Notes on Nothing: 25 Years of SeinLanguage

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the debut of Seinfeld, as the genre-redefining sitcom first graced our television screens as The Seinfeld Chronicles, with very little fanfare, on July 5, 1989. It went from an afterthought, a summer run-off and near footnote, to a comedic juggernaut that indelibly altered the television landscape. Since I noticed many websites and bloggers and critics providing their valuable insight and analysis, I thought I’d throw in my two cents as well. Because if there’s anything the internet needs, it’s more of the same.

First, if not for Seinfeld it might have taken me another couple of years to understand masturbation, or least be aware of its existence. It’s no exaggeration to say that one of my initial brushes with self-pleasure came courtesy of “The Contest,” the landmark episode that somehow danced around jerking off for 22-minutes but never explicitly said it. Later, I’d come to realize what a masterful performance it was, what a majestic ballet to say so much without every saying it. It was truly bit of brilliant lingual gymnastics (and even later I’d realize that they maybe applied their cunning linguists to cunnilingus, but that was far behind my realm of understanding at that time (and possibly at this time)). Even if I didn’t fully comprehend what they were discussing, it was an eye-opening experience to just barely grasp that these people were talking about what seemed like the most adult of activities, at 9pm, on NBC, when I was sitting in my bedroom eating ice cream (I was lucky enough to have a television of my own from a very young age, which allowed me to probably watch a lot of TV that I shouldn’t have (see: Silk Stalkings)). I was used to Full Houseto Growing Pains, to Saved by the Bell, where the epic romance between Zack and Kelly seemed as important and real as anything could ever be. This is was a different kind of show, with a different kind of language, with a different agenda. Again, I didn’t quite process that at the time – I couldn’t – but I knew it was nothing like the shows I was accustomed to (TGIF, The Disney Afternoon, for the most part). It gave me a view into the adult world, and in many ways it was as formative in my education as Health class and freshman year and my one summer at sleep-away camp. To me, at eleven-years-old, the people on Seinfeld were grown-ups doing grown-up things. Not just masturbating, but sitting in a diner drinking coffee, going to the movies, seeing the baby, arguing over whether or not soup is a meal, dating a different gorgeous woman every week, hanging out with Keith Hernandez, just popping-in at your friend’s Upper West Side apartment. But also masturbating.

<!–more– More Nothing: Jews, Jewiness & Keith Hernandez…>

Secondly, Seinfeld was perhaps the first time I recognized Jewiness on TV, especially Jewiness that was camouflaged as something less overtly Semitic and thus more palatable for the general audience (there was, of course, CBS’s Brooklyn Bridge, a favorite of my father’s, but that was hit-you-over-the-head Jewish, and was more like historical fiction. Also, I think I imagined the Seavers  from Growing Pains as Jewish somehow, for some reason, despite the frequency of Christmas-themed episodes, Alan Thicke’s hair, and, later, Kirk Cameron’s big-time, overwhelming Jesus-ness).  Even as a child I identified with the characters of Seinfeld on a cultural level; their conversations, their cadences, their backgrounds, their outlooks, they just felt natural and familiar, and at the same time it was Jewiness without the Jewish grandmother or the random yiddish phrases or the Shabbat candles or, really, all the guilt. It wasn’t arguing about how long to cook the brisket or who has better matzoh ball soup or why aren’t you a doctor like your brother, it was sitting in a coffee shop arguing about buttons, about sex, about nothing. It wasn’t the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was the New York Mets. It was the modern Jewish experience stripped of all the traditions and customs and weight and distilled down into Jerry Seinfeld’s nasally voice, upturned nostrils and early-90s mullet. And, perhaps more significantly, it wasn’t until years later that I realized, as many others did, that “Costanza” was not a Jewish name, because to me, and to everyone, George Costanza was a Jew, through and through. Yes, growing up on Long Island, the Jewish-American experience felt very similar to the Italian-American experience – I often felt like an honorary Italian – but there was no mistaking George as anything other than a bundle of Hebrew neuroses.  In retrospect, knowing that George was based on Larry David, this seems obvious, but we didn’t know that then, and it was just another way that Seinfeld accomplished something real and spectacular.

Finally, Keith Hernandez is my favorite baseball player of all-time, a fact that was certainly bolstered by his memorable turn in “The Boyfriend, Parts 1&2.” However, even though I was a huge fan of Mex (as his friends call him. His friends and me) following the Mets ’86 World Championship, displaying a Hernandez 8×10 on my bedroom wall and a Starting Lineup figurine on my shelf, I wonder now if Hernandez is my favorite player because of his memorable turn in “The Boyfriend, Parts 1&2.” And, taking that a step further, I wonder if Seinfeld became my favorite show specifically because of Hernandez’s memorable turn in “The Boyfriend Parts, 1&2.” Hernandez, now a Mets broadcaster (and prone to his share of off-the-cuff gaffes), is left-handed and played 1st base, while I, currently unemployed, am right-handed and played the bench, so there’s not much in common that would inspire me to choose Keith as my favorite player, making his appearance with Jerry and Elaine more important than any of his baseball accomplishments. Or, perhaps, was it just my favorite show continuing to provide moments that bolstered its position as my favorite show? Whatever the reason, it was truly an intersection of the Venn diagram of things that I love. Add in JFK assassination conspiracy theories – something I was weirdly into as a kid – then you had, maybe, the perfect episode of television for twelve-year-old Seth, and another example of why Seinfeld seemed to speak to me so clearly.

Looking back, I think that as a child I imagined that I would turn out like Jerry one day; a neurotic Jew living in his Manhattan apartment surrounded by his vapid friends. I also imagined that I would turn out like Danny Tanner, a clean freak raising three kids in the suburbs with the help of my weirdo aspiring stand-up comedian friend who lives in the basement and it’s not at all creepy, but when you’re young and have never really left Long Island those two futures aren’t mutually exclusive. Obviously, my adult life has not turned out like either of those two, because 1) they’re fictional and 2) I can’t afford to live in Manhattan or the Bay area. But, certainly, living in Brooklyn and remaining an uppity, thin, neat, single Jew, I hedge much closer to the Seinfeld side of the spectrum. And I do wonder how much is nature and how much is nurture. The show, no doubt, shaped my life, but I think it was also created, and shaped, for me and people like me. Which is why you can turn on TBS and find any episode of Seinfeld and, laugh track be damned, it’s still brilliant.

It doesn’t take a doctorate in media studies to assert that Seinfeld forever changed, redefined, television. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. But the way it gave new meaning, and a lasting meaning, to things like Junior Mints and the Mackinaw peaches and Bosco, and then introduced phrases into our lexicon like “close talker” and “puffy shirt” and “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” is something that perhaps can only be rivaled by The Simpsons.* Over two decades later you can throw out an off-hand quote from Seinfeld and someone will immediately get the reference. The series didn’t just make a contribution to the television, it contributed to our vocabulary, it contributed to our culture. In nothing, they found everything.

*Interesting to note that when I went to sleep-away Jew camp for the first and only time in 1997 I recorded audio from two shows onto cassette and listened to them on my Walkman before bed, my surrogate for an actual television. Repeatedly listening to those poor quality recordings done on my Sony sports radio probably got me through that summer. One of those shows, of course, was Seinfeld, and the other, naturally, The Simpsons (specifically, this one). 

Leave a comment

Filed under Brilliance, Intersection of the venn diagram of things that I love, Matt Christopher Books, Nostalgia Corner, Seinlanguage, Wake Up, SF!, Woody Allen, Bar Mitzvahs & Bagels

Bruce Vilanch: Secret 24th Member of the USMNT?

As I mentioned yesterday, I fell hard for this year’s World Cup, watching more soccer than I ever imagined I could, transfixed by matches like Ivory Coast vs. Greece, arranging my schedule around France vs. Switzerland. But even though I watched the majority of knockout games and an entirely unnecessary amount of group games, regardless of the matchup, it was the U.S. Men’s National Team that really stole my heart and refused to let go (despite only winning one of four games, and losing their last two. But we won’t focus on that). I didn’t know much about the team before the tournament, other than that Landon Donovan was not on the team and Tim Howard is really, really good and Clint Dempsey is not Clint Mathis. But by the time the USMNT rolled into Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova to take on Belgium we could roll off the names Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and DeAndre Yedlin like we had been following the club for years. In a truly abbreviated amount of time the USMNT became our team the way that the New York Rangers are our team, and as we lived and died with the Broadway Blueshirts into the Stanley Cup Final, we felt similarly about the USA squad. And even though the dream only lasted a couple of weeks, our bond was deep, if only so brief.

But a few days ago we stumbled upon Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil, an ESPN Films series covering the journey of the USA team from the World Cup qualifiers to their departure for Brasil, and all the roster changes and training sessions and Jürgen Klinsmannisms in between. And since beginning the series I’ve been obsessed. It’s just like in 6th Grade when everyone fell in love with Green Day’s Dookie (or so they professed) and wrote the band’s name on their backpacks with Wite-Out and then discovered their early stuff like 39/Smooth and Kerplunk (except in my case it would have been Billy Joel and collecting all of his albums that predate his Greatest Hits Volume 1 & Volume 2). March to Brazil is the USMNT’s early stuff, and I’m really digging it. Sure, they’re raw and unrefined, and there will be some personnel changes before they settle on the definitive lineup, but the soul is there.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed this series, learning the background of these players that I cheered so hard for just two weeks ago, there was something else that I found absolutely stunning: Bruce Vilanch was a member of the USMNT.

Well, maybe not exactly, but he definitely makes an appearance in Part 2, evidently having traveled on the same flight as Defender Omar Gonzalez. Take a look:

 

Did you catch him? Look again:

Bruce Vilanch Omar Gonzalez USMNT

 

Let’s go in for a closer look:

Vilanch-CloseUp

 

Well, if the one size too small graphic t-shirt and red glasses don’t give it away, then the blond Fry Guy hair sure does. I mean, it can’t be, but it’s gotta be:

Bruce Vilanch

Now, as I said, I’ve watched a Bruce Vilanch-worth of USA soccer and haven’t seen the writer-comedian anywhere else, but is it possible that the Off-Center Square was Jürgen Klinsmann’s secret weapon? Did Klinsmann do what Whoopi and Billy have done before him and Get Bruce? Did Vilanch keep Michael Bradley at ease with his playful, suggestive puns? Did he help immerse Jermaine Jones and Julian Green in American culture? Did he trade hair secrets with Graham Zusi and Mix Diskerud? Or maybe, just maybe, he was making a surprise cameo in Kyle Beckerman’s engagement photos? Whatever the reason, Vilanch needs to be on the roster for 2018.

We’ll never be able to beat the Germans by playing their game. We need to create our own American style, embrace what makes our country unique. Maybe, just maybe, Bruce Vilanch is the key.

Leave a comment

Filed under Freak Out Control, Huh?, Intersection of the venn diagram of things that I love, Match Games, Matt Christopher Books, Monster Mash, What? Too fabulous?

Brooklyn is the Center of World (Cup)

WorldCupHeadquartersWell, it’s finally over. After a month of great, often breathtaking games matches and gorgeous goals, the World Cup finished its 2014 run in Brasil yesterday, leaving us both sad and already overflowing with excitement for 2018 (and 2022 on our home turf?) I watched more soccer football in the last month than I had in my whole life prior, and it’s not even close. Even more, I think I watched more of the beautiful game in the last four weeks than I have of baseball all season. And I love baseball. But the Mets are mediocre and uninspiring, and just plain difficult to watch. And, well, the World Cup worked very well with my current unemployment flexible schedule. Will I continue this trend and begin to tune into MLS games on a regular basis. Probably not (last night’s Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers prime-time matchup notwithstanding). I already went down that road four years when I really thought I was going to be big LA Galaxy fan, and that didn’t last long (but that’s the worldwide appeal of David Beckham, I guess). Truth is, I’ll probably finally get back into baseball post-All-Star break, or, perhaps, if the Mets continue to make mediocre an art form, I’ll just kill time until hockey starts again (whose void was filled so wonderfully, and at just the right time, by the World Cup). But I’ll be ready for 2018 in Russia, and I’ll always treasure the last month, when I felt at one with the world and the world felt like it came to Brooklyn (and I spent way too much time in a bar before 5pm).

My lasting memory, I think, will be that every bar, cafe, restaurant, McDonald’s, hair salon and tax preparation office seemed to be broadcasting the matches, trying to capitalize on a popularity that I didn’t quite realize the tournament possessed. There was no shortage of establishments showing the matches, and, it felt, no shortage of people who were interested in watching. Walking around Brooklyn, it sure felt that soccer, after two decades of promise, had finally arrived.

World Cup Bars Brooklyn, Greenpoint

 

Our collective  fútbol fever may now have subsided, not likely to return for another four years. But from now until then, we’re still infected, with another outbreak just lying in wait, from Brooklyn to Chicago, from Seattle to Kansas City, to Los Angeles to the White House. I look forward to the relapse.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Across the pond, Local Flavor, Matt Christopher Books, New Favorite Show, The Roaring 10s!

The Return of the King

Since sources indicate that the Cavaliers are delivering a strong pitch to LeBron James to return to the Cleve, I thought we’d have a little fun, step into the fantasy machine, and imagine what King James might look like in a Cavs uniform, should he choose the city so nice the Browns have called it home twice. This is a very crude mock-up, but I think it gets the idea across: LeBron would look GREAT in the ol’ blue and orange. The talk is very preliminary, but it just feels right, doesn’t it? LebronPrice

Sure, we’d all like to flee to the Cleve. But it looks like LBJ just might do it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Matt Christopher Books, MS Paint

U2 Jump Street: Before “Friends”

Penhall & HansonWith 22 Jump Street opening last weekend I thought it would only be appropriate to open up the digital archives and take a look at the source text, the original TV series, the pre-meta, pre-spoof, sincere-to-a-fault 21 Jump Street. And when thinking about what to write about I was surprised to learn that I never spoke about one of the most vivid memories of 21 Jump Street from my childhood, something that has stuck with me for decades, even if I wasn’t sure it was real until I just confirmed it. Something that, as a consequence, always bothered me about Friends. And that is the use of U2’s “With or Without You.”

It was easy to think that I had made it up. My memory said that the series on the fledgling Fox network once featured an episode in which Officer Doug Penhall (the incomparable Peter DeLuise) travels to El Salvador to locate his missing wife (in my recollections, however, it was not El Salvador – I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know that El Salvador existed at the time – I just had a vision of Penhall going to some Spanish-speaking place, or, perhaps, due to the outbreak of the first Gulf War during that time, the Middle East somewhere). And I recalled that the emotional climax was set to “Without or Without You,” a song that I hadn’t put in context yet, by a band I wouldn’t really be aware of until they had a pretty popular video from the Batman Forever soundtrack. But that couldn’t have actually happened right? This the show in which Johnny Depp goes undercover as a high school student to break up an amateur weed-dealing ring, in which Peter DeLuise was still somehow eligible for the varsity football team, in which Holly Robinson-Peete cornered the market on denim. So there couldn’t have been an episode in which Penhall and Hanson get embroiled in a Latin American revolution, right? With machine guns and rebel armies and jungles and explosions? Nah. In which Penhall grieves over his dead wife at her makeshift grave? No. No way. Now an episode in which Hanson is afraid to share chocolate milk with an HIV-positive student? Sure. Richard Greico’s Booker getting super high and then absolutely dominating on the schoolyard basketball court? I’ll buy that. But not an epic, emotional, tragic trek through a Latin American nation in turmoil set against the most moving and gut-wrenching song from the Irish Beatles (before the pomposity and pretentiousness of later fare like “Beautiful Day”). We think not.

But it was real! Sure, if you look up that episode now – “La Bizca” (translation: “the cross-eyed”) – and watch on Hulu, or view it on your complete series DVDs (which I know you have), the song has been replaced with some generic stock music. To be fair, it’s amazing that they were able to use it for the original broadcast in the first place, so it would be greedy to expect to fire up your Amazon Prime and still hear the strains of The Edge’s guitar. But, thanks to some intrepid, heroic YouTube users, the original version exists (taken from what we think was a German broadcast, naturally), and it can be seen in its original glory, the way that Bono never intended because he probably didn’t know that 21 Jump Street was a thing.

And when we say “its original glory” we also mean before “With or Without You” was usurped and recontextualized by Friends when Ross and Rachel couldn’t agree on the terms of a “break.” Years after “La Bizca” we remember watching Rachel stare out her fake window in her fake NYC apartment as fake snow fell down and we were immediately bothered by this song being appropriated as the soundtrack to their not-really-star-crossed romance. These two selfish, self-obsessed, entitled yuppies let a little fight and a copy shop girl get between them, and they have the audacity to proclaim this as their theme song, the anthem to their dysfunctional, overwrought, will-they-or-won’t-they romance? That, we recall then and recall now, was very upsetting. The emotional depths of “With or Without You” should be reserved for a Doug Penhall traveling halfway across the world only to learn that his wife has perished in the midst of a brutal civil war, not for a fashion buyer and a whiny guy with a monkey who break up after every petty squabble. It’s an insult to “With or Without You,” and its an insult to the late Marta Penhall. Would you use Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to accompany Phoebe giving birth to her brother’s triplets? No, you wouldn’t. And this was arguably worse.

And when we say “its original glory” we also mean the manner in which “With or Without You” was used in the television series versus how it might be used in the movies; which is to say without any trace of irony, but instead just dripping with earnestness. The polar opposite of 21 Jump Street the movie (and its sequel), 21 Jump Street the show was hyper self-serious. Sure, you don’t have a series with Peter DeLuise at the forefront and not have your fair share of yuks, but the show did not allow for any degree of winking or self-parody, any even vague allusion to its absurdity. Racism in high schools and a Vietnamese extortion ring and a clown kidnapping his grandson and revolutions in El Salvador, this was never played for laughs, but for very special episodes at best, didactic social commentary at worst. But good or bad, the original 21 Jump Street was committed to the integrity of these stories, and that probably goes a long way towards explaining why Johnny Depp was so eager to flee the Jump Street chapel. It wasn’t the best show – not by a long shot – and it didn’t always do a great job of tackling the big issues – again, not by a long shot – but you can’t say they didn’t aim high. And if their aim wasn’t true – and it usually wasn’t – their intentions were.

Much like, you might argue, a little rock band out of Dublin.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Count Bleh, Jump Streets Ahead, Must See TV, Nostalgia Corner, The Big Screen, Tyranasaurus Sex

You Need Me Watching That Wall, You Want Me Watching That Wall

Like with “The Mountain and the Viper,” I was fortunate enough to be given a look at a deleted scene from this past Sunday’s Game of Thrones, the epic “The Watchers on the Wall.” Similar to that alternate take on the battle between Prince Oberyn and Gregor Glegane, this scene between Jon Snow and the acting Lord Commander provides a different insight into their relationship and sheds new light on Sir Alliser’s commitment to Castle Black.

Leave a comment

Filed under Monster Mash, We'll Get It In Post, Winterfallen

Aaron Sorkin’s “The Mountain and the Viper”

I had a chance to check out the original edit of last week’s epic Game of Thrones showdown between The Red Viper Prince Oberyn Martell and The Mountain Gregor Clegane, and I have to say I think I find this version a bit more compelling. Certainly more star-studded.

At the very least, this certainly opens up a lot more doors for Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under It's gross., We'll Get It In Post, Winterfallen