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D E C E M B E R   1 9 9 2

Recognition Humor
Seinfeld shows why television is today's best medium for comedy

by Francis Davis

seinf picture THOSE of us who are inclined to feel guilty about watching too much television are sometimes startled to realize that we actually watch very little. We eat dinner and do the dishes, catch up on our reading, have friends over or chat with them on the telephone, and generally go about our lives with the TV on in the background. In its infancy television was advertised as radio with pictures, and the fact that many of us still tend to use it that way helps to explain the enduring popularity of news and talk shows, soap operas, sketch humor, and situation comedies -- formats in which what we hear is at least as important as what we see.

What's wrong with television is demonstrated by examining what I've just named as its strengths: newspapers remain a more dependable source of information, soap operas are an inducement to sloth (the least scintillating of the Seven Deadly Sins), and anybody in his right mind would prefer the company of his own friends (or solitude) to that of the celebrities welcomed by Arsenio or Leno or of the abuse victims exhibited by Oprah, Phil, and Sally Jesse. Comedy, on the other hand, is something television now does better than any other medium, including the movies. Before arguing the contrary, recall the inspired sketches performed by such comics as Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Rick Moranis, and the late John Belushi as members of TV ensembles. Then take a look at their movies, which almost without exception have been imbecilic.
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The failure of these transplants (and of Damon Wayans, who was nothing short of brilliant on TV's In Living Color but just annoying in last summer's Mo' Money) can be rationalized by observing that it's one thing to sustain a comic conceit for five minutes and quite another to try to sustain one for two hours. But that hardly explains the adolescent excess of most recent Hollywood comedies. What might is that only teenagers regularly attend the movies anymore -- and only they spend much money at the candy counter, where theater operators make their profits. Television, although also guilty of aiming low, at least includes in its target audience adults forced by parenthood or heavy work loads into becoming stay-at-homes.

Like TV's sketch comedians, its sitcom auteurs have floundered in attempting to master longer narrative forms. I wasn't among the many moviegoers infatuated with James L. Brooks's Broadcast News which struck me as a stretched-out and only slightly updated episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show one of the sitcoms for which Brooks was co-executive producer. Garry Marshall's Pretty Woman and Frankie and Johnny were more "adult" than his Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, but not necessarily more profound or even funnier.

Dark humor never has been television's strong suit (don't tell me about Twin Peaks); the medium offers nothing to compare to Robert Altman's The Player, Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, or John Boskovich's Without You I'm Nothing (a vehicle for Sandra Bernhard, herself largely a creature of TV). But the best sitcoms now regularly provide the sort of literate, unequivocal humor for which we used to depend on the movies. Some of TV's sorriest hacks, taking consolation from the fact that Shakespeare wrote for the masses, argue that if he were alive today he, too, would be writing for TV. (Writing what? Prospero's Island? Fresh Prince of Denmark? Polonius Knows Best?) This is extremely doubtful. I do think, though, that S. J. Perelman, the screenwriter for many Marx Brothers movies, would today be writing sitcoms. So would Preston Sturges and the team of Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, if only because now the movies probably could not accommodate them. And possibly Ring Larder and Dorothy Parker would too.

TYPICALLY set in the home or the workplace, the half-hour sitcom has evolved into our comedy of manners, its prevalent theme being how the people closest to us can drive us crazy. Because those who work in TV (and those who write about it for daily newspapers) are painfully aware of occupying a low cultural rung, TV is a medium in which artistic aspiration often passes for artistic achievement, and in which self-congratulatory liberalism regularly passes for biting social satire. This explains why All in the Family and M*A*S*H were overpraised in the 1970s and why Designing Women and Murphy Brown are overpraised now. The best sitcoms seldom tackle big issues except as little disturbances. In the wittiest of the current crop -- Coach, Roseanne, Roc, The Simpsons, and, on cable, Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show -- the biggest laughs derive not from predictable zingers but from the characters' often nettled takes on one another and on the mundane stuff of life in general. In this regard the funniest and best-written of all current shows might be Seinfeld, an NBC sitcom now in its third season, starring Jerry Seinfeld as a standup comedian, also his identity in real life.

Although shot in Hollywood, Seinfeld is set mostly in the title character's apartment on New York's Upper West Side, with one or two scenes in each episode taking place in a nondescript coffee shop similar to that on almost any Manhattan street corner. The coffee shop is the equivalent of the family dinner table in Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver for Seinfeld and his surrogate family of thirtysomethings, which consists of his ex-girlfriend, Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), his best friend, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), and Jerry's across-the-hall neighbor, a hipster doofus known simply as Kramer (Michael Richards). Seinfeld is the only show for which I could imagine the novelist Nicholson Baker someday writing a script; a lunch hour highlighted by an escalator ride (the subject of Baker's The Mezzanine) wouldn't be a stretch for a series that has already devoted one entire halfhour episode to waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant and another to an attempt, by Seinfeld and his companions, to remember on which level of a New Jersey shopping-mall parking lot they left their car.

So much in Seinfeld is new to TV, beginning with its acknowledgment of the absurdity in the ordinary, that you tend to forget that it's based on a premise as old as the medium. As originally conceived by Seinfeld and Larry David, the show's head writer and executive producer, himself a failed standup, Seinfeld was strictly a vehicle for its star, whose monologues were to be juxtaposed with the (fictional) daily comings and goings that supplied the material for them. Sort of like George Burns or Jack Benny or, more recently, Garry Shandling, but minus their winking self-reflexiveness by virtue of showing Seinfeld delivering his material to a nightclub audience instead of directly to us. The problems caused by Seinfeld's inexperience as an actor are minimized because he more or less plays himself.

Although this founding premise hasn't been completely abandoned, Seinfeld's monologues have become shorter and fewer in number as the series has evolved. This is just as well, given the generic ring of his material. His specialty used to be called "observational" humor but has been renamed "recognition" humor, and the difference is more than semantic. Instead of generalizing from his own experience, as Mort Sahl, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor do and Lenny Bruce used to, Seinfeld, like most of his standup contemporaries, internalizes everybody's experience. The result is peevish bits about airports and dating and the candy we ate as children, which -- timing and other tricks of the trade aside -- you feel as though you could have come up with yourself.

FORTUNATELY, Seinfeld's monologues are woven into episodes vibrant with the sort of acute observation that his monologues fail to deliver. True, the show may have begun as an outgrowth of Seinfeld's routines, but with the collaboration of Larry David it has gone far beyond that. Half a dozen writers have contributed funny scripts. The most hilarious episodes tend to be those written by David, frequently in collaboration with Seinfeld. Despite his failure on the comedy circuit, David remains something of a legend to his peers, less, one gathers, for his stinging material than for his absolute lack of showmanship (he was likely to throw down the microphone and stalk offstage if an audience was inattentive or didn't laugh in the right places -- something all standup comedians have probably wanted to do). David has made the show's unofficial motto "No hugging, no learning," which capsulizes the difference between Seinfeld and those sitcoms in which the characters "grow," as a result of marriage, parenthood, new careers, or some other dramatic midlife passage. David once told an interviewer, "A lot of people don't understand that Seinfeld is a dark show. If you examine the premises, terrible things happen to people. They lose jobs; somebody breaks up with a stroke victim; somebody's told they need a nose job. That's my sensibility."

It's also the sensibility that pervades the show -- a synthesis of angst and shtick best realized in the character of George Costanza. At face value George -- short, pudgy, bald, and implicitly Jewish, despite his Italian surname -- lives up to New York Newsday's description of him as "the most fully realized schlemiel in the history of television." Jason Alexander, a Tony Award winner for his role in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and a crackerjack actor, transcends this stereotype by zeroing in on George's deviousness, his raging libido, and his volatile combination of arrogance and low self-esteem. (Alexander admits that his interpretation of George is based in large part on Larry David.) In his own way George is as vain as he is needy. His first reaction on hearing that a bulimic woman with whom he has recently been intimate has missed her period, probably owing to a defective condom, is to shout, "I did it! My boys can swim!"

It tells you everything you need to know about George's underdeveloped inner life to learn that he has a favorite explorer (De Soto, if memory serves) and that his favorite author is the sports writer Mike Lupica. George is tight with a dollar, a trait understood to predate his having lost his job as a real-estate broker because he tried to poison his boss. (The character Elaine found him a job at the publishing company where she works as a reader, but he was fired for having desktop sex with a cleaning woman; the sight of her vacuuming turned him on -- which, given that he says his mother reminds him of Hazel, the sitcom maid played by Shirley Booth, provides food for thought.) "It's like going to a prostitute," he tells Elaine, explaining why he drives around looking for a parking space instead of just pulling into a lot. "Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I can get it for free?" Every word out of George's mouth is raw material for Freudian analysis, but never more so than when he compares the "completely uninhibited" sex that Jerry is having with a new girlfriend to "going to the bathroom in front of lots of people and not caring." ("It's not like that at all," Seinfeld, a surprisingly effective straight man, exclaims after a stunned pause.)

Despite his image of himself as a lonely guy, George seems to have little difficulty in meeting women. His problem, for obvious reasons, is holding on to them. A single woman friend of mine recently told me that her new ambition in life is to not date George -- the way she put it being an admission that she has already dated plenty of him and expects to date many more. After giving the matter some thought, she agreed that the self-satisfied character played by Seinfeld would be no bargain either.

Jerry's problem with women is that he's a perfectionist. The woman with whom he has been enjoying the completely uninhibited sex fails to measure up, because she's a bad actress who insists that he read lines with her between trips to the bedroom. Elaine is the only woman Jerry really seems to be comfortable around, but you can see why they were unsuccessful as a couple. A self-righteous nonsmoker unable to restrain herself whenever she spots a woman wearing animal fur, even if it's at a party, Elaine is as spoiled as Jerry. She's the one who breaks up with the stroke victim, a novelist thirty years her senior who suffers his stroke on the afternoon she was planning to tell him good-bye. Breaking up with him is one thing, but she talks to him as if he were an infant, just because he's temporarily paralyzed and unable to feed himself.

TELEVISION used to work like this: Dad watched cop shows, Mom followed each new miniseries, and the entire family gathered around for sitcoms. This has changed, partly because American life-styles have and partly because cable and multiple household TVs have expanded our viewing options. Although Seinfeld's ratings have been mediocre, its demographics have been spectacular. Despite ranking only thirty-eighth among last season's regularly scheduled prime-time shows (and finishing second in its time slot so far this season to ABC's Home Improvement), it finished at number eleven for male viewers between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four -- the audience most desired by advertisers. An NBC spokesperson I talked with called it "a network ad salesman's dream."

This success is somewhat surprising in light of Seinfeld's regional and ethnic specificity. What do viewers beyond New York's five boroughs make of references to Ray's Pizza and Moe Ginsberg's? A knowledge of Jewish senior-citizen condo culture and Long Island families whose every conversation sounds like an argument was necessary in order to savor all the details in last season's single funniest episode (written by Larry David), in which Jerry and Elaine visited his parents in their Florida retirement community.

Despite Seinfeld's New York ambience, there are constant reminders that the action is unfolding on television (which is to say, nowhere in particular), not on West Eighty-first Street. In what is in fact one of Manhattan's best-integrated neighborhoods, the show's regulars cross paths with few people of color not in menial service positions. The only homeless person they encounter is George and Jerry's old high school gym teacher, now living on the steps of the Forty-second Street library. Of Jerry's friends, only Elaine has a visible means of income. Despite his unemployment, George doesn't seem to be hurting. Jerry, who seems to have as much free time on his hands as Ozzie Nelson used to, is never shown at his computer working on his gags. Although he's a big name on the comedy circuit and has even been on the Tonight show, he doesn't pal around with anybody else in show business.

Where Seinfeld achieves the ring of authenticity is in its characters, the likes of whom have never before been seen on television. Insofar as there is such a thing as a typical Seinfeld plot, it involves a character who tries unsuccessfully to keep a secret or to avoid hurting somebody else's feelings by telling the truth. These are people who can't keep anything to themselves -- the sort of people we all know, whose irreverence we might admire but who we sometimes wish would just grow up. Garry Marshall, presumably thinking of his own Fonzie, Mork and Mindy, and Laverne and Shirley, once said that the secret of a successful sitcom is creating characters whom viewers will be happy to welcome into their living rooms week after week. Not necessarily. Seinfeld is a sitcom (like The Honeymooners come to think of it) that presents us with characters we might wish to keep our distance from in real life, but whose misadventures we delight in following from week to week on TV.

IS Seinfeld a preview of sitcoms to come or an evolutionary dead end? Probably the latter, if only because this is a show whose formula even its creators would be hard pressed to reproduce. It's sitcom stripped to its essentials, with any and all situations tangential to character quirks -- the ultimate source of comedy in most shows anyway. All in the Family spawned The Jeffersons (Archie Bunker upscale and black) and Maude (Archie female and liberal). The Mary Ty/er Moore Show spawned Rhoda and Phyllis (also about single women making it on their own) and contributed to the gene pool for WKRP in Cincinnati (also about people in broadcasting, just like Mary and Ted and Lou.) What would be the point of another sitcom about an unmarried standup and his friends, or of a spinoff for Kramer, George, or Elaine? The only one of this season's new sitcoms arguably influenced by Seinfeld's deliberately prosaic style of humor is Mad About You, the show that now follows it Wednesday nights on NBC. Mad About You is similar to Seinfeld in that it, too, stars a standup comedian, in this case Paul Reiser. Entertainment Weekly described it as "Seinfeld gets married." But it's finally another of those shows about a mismatched couple, a formula long ago perfected by Cheers and also copied this season by Hearts Afire and Love & War.

Seinfeld, meanwhile, has been moving in unpromising directions, beginning with a two-parter broadcast last summer in which George and Jerry find themselves in Hollywood trying to free Kramer, who has been apprehended under suspicion of being a serial killer. (These episodes were written by Larry Charles, the show's supervising producer and its most prolific scriptwriter, aside from David and Seinfeld.) Why was it necessary to transport the characters to the West Coast? Last season the writers would have built an entire episode around making it to the airport in time. There were distracting cameos by Fred Savage, of The Wonder Years, George Wendt, of Cheers, and Corbin Bernsen, of L.A. Law. This season there have been continuing episodes, an odd twist for a show whose signatures have been its sense of day-to-dayness and recurring gags that sometimes move the plot along and sometimes don't. In one of last season's episodes Jerry and Elaine started sleeping together again. By the next episode they were back to being just friends, with no explanation of what had happened to change their minds in between. It didn't matter, because each episode was such a brilliant non sequitur. There has been too much of Kramer, a one-dimensional character whose problems with gravity used to provide just the right amount of physical humor to this intensely verbal show.

The Hollywood episodes and a running plot line in which Jerry and George negotiate with NBC for a show much like the one we're watching -- about "nothing," as George describes it -- might prove to be ominous in light of a remark that Seinfeld made to TV Guide earlier this year. He said that when he wearies of doing the show, he'll write a final episode in which "my character will get a TV show and have to move to Los Angeles." In other words, Seinfeld isn't about "nothing" anymore. It's increasingly about itself. This cute touch could mean that Seinfeld and the show's other writers, including David, are running out of ideas. We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, barring an unlikely outbreak of hugging and learning, this remains one of the few shows worth making it a point not just to turn on but to stop everything to watch.

Illustration by Hiro Kimura.

Copyright © 1992 by Francis Davis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1992; "Recognition Humor"; Volume 275, No. 12; pages 135 - 138.

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