Thursday, August 02, 2007

Jerry's kids

Seinfeld debuted in 1990, when I was 13 or 14. Like everyone, I love the show, and even its angry stepson, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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.

This episode changed more than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

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.

Harold Bloom. I would have been traumatized, too.

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?
CrimeNotes: Fine.
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.


Zilla Rocca said...

"**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."

You perfectly described why I broke up with my ex. Creepy.

blythe said...

this hits a little too close to home.

so, what am i supposed to talk about?

Cock D said...

One observation I had about Seinfeld was how current technology would so easily derail the plotlines in Seinfeld.

Watch an episode: there is almost always some plotline that uses lack of communication as a pillar for the story. So often a simple cell phone call, search on google, or e-mail could resolve the issue at hand.

Not surprisingly, Seinfeld's run (1990-1998) was wrapping up just as the hyper-communication age was taking off. It leaves me to wonder if some of those stories could be made today for 2 reasons. 1. Would the plots still work, and 2. Are the writers clever enough.

Ultimately, I think both are in play; though, the latter is the reason for shows like "Scott Baio is 45 and single". Guh.

Interesting post guys, thanks.

CrimeNotes said...

Zilla -- Were you the "mean" one, or the person crying in the corner?

Blythe -- Stop being so worried, goddammit. Write what you feel like writing. I wouldn't worry about appeasing me. You're doing just fine.

cock d -- Right on. I've noticed the same thing. I bet it wouldn't have been a roadblock to the writers, but a lot of the dilemmas would have been different, less universal, and wouldn't have had the same kind of charm.

blythe said...

oh, CN. may i call you CN? in the words of beyonce, "you must not know 'bout me." that was more a subversive critique of your analysis than an admission of inadequacy on my part. the minutia is the medium.

er somethin'

CrimeNotes said...

Everything on here is so fucking confusing.

Flop said...

I think this is a smart and well-thought bit of cultural criticism. Unfortunately, it would take lots of research to prove. You'd need to be able to study actual small talk from the mid 80s and before. For that, you'll need to have access to the archives at either the University of Maryland's Institute for Chit-Chat or make a Freedom of Information Request to get the Department of Labor's seminal office-banter studies, the last of which was completed in, I think, FY 1987.

You used to be able to look those up on, but the Bush Administration classified them to protect us all from terrorism.