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 House, to 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).