‘Seinfeld:’ The Ultimate ‘Show About Nothing’ at 30
In “Seinfeld’s 30th Anniversary: A ‘Show about Nothing’ Remains as Relevant as Ever,” Alec Dent writes at NRO:
‘Do you know what this is all about? Do you know why we’re here?” Thirty years ago, these words introduced the world to Seinfeld. They came from Jerry Seinfeld himself, doing one of the standup bits that often appeared in episodes, and to this day they serve as a succinct description the show’s ethos. Seinfeld and his castmates famously called it “a show about nothing,” but that was true only in the sense that it had no overarching storyline. It was a show about normal-ish people leading normal-ish lives of relative privilege in Manhattan, and it existed to investigate the world these normalish people inhabited. That’s what it was about.
To be sure, understanding the world around them was not a formal mission of Seinfeld’s writers. But through their use of observational comedy they created a show that didn’t just poke fun at that world, but provided actual insight into the cultural norms and customs that underpin it.
Watching Seinfeld reruns was a nightly tradition in my college dorm, and even though we were barely out of diapers when the show wrapped up in 1998, my roommate and I found it incredibly relatable. While some of the trappings of the lives of Jerry and his friends were alien to us — I don’t think I’ve ever seen an answering machine in person — their challenges in navigating love, work, and friendship — life — were immediately recognizable. How soon after a date do you reach out to a woman again? How expensive a gift should one bring to a party? Is it acceptable to sleep with the cleaning lady in the office? These are questions — well, except the last one, hopefully — that we Millennials and the Gen Zers behind us still have to ask ourselves, even if we’re more focused on Snapchat’s best-friend standings than speed-dial lists.
Seinfeld rarely provided positive answers, of course; more often it gave examples of what not to do. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were famously never allowed to experience character growth — the show had an unofficial “no hugging, no learning” mantra — but Seinfeld’s ability to make viewers think about and examine the habits and routines of their own day-to-day lives cultivated a level of introspection lacking in most other shows. The characters could never mature, but the audience could.
If “Seinfeld’s ability to make viewers think about and examine the habits and routines of their own day-to-day lives cultivated a level of introspection lacking in most other shows,” perhaps that explains why the show’s finale was so hated by many of its fans. Most long-running shows fail epically when faced with the daunting prospect of writing a satisfying concluding episode. But Seinfeld's finale must have felt to most fans something akin to the 1997 film Trekkies, a sort of documentary version of the way Woody Allen insulted his most rabid fans in Stardust Memories, Allen's 1980 middle-finger of a swan song to his then-production company, United Artists. (It was one of Woody’s first and most spectacular bombs, transforming him, in America, into more of a cult act than a mainstream hit maker, in a year in which UA could have used a box office smash to offset the huge financial drain of Heaven’s Gate.)
Similarly, Larry David, in terminating the series that made him a very wealthy man, said to his audience, you invested eight years of your life in these pathetic characters? Suckers. But that debacle aside, what an exhilarating, and at times cringe-filled ride through an imaginary Manhattan as laugh-filled sexual and emotional theme park. Speaking of theme parks, in 1987’s bestselling The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom explored how Weimar-era nihilism became near universal in the American academy after WWII, neatly foreshadowing the underlying happily nihilistic premise of Seinfeld:
This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.
I think Thomas Hibbs, now the president of the University of Dallas, but at the time, a professor of philosophy at Baylor, was spot-on when he made Seinfeld’s leitmotif the title of his groundbreaking survey of nihilism in movies and TV, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture. First published in 1999 and updated in 2012, Hibbs' book explores “the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism.”
Instead of the nihilistic era eliminating rules, initiating a lapse into a kind of anarchy, there is a medley of rules with no clear relationship to one another. There is something capricious and comical in the continuing hold that rules have on us; they operate like taboos, making little or no sense but nonetheless exercising an irresistible psychological pressure. Seinfeld's insight into the odd ways rules now function in our lives is a remarkable bit of comic genius. Nothing illustrates better the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism. We have successfully thrown off the encumbrances of authority and tradition only to find ourselves subject to new, more devious, and more intractable forms of tyranny. Classical liberalism thought that the most just form of government was one that recognized the natural and inalienable rights of human beings to self-determination. There was a kind of naïve faith in the ability of untutored individuals to choose for the best, to act on the basis of their long-term interests. The belief was that the only rules to emerge from such a system would be rules reasonably consented to by a reflective majority or by their duly elected representatives. But the advent of democratic nihilism renders dubious the assumption of a link between autonomous individual choice and reason, between the fleeting desires of the self and the self's long-term interests.
The characters who inhabit Seinfeld, including Jerry himself – or at least how Seinfeld played himself as a character in the show’s fictitious universe – really are Nietzsche’s Last Men, as Hibbs wrote. And yet, we love them. To paraphrase James Lileks’ riff about the men of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, every guy who watched Seinfeld wanted to be Jerry, would hate to be George, and knows at least one wacky hipster-doofus type like Kramer. And Elaine, while originally shotgunned into the show by NBC executives (in much the same way they broke up the all-boys club of the classic first three seasons of Law & Order), was the perfect sidekick for the lads.
Each character on Seinfeld has his or her individual limits, but these are not moral limits; they are more like the limits of one's personality or lifestyle. This is most pointedly illustrated in the episode where Jerry and George are suspected of being gay. They spend the entire episode vociferously denying the accusation and vigorously defending their heterosexuality. Yet after each denial, they feel compelled to add, "not that there's anything wrong with that." Like other conventions once thought to reflect a natural order, heterosexuality has become an inexplicable remnant from the past. Instead of the body as ensouled, as the locus for the reception and expression of meaning and intimacy, the body is now a neutral and mute collection of organs and parts. The parts can be manipulated to produce pleasure. In one episode, Elaine attributes her failure to persuade a homosexual to change "teams" to her limited access to the male "equipment." When George's mother surprises him and interrupts his self-stimulation, she objects to his treating his body like an "amusement park." The fixation on the body does not unveil any deeper significance; it blinds the characters to the complementarity of the sexes. Seinfeld matter-of-factly confirms Renton's revolutionary prophecy [ in 1996's Trainspotting] that we're heterosexual by default, that in one thousand years there will be no men and no women: "It's all about aesthetics and f—k all to do with morality."
To bring both authors together, Seinfeld was the fun-filled Disneyland version of nihilism and “the Pyrrhic victory of radical individualism.” The reality, in the years since, has proven far more radical than even the writers of Seinfeld could have ever predicted.