Friday, July 9, 2010

On Seinfeld

Hey dudes. Yes, still alive.

Haven’t been around here much. Part of it is having a baby – which is not only time taking care of a baby, but of course, savoring the baby. I mean to write some posts, but then it’s like, “Well, should I spend an hour or two writing some kind of gripey thing about comics or should I watch my brand new son wave his arms about and look at things out the window?” Having essentially dedicated the first twenty-five years of my life to triviality, it is a strange time indeed to have something decidedly non-trivial drop into your lap (and, subsequently, poop in it).

But when he is asleep, as he is now, that part of me that wants to write about things that are unimportant to the majority of people but are terribly important to me wakes up.

So, I don’t really have time to write something, sit on it, think it over on a drive to work, edit it, and finally post it two days later like I used to. But what the hell, we are only blogging here. Let’s just talk about some things, and if I say something stupid or at best not very well thought out, then we’ll just talk about that next then, okay? Stimulating conversation is more interesting anyway.

Anyway: I promised like a month or two ago I’d do this thing about Bronze Age Spider-Man, which has been pretty much done for some time but I wasn’t totally happy with it, but I’ll just post that baby sometime next week anyway and be done with it. Also - tell your friends! – I am doing a “Good Marvel Comics Really Did Exist in the Late 90s, Although Admittedly in Somewhat Small Quantities” post for realsies, and that is something I think is terribly important. Look for that soon, in addition to – could it be? – an actual Adventures of Wyatt Earp in 2999-related update, because you may recall, there is a comic that I write that gives this blog its name.

Also a mystery writing project in the works, but I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up too much in case it sucks. It might suck, I won't really know until it's out there, will I?

But tonight: I want to write about television, and write quickly.

I borrowed the first three seasons of Seinfeld on DVD from my brother, because I’ve been reading the AV Club’s recaps on them, and it’s been years since I watched what was once my favorite show that I knew top to bottom, quotes and trivia and behind the scenes factoids (I was, it may distress you to know, that kid in middle school). I also borrowed the first two seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I have never watched, but Zach recently got into it and has been really digging it.

Watching Seinfeld up to 20 years later…those intensely observational first episodes don’t strike one as so bewildering as they did the NBC executives and test audiences when they first came out. It’s obvious that they shouldn’t, because of Seinfeld’s tremendous influence on the pop-culture landscape. You can have two guys talking about Superman or cereal or poorly positioned shirt buttons in any TV show or movie and nobody questions it. It’s not important anymore if Seinfeld’s a “show about nothing” because now anything can be about nothing, and in 2010 I have a blog where I talk about communists of the Marvel Universe.

So we’ll look at the other part of the Seinfeld pop-culture narrative, which is that the show supposedly has unlikable characters.

This has never rung true to me, and watching It’s Always Sunny has helped point it out, because there you have some genuinely unlikable characters. Like, reprehensible. Selling liquor to minors and pretending to have cancer to get a girl and going to pro/anti-abortion rallies for the sole purpose of meeting chicks. They’re bad people who do outrageous things, so when bad things happen to them we don’t feel bad. I’m quite enjoying the show.

But that’s not what Seinfeld is. Not really. If George was really a monster he wouldn't care if he got that busboy fired. A truly reprehensible Jerry wouldn't worry about the "pony remark" and whether it contributed to his aged relative's death. The key to why Seinfeld resonates is because the show vocalizes ugly things that we’re all secretly thinking but don’t say. The character of George doesn’t work if we despise him; we have to identify with him on some level, even if it's remote. Of course, that’s not to say that we’d all be exactly George Costanza if we weren’t keeping ourselves in check, but he does magnify that part of ourselves that can be petty, can be shallow, is jealous and angry and all that other stuff. George Costanza is a potential us…

You know what, actually? Maybe I’m making a dumb comparison I’ll regret later, but George is kind of The Hulk, isn’t he?

Anyway, at the same time, Seinfeld is a comedy of manners. The It’s Always Sunny gang doesn’t care what anybody thinks of them, but the Seinfeld gang does – the petty side just usually wins out, that’s all.

And because we care what people think about us too, the narrative develops that the Seinfeld gang is “unlikable,” and it seems a bit like denial. Whenever the characters do become genuinely unlikable, as in the series finale and a few other later season episodes, it feels wrong. We’re not supposed to be judging from a position of moral superiority, as we are for It’s Always Sunny, it’s really more of a “There but for the grace of God…” thing, isn’t it?

You want an example? "The Switch," in which Jerry isn't getting along with his girlfriend, but thinks he might like to date her roommate. If you or I found ourselves in this situation, I think most people, if we're being totally honest, would consider that possibility, at least for a second. We in all probability wouldn't act on it, and it's hard to argue that it isn't good that we don't, but there is a tiny element of, "If only..." Seinfeld, at its best, simply removes the "If only..." and runs with it (but also usually reinforces the societal norms, because no real lasting good ever comes from any of it, and most often it actively blows up in their faces).

So what I think makes Seinfeld still relevant and interesting and funny today is how honest it is about how ugly it is. If you will permit a moment of pretentious self-indulgence, I would even venture that Seinfeld is an influence on my own writing. To be able to risk characters being perceived as unlikable in the pursuit of touching something inside of us that we (quite rightly) deny. We can say that the Seinfeld gang is unlikable only if we admit that everyone is unlikable, at least in theory.

I don’t know, I think this Seinfeld thing is gonna be a hit, but nobody’s going to be sure why…


Josh said...

The first time I ever described It's Always Sunny to someone I described it as "its like seinfeld if they were all just terrible terrible human beings." I'm glad someone shares my feelings about this. Most people I say that to disagree. Too bad they are stupid.

colsmi said...

Absolutely, sir, absolutely. Seinfeld isn't funny because the characters aren't behaving in a recognisable and everyday fashion, as you rightly say. I've always found it baffling, when I didn't find it amusing, that folks seem to regard the Seinfeld crew as abnormal, and their lives as being about "nothing" ...

Justin said...

Josh: Yeah, the It's Always Sunny characters' utter horribleness is really quite liberating in its way. I can't even watch a movie like Meet the Parents because I just feel TOO BAD for that nice Mr. Ben Stiller. It's not an enjoyable experience because I'm just like "Please, Ben! Just cut your losses and go home! I can't take this anymore!"

But when Dennis made that thousand bucks after betting against Mac in the underground fighting match, and then that mugger steals his money, I felt a brief twinge of "Aw, too bad" before remembering "Wait, Dennis is a pretty horrible human being. That mugger probably deserves a thousand bucks at least as much as he does."

Colin: It IS baffling. It might be somewhat mean of me, but I always chalk it up to denial. "Oh, I'd NEVER" but of course you would, or at the very least you'd WANT TO, just a little bit? I don't think Seinfeld became an unstoppable ratings juggernaut just because we all like to laugh at how crazy them New Yorkers are.

But then, if one watches Friends, it IS to laugh at them crazy New Yorkers, because Friends takes the sort of "engine" of Seinfeld but replaces the neuroses with quirks. Different people can be a "Chandler" or a "Monica" type or whatever, but EVERYBODY is a "George" on their worst day.

plok said...

Totally agree, everybody misses the point: the Seinfeld crew don't really know how to do things properly, but they try -- they meet a lot of people more horrible than they are, but all those people can "pass", meanwhile they just can't seem to stop nice people from getting the wrong impression of them when they try too hard. Just like us, on a bad day. And this isn't all: Rolling Stone had a cover with the Seinfeld cast as the Wizard Of Oz cast, George as the Lion, Jerry as the Tin Man, Kramer as the Scarecrow, Elaine as Dorothy. Suitable if you think of what they're all "really" like -- George is, if nothing else, the most fearless character I've ever seen on TV -- but if you just take 'em at face value, no.

Uh, which was probably the point...


Justin said...

Hey, that's a terribly interesting way of looking at George..."fearless"...I'd buy that! Green Lantern of the Lower West Side! Come to think of it, fear IS what separates us from George, huh? He tells his boss off with no backup job prospects (and follows that up by drugging him!), eats that eclair right out of the garbage, jumps right into lies about having designed the addition to the Guggenheim. We think of George as being a neurotic mess, and he is, yet after you brought up this angle, I'm forced to admit he's a man who GOES FOR IT, with a gusto for life that rivals Kramer's! But why, then, does George fail and Kramer succeed? Because George is selfish and Kramer is, really, one of the better friends you could ever ask for?

That Wizard of Oz thing's pretty great, actually. I'm sure I saw it once and didn't think much of it other than "three guys, one girl, yep, that matches up," but it's quite an accurate portrait of what's going on there once it's pointed out.

Your line about "passing" is interesting...I've got a hankering to write about a particular aspect of 30 Rock to which that notion might apply.

plok said...

30 Rock? I'll look forward to that...

Knowing a couple of people who're a LOT like Kramer, though (I know, I know!), I've gotta say I'll take George instead, every time: because if Kramer's agenda ever conflicts with yours, he's got zero problem screwing you up!