Tag Archives: Seinfeld

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). 
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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

Gratuitous Search Term Bait of the Day: Before Meth, There Was Excedrin

We promise that we’ll watch Breaking Bad one day. We PROMISE (we already watched the first three episodes when they originally aired – and we liked them! – so we’re basically half way there). But it’s okay, because we’ve already seen Bryan Cranston – today’s popular search term – push drugs. The guy boasts a long history of drug use and/or dissemination, well before he shaved his head to become Walter White. Like when he knocked out Jerry Seinfeld with nitrous oxide (and took a hit himself). We all remember that, right? And just a year later, there he was, trying to turn the impressionable young American public onto Excedrin. Really, it’s just a short trip from Aspirin to Meth.

And before we can get to Breaking Bad  we need to finish The Wire. But we won’t be surprised if we find Cranston working one of the corners there.

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In Memorium: Ron Palillo; AKA When We Welcomed Kotter

If you asked us which television character we most resemble, many suggestions would rapidly come to mind. Zack Morris for his blonde hair good looks and cunning. Mike Seaver for his teenage heartthrob good looks and mischievous charm. Cousin Cody for his laid-back surfer dude good looks and martial arts skills.  But while those are all great contenders, we have to admit that there’s another character in the television pantheon with whom we most identify: Arnold Horshack, played so brilliantly and honestly by Ron Palillo, who passed away yesterday at sixty-three.

We recall very clearly the summer in which we first fell in love with Welcome Back Kotter.  No, it was not the Summer of ’77, but almost twenty years later when the show was in syndication on Nick at Niteas that network began to shift its designation of “classic TV” from the black & white oldies like The Donna Reed Show and Mr. Ed to the grainy full color ’70s shows like Kotter and The Bob Newhart Show. Nick at Nite would run marathons of Kotter once a week, as part of their “Block Party Summer” programming gambit, and watching those episodes back-to-back-to-back was just about the best block party we ever went to. But we also remember the show airing nightly at 11pm, perhaps the following summer or the one after that.  This sticks with us vividly because we recollect having to make a tough decision, a Sophie’s choice: Seinfeld, airing every night in syndication as still does to this day, the undisputed sitcom champ of its time and perhaps anytime, or Welcome Back Kotter, the over the hill has-been who was also the new kid on the block. Even though Kotter was about fifteen years older, and had achieved lunch box-level success, it felt very much like a wily up-and-comer taking on the unbeatable stalwart. But while our head told us that we should choose Seinfeld, that it was the superior show, the one that was not only plugged into the zeitgeist but was driving it, we felt this tug towards the Mr. Kotter and his Sweathogs.  Did the latter show have hugs and heart while the former swore off that sort of sentimentality as its guiding principle? Certainly. But we weren’t quite the cynics we are now, not quite submerged in snark-infested waters. And despite the magnetic north of Nielsen ratings and cultural relevance pointing towards Jerry and the gang, and despite our unconditional love for that show then, now and forever, we followed our hearts further up the dial, further into the hinterlands of cable, towards Gabe and the gang.

More: And in Arnold Horshack we found a kindred spirit…

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Filed under Count Bleh, Good Humor, In Memoriam, Nostalgia Corner

In Memorium: Ernest Borgnine; AKA The Importance of Being Ernest

As they say, these things come in thirties, and yesterday Ernest Borgnine joined the ranks of the many actors, celebrities and famous figures to leave us this year, passing away at ninety-five less than a week after Nora Ephron and less than two weeks after Andy Griffith.  Borgnine was one of those life-time, living legend actors, sort of a male Betty White, a performer whose career spanned more decades than most marriages, a half-century of a work on his resume.  By the time we knew who he was, or at least knew his name, he was already into the golden age of his career, a silver-headed silver back.  And we came know him best – for better or worse – as Manny the doorman on NBC’s The Single Guy.  Certainly, this is not the crowning achievement of his career, that would be his Oscar for 1955’s Marty, and the NBC sitcom is more of a footnote on his illustrious filmography, but it is the role with which we most associate him.  We didn’t choose to be twelve-years-old when The Single Guy came on the air, it choose us.  And how were we not supposed to watch the show between Friends and Seinfeld?  But that’s where The Single Guy was, 8:30pm on Thursday nights, the cushiest spot for any fledgling sitcom in all of television, and there on that show was an adorable, bushy-haired old man.  And that’s how we remember Ernest Borgnine.

In lieu of any choice excerpts from The Single Guy (if such a thing exists), here’s Borgnine talking about that show and its rapid demise.  His quiet bemusement over the show’s sudden cancellation and the questionable machinations of showbiz indicates that Borgnine the person was not so unlike the Borgnine characters: upbeat, gentle, and genuine.

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Gallagher: Still Mad After All These Years

Back in March Gallagher suffered three separate heart attacks and it seemed like the very appropriate time to post a long-gestating Gallagher piece we had been planning to write.  Well, obviously, two months have passed, but during that interim we kept this tab open in our browser, a reminder that, eventually, we needed to get to it, to talk about Gallagher, to try to make some sense of this fallen from grace comedian in the twilight of career, and possibly of his life.

We should preface this by detailing our own personal history with Gallagher.  We very clearly recall watching his cable specials as a child, filling time slots in the early years of Comedy Central and possibly even on VH1, before they had Celebrity Rehab to occupy the bulk of their schedule.  Of course we remember the watermelon smashing – the Sledge-O-Matic – but we also vividly remember a giant couch, outfitted with a trampoline under the giant cushions, and as an eight year-old that seemed like the coolest thing ever.  It was like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann, but crossed with a playground, with a purpose.  We wanted one.  The stage, with its oversized props, was quite literally a giant toy store, and Gallagher was the wily proprietor, with a sparkle in his eye and a mischievous grin.  We’re not sure at the time that we really understood “comedy,” but we liked whatever he was doing.  It may not have been comedy, but it sure as fuck was entertaining to a kid still five-years shy of his Bar Mitzvah.

Read on: Our journey with Gallagher continues and we look back at one of those early specials…

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Must Flee TV: Friday Night Fits – About ‘Community”s Move to Friday Nights

We’ve admittedly, regrettably, been remiss with our recaps and analysis of NBC’s Thursday night comedies.  There was a time when we provided weekly thoughts on ‘The Office’ (luckily our neglect kicked in just around the time when Friday morning post-mortems on that show would have been unbearable) and periodic temperature checks on ‘Parks and Recreation.’  With the season already complete for half of these shows, and the other two concluding their runs this week, we thought it was high time that we put aside some real estate to check in on these programs, starting today with a discussion about ‘Community’ (whose season (and not series) finale airs Thursday night (preceded by two other new episodes and the ’30 Rock’ closer).  

NBC announced their Fall 2012 pick ups last week and, despite lots of rumors and hand-wringing, Community will return for a fourth season.  That much wasn’t quite a surprise to us.  Could NBC have axed the criminally low-rated comedy?  Sure, and they would have the cold, emotionless Nielsen numbers to back it up.  But, at the same time, they know what they’re getting with Community.  Will it ever break out into a Friends or even These Friends of Mine sized hit?  Unlikely at this point.  But does it have a devoted, die-hard fan base?  Absolutely.  Attractive cast?  You bet.  A smart, discerning, relatively affluent audience?  We guess.  Close to reaching enough episodes for lucrative syndication?  Definitely.  So the renewal, especially for the 13-episode order it received, is not all that shocking to us.  What was unexpected, however, was the announcement at the NBC Upfronts that come this fall Community will be found on Fridays, as the lead-in to…Grimm?

Read on: Go ahead and step back from that ledge…

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Happy National Pretzel Day; AKA A Dark Day For Baseball

And let’s celebrate with the greatest pretzel-related moment in television history (with all due respect to Seinfeld):

*Editor’s note: when we went off to Jew camp the summer before 9th grade we recorded onto cassette tape the audio from one episode of Seinfeld and one from The Simpsons, the latter being the episode above.  Listening to it over and over again on our Walkman got us through those four long weeks and we are forever in its debt. 

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Filed under Lady Holiday, Seinlanguage, Woody Allen, Bar Mitzvahs & Bagels