One of the most successful sitcoms in the history of American television was the show Seinfeld, which debuted in 1989 and ran continuously through 1998. The principal scriptwriters, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, originally pitched it to NBC as “a show about nothing,” because their idea was that the individual episodes would have no plot and instead focus on the trivia of everyday life. For the most part, they stuck to the plan, and the show proved to be hysterically funny. It was also, I’m proud to say, very much a case of Jewish humor, which some might argue is humor at its best. As Freud pointed out in his famous book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, a joke is never just a joke; it masks a subtext, an intention that is typically very different from what is being overtly expressed. And in the case of Jewish humor, that subtext is almost always sad, depressing, or even tragic. The function of the joke is to ease the pain.
My maternal grandfather, who virtually raised me, told lots of jokes of this sort. He even compiled a book of aphorisms, based on the east European oral tradition, ones that had this kind of twist to them. (It was published in Wilno, Poland, in Yiddish in 1930.) One of his favorite jokes–it may have even been a true story, for all I know–was about a man who went to his doctor for his annual checkup. The doctor examined him, took blood, etc., but was unable to collect a urine specimen because the man did not have the urge to go at that particular moment. “Drop it off tomorrow,” the doctor told him. The man went home, got up the next morning, peed in a jar, and then had a bright idea: the family was too poor for everyone to have a medical exam; why not have them all pee in the same jar, so that unbeknownst to the doctor, the entire family could get analyzed at the same time? So the wife and children were added to the mix, and as the man was leaving his house to go to the doctor’s he decided he might as well throw in a sample from the family horse, which was tethered to a tree in the front yard. He then brought the jar to the doctor’s office. “Come back next week,” the doctor said, “and I’ll give you the results.” The man left and returned in seven days. “Everything seems to be fine,” said the doctor; “the only thing I would recommend is that you cut down on your intake of oats.”
Funny, yes? But the humor masks a situation that was daily fare for the Jews of eastern Europe: extreme poverty. In fact, my grandfather told me that at one point the family managed to survive by eating the plaster off the door jambs of the house they were living in. Nothing funny about that.
In the case of the Seinfeld scripts, Jerry provided the upbeat, overt aspect of the show’s humor, while Larry David supplied the subtext. Larry’s vision, especially about America, was quite dark. As a result, there is an undercurrent in the episodes, one which says that the United States is a country in which friendship is pretty much a sham and community nonexistent; a society where nobody gives a damn about anybody else. This is true not only in the way that the four central characters–Jerry,
Elaine, George, and Kramer–relate to those outside their little circle, but also in the way they relate to each other. They often talk simultaneously, “through” each other, as though the other person weren’t even present. All four of them appear to have only one motive: advancement of their own personal and immediate goals. In a word, the show is actually about the callousness, the almost autistic indifference, of daily life in America; and this is revealed in episode after episode. Just off the top of my head, the following vignettes come to mind:
* Elaine and Jerry are sitting in a coffee shop when they are approached by a man who explains that his son is a big fan of Jerry’s, and loves watching him when he appears on TV. It turns out that the boy has some rare immune-deficiency disorder that requires him to live in a hermetically sealed plastic bubble. As he talks about his little “bubble boy,” the man begins to weep. Elaine, also crying, reaches for the napkin holder and hands napkins to the man and Jerry. She and the man wipe their eyes; Jerry, who is calmly munching on a sandwich, matter-of-factly wipes his mouth.
* George and his girlfriend Susan drive north from New York City for a holiday weekend at her grandfather’s cabin. George gives Susan money to pay the tolls en route. It turns out that Kramer visited the cabin a bit earlier and accidentally left a lit cigar behind–one that Susan’s father had given to George, who in turn had given to Kramer. By the time George and Susan arrive at the cabin, the place is engulfed in flames. Susan screams, “Oh my God, the cabin!” George turns to her and says, “I just remembered: I don’t think you gave me the change from the money I gave you for the tolls.”
* A scene at a funeral, being held for an acquaintance of Jerry’s and Elaine’s who was killed in an auto accident. They are sitting in church (or synagogue), waiting for the service to begin. In the background, we hear the periodic sobbing of the family members. Elaine turns to Jerry and says, “I really have to get some new clothes. I’m bored with everything I have.” Pause; more sobbing, which is now much louder. “Really,” she continues, “I have absolutely nothing to wear.”
* Another funeral, this time for one of Jerry’s relatives. Elaine is hell-bent on getting the deceased’s rent-controlled apartment. As she moves forward in the receiving line to express her condolences, she shakes the hand of an elderly relative of the deceased, who happens to be hard of hearing, and yells in his ear, “So what about the apartment?”
* George is attending the birthday party of his current girlfriend’s little boy. At some point, someone burns a hamburger in the kitchen, and smoke starts pouring out the kitchen door. “Fire!” yells George, “Fire!”, as he makes for the front door of the house, knocking over elderly women and little children in his path.
* As if to deliberately mock the notion of community (or lack thereof), there is an episode in which Kramer takes photos of everyone in the apartment building and posts them, along with the corresponding name of each person, on the wall of the foyer, just inside the entrance. The idea is that the residents will now be able to greet each other by name. The whole thing is too phony to be believed, especially when the tenants begin kissing one another when they meet–a common practice in Mexico and many other countries, but totally inappropriate in the United States. Jerry, who can’t stand the b.s. involved, opts out, refusing to kiss and hug, and thereby becomes a target of public hostility.
All of this reaches a kind of climax in the very last episode of the show, in which Larry David, who wrote it, makes his opinion of the nature of American life quite clear. In this ninety-minute finale, the Gang of Four are arrested in Massachusetts for ignoring a (nonexistent, in real life) “Good Samaritan Law,” whereby one is supposedly required to come to the aid of other people in distress. They are put on trial, and practically everyone from the show’s nine years of episodes flies into this small New England town to watch the proceedings or actually take the witness stand and describe to the judge and jury how abusively they had been treated by the gang. It is at this point that the Seinfeld episodes are revealed for what they were all along: all of these vignettes had something very ugly underneath them. Other people were merely pawns in (or obstacles to) Jerry’s, Elaine’s, George’s, or Kramer’s personal agenda. Humor aside, the vision here of American life is quite bleak. When Jerry phones his lawyer, “Jackie Chiles” (a Johnnie Cochran look-alike), to explain that they were arrested for not coming to someone’s aid, Jackie explodes with indignation: “Why, that’s ridiculous!” he barks. “You don’t have to help anybody. That’s what this country is all about!” As the popular American expression has it, He got that one right.
The trial over, the judge sentences our heroes to a year in jail, commenting that “your callous disregard for other human beings threatens to rock the very foundations of society.” But which society? What the show tells us, in episode after episode, is that callous disregard for other human beings is the foundation of society–American society, that is. And so the subtext finally breaks through in no uncertain terms: Seinfeld was A Show About Something, after all.
Morris Berman’s latest book is Why America Failed.