Let's talk about Seinfeld's sixteenth episode: "The Chinese Restaurant." It may be the first great episode in the series, centered entirely around the wait for a table in a (wha?) Chinese restaurant. George is trying to access a payphone to break up with a girlfriend; Elaine becomes increasingly desperate to be seated. She breaks out observations like this:
Remember when you first went out to eat with your parents? Remember, it was such a treat to go and they serve you this different food that you never saw before, and they put it in front of you, and it is such a delicious and exciting adventure? And now I just feel like a big sweaty hog waiting for them to fill up the trough.In retrospect, not many things seem as revolutionary now as they were at the time. Louis Armstrong played old music and Van Gogh painted pretty pictures -- neither guy seems like a rebellion. We forget how Seinfeld's observational, slapstick-free humor parted from the good comedies (Cheers, Night Court) that came before, and how odd it was to have relatively plot-free episodes about the lives of a group of platonic friends. When Seinfeld started, it wasn't just funny, but something entirely new.
Seinfeld infiltrated everything, and that's what we're here to talk about. The literary critic Harold Bloom has argued that before Shakespeare, people didn't know how to process themselves and the world -- that those conversations we have inside our heads were not so complicated, that Shakespeare, in Bloom's words, "invented the human as we know it." It's hard to accept that kind of judgment at face value, yes, but I think that Harold Bloom's basic point -- that a Shakespeare can come along and fundamentally change the way we think about ourselves, and the stories that write themselves in our heads -- is sound. Bloom's observation isn't that we individually read Shakespeare and are affected, but that he captured something about human psychology that changed the way everyone viewed themselves, whether we've read the plays or not.
In its skilled hands, Seinfeld raised triviality into an art form. Go back to that episode at the Chinese restaurant: Inconveniences and nuisances, small roadblocks, petty dramas like an interminable restaurant wait or payphone politics, we all have them. Take the episode where Elaine finds herself on a subway trip interrupted by stalls and power failures: It's another universal, set in New York but speaking to someone trapped in traffic in Phoenix. Seinfeld took these universal, trivial things, observed them closely, and tilled them into fertile creative material.
Seinfeld isn't Shakespeare, and I'm not Harold Bloom (for two things, I'm not morbidly obese and haven't [yet] traumatized Naomi Wolfe) but lately I'm wondering if Seinfeld hasn't done something similar to what Bloom described. I'm not talking about the show's use of irony -- this isn't some Jed Purdy handwringing about how horrible it is that people aren't more sincere.
No, what Seinfeld spawned is an preoccupation with little things, and a belief that our own inconveniences, superiorities and minor frustrations are in any way interesting. Before you disagree, consider recent conversations that you've had with minor acquaintances and co-workers. A significant percentage of them probably involved these small frustrations. Only rarely do people talk about actually doing things, or recommend something good that they came across. All smalltalk is painful, but a distinctly Seinfeldian whining and a mistaken idea that these things are amusing, they're something different.
They're also entirely reactive. Like all the best Seinfeld moments, the person is caught in a tangle that someone else started. You're never the person who does things, you're the person who sees things, the rubber that bounces the glue. Isn't it wacky that the wireless company is a dick?
Those awful commercial for the Sonic fast food chain? Seinfeld. "Lazy Sunday?" Seinfeld. Those stories about your dry cleaner, your subway trip, the waitress at lunch? These are boring things, but we don't recognize them as boring anymore because more talented people have turned them into entertainment. Not recognizing the distinction, we think that they're all entertainment.
Seinfeld has given everyone an illusion that these things are more important than they are. A rude service employee or a transportation inconvenience become stories to share. It's not enough to shrug it off and forget it.
You may think that I'm wrong in three respects. First, you might say that people always talked about these things. Not true. You're mistaking boring conversations with people trying to be cute about boring topics. No book, movie or TV re-run that predates Seinfeld features these kinds of fetishized conversations. But Dave Eggers or Jonathan Franzen? Friends, Entourage or Sex in the City? It's glib, clever minutia. The average conversation with your parent or aunt and uncle might be boring (more weather stories, please) but their not gilded with pissy fake cleverness. The boring conversations that people 35 and under have, they're Seinfeld's spawn, and we're Jerry's kids.
Second, you might say that Seinfeld is a symptom, not the cause. That's possible. Reality Bites made clear that half-witted, self-absorbed podlings were the new Punk. Without Seinfeld, what's now mistaken as "wit" might have been earnest. The mind reels.
Third, maybe you think that the post-Seinfeld norm isn't a bad thing. Maybe you think it's fun to hear these stories -- they're relatable and simple and you like telling them. They're like little helpings of junk-food conversation. No harm done, and I'm being a dick for thinking all of this is bad.
Colleague in Elevator: How was your weekend?
Colleague: What did you do?
CrimeNotes: [Pause.] Went to a bunch of parties and saw a band. [Pause, and if feeling talkative, add:] Read a biography about Cicero/watched a bunch of football. [Resentful pause.] What did you do?Cue story about trip to beach and supposedly funny thing that happened on the train back.
Do you see what I did right there? I tried to be all fucking clever and amusing with a bullshit anecdote about something trivial. I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? Tell me, tell me what's funny?*
Apparently, no one ever does anything.** Don't complain to me about being bored.
*Goodfellas was released the year Seinfeld debuted. That was a good year.
**And then I'm the asshole because I have to go and blow up a conversation because I can't sit through another half-assed anecdote. The next thing you know, I'm described as "mean" and some girl is crying in the corner because I didn't smirk at the story about the check-out woman who couldn't get the milk to go through the scanner correctly. Thanks, Jerry.