bringing in. He fell to the ground and leapt back up in an oddly graceful way. My dad chuckled:'"He did do that fall rather well, I must say -can we just rewind that?". That seems to me to capture the magic of Richards as Kramer, and its effect on the viewer: at first it seems to be standard sitcom shtick, then Richards plays it in a way no-one else could. His performance in The Jimmy is wonderful in a way nothing else has ever been. This imperishable episode sees Kramer mistaken for a mentally-challenged person after he's encountered with one side of his mouth still frozen by Novocaine following a dental appointment. He's invited to a charity dinner, where Mel Torme sings "When You're Smiling" to him. Kramer beams, and what makes this moment so delightful is the lack of deception: Kramer, after all, is indeed a special person, and didn't set out to give a false impression. The mixture of audacious bad taste and sweetness makes even the most po-faced viewer want to hug themselves: this as far away from Gervais-style cruelty as could be imagined, just as The Bubble Boy is interested more in the humour of an angry, raucous Bubble Boy (and in the poetry of saying "Bubble Boy") than in gags about his suffering.

The show's commitment to comedy aesthetics above everything else allows the characters to perform monologues of sustained power. Here's the climax of The Marine Biologist (in which George has been pretending to be a marine biologist to impress a girl, but been confronted by a beached whale which she implores him to save; and in which Kramer has been practicing his golf shots down by the beach):

   George: So I started to walk into the water. I won't lie to you boys, I was terrified! But I pressed on and as I made my way passed the breakers a strange calm came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things but I tell you Jerry at that moment I was a marine biologist! [...]
The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to return soup at a deli. I got about fifty-feet out and then suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence he gave out a big bellow. I said, "Easy big fella!" And then as I watched him struggling I realized something was obstructing his breathing. From where I was standing I could see directly into the eye of the great fish!
Jerry: Mammal.
George: Whatever.
Kramer: Well, what did you do next?
George: Then from out of nowhere a huge title wave lifted, tossed like a cork and I found myself on top of him face to face with the blow-hole. I could barely see from all of the waves crashing down on top of me but I knew something was there so I reached my hand and pulled out the obstruction!
(George pulls out a golf ball)
Kramer (looking sheepishly at it for a while): What is that  - a Titleist? A hole in one, eh?
Jerry: Well, the crowd most have gone wild!
George: Oh yes, they did Jerry, they were all over me. It was like Rocky 1.
Diane came up to me, threw her arms around me, and kissed me. We both had tears streaming down our faces. I never saw anyone so beautiful. It was at that moment I decided to tell her I was not a marine biologist!
Jerry: Wow! What'd she say?
George: She told me to "Go to hell!" and I took the bus home.

Only comedy could create the effect that scene creates. The line "like an old man trying to send back soup in a Delhi," scans as gorgeously as poetry, and yet it's something other than poetry: it's irreducibly comedy.

Here's an equally brilliant vehicle for Michael Richards from The Fire:

KRAMER: she ran out of the building and a street sweeper ran over her foot and severed her pinky toe.
GEORGE: That's unbelievable!
KRAMER: Yeah! Then after the ambulance left, I found the toe! So I put it in a Cracker Jack box, filled it with ice, and took off for the hospital.
GEORGE: You ran?
KRAMER: No, I jumped on the bus. I told the driver, "I got a toe here, buddy - step on it."
GEORGE: Holy cow!
KRAMER: Yeah, yeah, then all of a sudden, this guy pulls out a gun. Well, I knew any delay is gonna cost her her pinky toe, so I got out of the seat and I started walking towards him. He says, "Where do you think you're going, Cracker Jack?" I said, "Well, I got a little prize for ya, buddy - knocked him out cold!

GEORGE: How could you do that?!
KRAMER: Then everybody is screamin,' because the driver, he's passed out from all the commotion...the bus is out of control! So, I grab him by the collar, I take him out of the seat, I get behind the wheel and now I'm drivin' the bus.
GEORGE: You're Batman.
KRAMER: Yeah. Yeah, I am Batman. Then the mugger, he comes to, and he starts chokin' me! So I'm fightin' him off with one hand and I kept drivin' the bus with the other, y'know? Then I managed to open up the door, and I kicked him out the door with my foot, you know - at the next stop.
JERRY: You kept makin' all the stops?
KRAMER: Well, people kept ringin' the bell!

This is a show famous for its "no hugging, no learning" rule, yet television has never been more joyous. The only emotion involved here is the warmth we experience when we experience great comedy.
Only two moments in the entire series allow the characters to express emotion towards one another. One is the scene in The Deal where Kramer gives Elaine the bench she wanted as a birthday present, along with a birthday card that quotes Yeats. Even this moment has a sting, though, as it drops Jerry in it for not getting Elaine anything. The second moment comes in The Wallet when Elaine returns after Julia Louis-Dreyfus has taken a few episodes off due to pregnancy. The four cheer and rejoice in a way that stays funny rather than schmaltzy, but there's still an uncharacteristic note of warmth.

Jerry's parents are highly skillful creations in this regard. It's been noted that Jerry is unusual as a protagonist in a sitcom for whom things work out, and crucial to this is his having relatively relaxed parents. They're  necessarily gentler than George's, but the achievement of Barney Martin and Liz Sheridan's performances as Morty and Helen Seinfeld is that they still make them funny. The scene in The Shower Head where Elaine demands that Helen provide a urine sample to help her cheat on a drugs test gains a curious comic edge from the latter's lack of offence, instead getting flustered about which glass she should use.   Even the scene in The Outing where they phone Jerry after rumors that he and George are a couple are circulating demonstrates that they are vexed -  "it's those damn culottes you made him wear when he was five!" - rather than offended. The episode's iconic line "not that there's anything wrong with that" sounds particularly natural coming from Liz Sheridan, setting us up for what it will sound like when Estelle Harris gets to say it. Helen and Morty succeed as creations because they reinforce the idea that Jerry has had irritatingly little to be concerned about (as he says in The Serenity Now, "I'm open, there's just nothing in there") as a source of humour, and so his parents are not demons like the Costanzas (not to mention the comedy gold that ensues when both sets of parents clash). Few comedies would be able to use a mother's unironic "how can anyone not like him?" (The Wallet) for comic effect, let alone as a catchphrase (not that its depiction of older people is rose-tinted - See The Cadillac for a splendidly acid portrayal of bitchiness and political rivalry among the elderly.)

 A more typical moment comes in The Serenity Now, when Jerry decides to try his hand at emotion: "What is this salty discharge?" he says upon shedding his first tears. He then insists upon opening up to George, who eventually relents and tells Jerry " All of my darkest fears, everything I'm capable of. That's me." Jerry stares in horror: "Yikes. Well, good luck with all that. [...] I think you scared me straight." Even eerier is the moment in the season seven finale The Invitations, when George's fiancé Susan, nicely played by Heidi Swedberg who gets us rooting for her, has been fatally poisoned by licking poor-quality envelopes when sending out wedding initiations (George insisted on the cheaper ones). The others react to the news, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus delivering the line "I' sorry, George...?" as if Elaine is baffled rather than moved. It's the eeriest moment in Seinfeld's history.

Yet, to reiterate, this is not a "dark" sitcom. It's not designed for the "this makes me squirm and therefore it must be funny" school of comedy criticism. It revels in its own artificiality, realising that its characters and plots are driven by the requirements of comedy, not just human observation. This is what makes it the opposite of Friends. Seinfeld acknowledges that Susan's death happens because it's funny, while Friends can't help but see Ross cheating on Rachel as the worst thing in the world. Douglas Adams said of PG Wodehouse "He doesn't have to be serious - he's better than that." Here's a show that was never serious, except in its artistry, and consequently created a world.


  1. Very nice analysis of why Seinfeld is one for the ages! Although I believe Jerry's whole life is "cereals and Superman", not "serials". Also, it's Vandelay.

    1. Ah, thanks for the heads-up - have now corrected both.