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22nd February 2022

Seinfeld: A show about nothing

Seinfeld is a show about nothing that speaks to us so fundamentally, but why?
Seinfeld: A show about nothing
Photo: JuliusMassius @ Wikimedia commons

There isn’t a significant Seinfeld date coming up nor anything particularly new coming out about the show, but there’s never a bad time to take a look back at the show’s Midas touch and the enormous influence it had on what we now know as the modern sitcom.

Written by comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld (playing himself), the show follows the ‘everyday lives’ of Seinfeld, his best friend George, his odd neighbour Kramer, and his ex-girlfriend Elaine. Together, they end up involved in one outrageous scrape after another, navigating the complex world of insufferable partners, constant social faux pas, and early 90s technology.

At first glance, it’s a successful yet simple sitcom that hardly differentiates itself from sitcom giants like Friends: young, white and single Americans ebbing their way through the social life of New York. So why the buzz? Seinfeld was truly unique in what it said about that social life. The genre has traditionally depicted moral journeys with quick one-liners that comfortably fit in with a heartwarming message with subject matter ranging from family to work-life, focusing on fun, likeable characters and their journey to be better people. Seinfeld threw that in the bin. But how and why did it do this and does it even matter?

The show about nothing

In season 4, Jerry is asked to write an idea for a sitcom by NBC executives looking for something unconventional. Ideas about a show surrounding a circus get chucked in from Kramer but, in a meta turn of events, George stumbles across the idea of making their coffee shop conversation into a show. Later pitching it, George asks ‘What did you do today?’ ‘I got up brushed my teeth, went to work…’ the executive replies ‘That’s a show!’ George slams back.

In reality, David and Seinfeld had the idea of a show that took you through a comedian’s journey to find their material. That’s where the premise of the show lies. It showcases the seemingly mundane minutiae of everyday life in the eyes of a humorist. The show often delineates the stuff that keeps us up at night, our relationships, our missed opportunities, how other people look at us and the neurosis of what we could and should have done differently throughout our day. Yet even then, it’s still not really about these things. Instead, the show deconstructs our everyday lives and finds material in the awkward social positions that its characters end up in and moreover, the absurdity that we were even worried about these mundane matters to start with. The crux of the show is that Seinfeld doesn’t offer us any sort of explanation or resolution to these problems, but rather it leaves its audience at the end of each half-hour episode looking down on these characters for not making everything better in the end. You even begin to wonder why you were laughing so hard about absolutely nothing.

The honesty in bad people

Someone asked me the other day, ‘Why don’t Jerry and Elaine get together in the end?’. In all fairness, that’s a good question. So often in these sitcoms, the romantic relationship or tension is played to the extreme, apparently giving a sense of purpose to the show. The humour then becomes a tool to tell these romantic stories (see here How I Met Your Mother or Friends). Seinfeld breaks the mould. In a truly groundbreaking move, the show tows the opposite line. The central humour is that the four main characters are their own worst barriers to finding love, fulfilment, long-lasting relationships and success. The show focuses so much on the insignificant and rigid social norms of everyday life that it leaves viewers scrutinising the main characters’ emotionless almost sociopathic responses. It is written in the way that all you’re left with is four characters who couldn’t possibly reconcile with any ideas of good or moral behaviour.

Take the arc of season 7. George begins by proposing to an old girlfriend, Susan, after finding himself in a rut. Almost immediately, he regrets his actions and spends the rest of the season trying to call off or at least postpone the wedding. This is all because he is too afraid to tell his fiancé that he doesn’t want to marry her and, eventually, inadvertently leads to him playing a role in her death. This is not normal behaviour and we never look to George as a model for life, but everything he does is fall off your seat funny. Most importantly, there’s a truth in all of these characters’ immorality. We’re selfish, we’re mean, we’re cruel, we all have the ability to do bad things because we’re scared and we fear the small things in life. Seinfeld encourages us to find that absolute absurdity, so long as we don’t hit the lows of these characters. Effectively it tells us ‘just laugh, you’ll be fine’.

The legacy

The shadow of Seinfeld is everywhere. Shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have taken the immoral characters to the extreme and done very well out of it. Rob McElhenney even admits that they took the idea of bad people from Seinfeld and ran with it. Seinfeld even has a sister show in the equally successful Curb Your Enthusiasm, which follows a serialised version of Larry David, who again obsesses over the small details of social life, in what is arguably the most important show of the modern TV era. Give that a watch if you get the chance.

Seinfeld also leaves a legacy on the soul of modern Western culture. The message to us as watchers is just to laugh at how absurd we are. Look every day at your interactions with people, how we mess up, how we’re awkward, how we’re so often lost, and just laugh. Once you do that you might just have enough material to be a stand-up comic like Jerry Seinfeld.

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