Seinfeld and Shows About Nothing

I have recently started watching Seinfeld again. The show still makes me laugh. Now, having a teenage daughter, I get to enjoy the series this time through her eyes.

All great comedy shows and writers have the ability to see something in culture and make fun of it. Given that the Seinfeld  show is now close to twenty years old, I find it so interesting that she laughs at the same jokes I use to laugh at.

The humor in the show revolves around four main characters who are forever trapped in adolescence. All of them are completely self-absorbed with seemingly no potential for growth. None of them are married, have good jobs and or any inclination to help anyone but themselves. Yet the situations and predicaments they put themselves into precisely because of their self-centered natures are really funny.

The show was a big hit and lasted for ten years. The final episode concludes with the four characters locked in a prison cell over a crime they committed: they were witnesses to a crime and failed to help stop it. As the four of them are locked away, they begin in the usual banter which made the show so famous… to which the character “Elaine” chimes in and says, “Haven’t we already done this before?”

The scene is a reference to the great play by Jean Paul Satre, No Exit, where three people are locked into a room. They  are dead and salvation can be had, but only through growth and the mercy of the others. Alas, they are incapable of such acts and are, therefore, forever trapped in Hell for eternity. Forever there, to torture and inflict pain on one another with salvation possible but never attained because of their flaws.

The root of Seinfeld’s humor is despair. Its made fun of, poked at and eventually succumb to. At the trial ,they are locked away for good as the judge hears a litany of crimes they committed against humanity. Because they are hopeless and indifferent to the plight of others, they are locked away, removing their deficiencies from society.

Oddly enough, during the 1990’s when Seinfeld was originally filmed, economic prospects were better than today. The country was not at war.  The outlook was generally more sanguine.  Yet the message of self-centeredness existed and took root. How else could Seinfeld have been so popular if, at its core, it did not touch upon and reveal some sense of a universal truth?

Since then, we’ve been in two major wars, had a tech bubble burst, a housing crisis and a tripling of our national debt. Add to that an enormous  student debt bubble which has the capacity to enslave an entire generation to indebtedness… and I would argue that times are much more dire now than when the show was written.

A central tenet of Larry David’s vision for Seinfeld was that the show would have “no hugging and no learning.” The characters were written and drawn to get a laugh. But the show is closer to the truth than he realized. The characters in Seinfeld are no longer caricatures. They are us.

If you think I am wrong take a look at this video:

For many who live in the U.S., we have no sense of history, no sense of the laws that govern us or the underlying principles that shape our country. Because so many are so self-centered, we no longer take the time to understand our relationship to the country and the society that we live in.

Maybe Seinfeld’s brilliance was not in its comedy; but, in its ability to see where the country was headed and what type of people we were becoming.

 

Steve

sleeclark@gmail.com