Over the last year or so, I managed to watch all nine seasons and 180 episodes of one of the most popular television comedy shows of all time—Seinfeld, on Netflix. I remember watching a few episodes many years ago on Indian television, but this was the first time I really sat down and watched. And I can say with confidence that viewers who have missed Seinfeld have missed out on loads and loads of sheer fun.
It's quite amazing how little the show has aged. After all, its last episode aired in 1998, which seems like a pre-historic time today. In fact, literally thousands of articles have been written, trying to figure out why it was so successful and continues to be loved.
There’s even at least one anthology of scholarly essays, edited by an American academic, titled Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing, with alarmingly named chapters — “The Jerry Problem and the Socratic Problem”, “George's Failed Quest for Happiness: An Aristotelian Analysis”, “Making Something Out of Nothing: Seinfeld, Sophistry and the Tao”, “Seinfeld, Subjectivity and Sartre” and so on.
The show revolves around the lives of four friends—Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comedian played by real-life stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld; Elaine, who is Jerry’s former lover; George, Jerry’s pal from high school; and Kramer, Jerry’s neighbour, all of them in their 30s. Jerry is the sanest of the lot, except for a cleanliness fetish that borders on germophobia.
Elaine is temperamentally volatile, unorganized and even selfish. George is a loser with low self-confidence, a habitual liar in both personal and professional life, often presenting himself as an architect called Art Vanderlay to impress women. Kramer is the most self-confident among the four, though he possibly hasn’t done an honest day’s work in his life but brims with weird business ideas that never work out.
Minor recurring characters include Newman, a mailman who is Kramer’s pal, a hilarious combination of pure evil and self-pity who hates Jerry (I wish the show had more of Newman). There is Jerry’s cantankerous Uncle Leo, who is always boasting about the accomplishments of his son, a government clerk whom we never see. There are George’s parents who have a very low opinion of their son.
Much of the action takes place in Jerry’s New York apartment and a coffee shop where the four main characters hang out together. Most of the episodes are about details of daily life as the four go about their work and play. At the end of an episode, you may often find yourself wondering what it was all about, even though you have been laughing yourself silly. Many of the topics may appear quite trivial in hindsight and you may be unable to recount the story to a friend and explain what exactly was so funny.
An episode that is routinely listed as one of the best ever is wholly about Jerry and his friends waiting to get a table at a Chinese restaurant. That one-line descriptor doesn’t sound very funny, does it?
Yet for nine years, the show’s creators Larry David and Seinfeld kept the world in splits.
This gave rise to the persistent and widespread theory that the show was about “nothing”. I too believed this, especially since in the show’s fourth and fifth seasons, in a seemingly self-referential plotline, Jerry and George try to sell a “show about nothing” to a television network.
So I was surprised to read that both David and Seinfeld had emphatically denied this. Seinfeld has said that “the pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to (TV network) NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that.”
David’s opinion is harsher. “I like taking the worst qualities that a person has and trying to make something funny out of it,” he told an interviewer. “Doesn’t everybody do terrible things and have terrible thoughts? Just by trying to be as funny, you’re going to deal with a lot of things that are real, so the show’s really about something. The whole thing about the show being about nothing is ridiculous.” The show, in its creators’ view, is in fact “about everything”.
David’s comments are interesting, because some critics have noted that throughout the nine seasons, the characters neither change a bit nor grow in any way. This is absolutely unlike the conventional TV show model, where people follow some sort of a story arc, getting older, falling in love, marrying, getting richer or poorer. But in Seinfeld, everyone stays exactly where they were. George and Elaine change jobs a couple of times, but their attitude to work does not; they keep getting into trouble, either because of who they are or through unfortunate coincidences. The relationships between the four also remain absolutely static.
As a result, at least one critic has accused the show of an “indifference to morals". Maybe the charge has some merit in it.
Many of the jokes in Seinfeld would possibly have been rejected by the producers and the network if the show were being made today, especially Jerry and George’s attitude towards homosexuality. In one episode, they are horrified when a journalist thinks that they are a gay couple. They keep telling people that they are fully and solely heterosexual, adding unconvincingly, “not that there's anything wrong with that (homosexuality)”.
Mentally challenged people are made fun of; a physically disabled boy is treated with scorn; Jerry and Elaine freely express their revulsion at a newborn baby, calling it “the ugliest baby ever”. George’s fiancée dies and everyone moves on with their lives without a backward glance. Today’s audiences may not have taken too kindly to this sort of humour.
But quite a bit of the humour we've ever enjoyed from any source gets its laughs from other people’s misfortunes and pure cynicism or sadism.
Just check the unsolicited jokes that land up on your WhatsApp groups every day. The nastier ones—stupid blondes and astronomically idiotic husbands and booze jokes whereas alcoholism is a serious societal issue—seem to get more LOLs and more forwards. After all, the right to offend is the core tenet of funniness. Besides, David’s statement of intent should make it all clear to everyone.
David’s themes may actually be dark. Though, I rarely noticed the stuff in that context. I was laughing too hard all the time. Maybe I should read that philosophy book and tone up on Seinfeld, Sartre and the Tao.However, if we can overlook these casual and careless cruelties, Seinfeld is terrific entertainment. And all this indifference does catch up with Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer in the show’s final episode and they get their comeuppance. No spoilers; but the show ends with an unexpected twist.Those who enjoy a good carefree laugh will continue to love Seinfeld. It’s classic entertainment.