By Chris Pomorski
April 4th, 2013
On May 14, 1998, the date of Seinfeld’s series finale, I was twelve years old and just barely mature enough to begin appreciating the show’s charms. Until then, I had been aware of it only as an indistinct, if prominent, background hum. Though it seems strange now that I would feel attached to something I’d little seen and scarcely understood, somehow, that night, I sensed the loss. Arranged as a kind of interactive highlight reel that chafed many acolytes, Seinfeld’s final episode nonetheless had the potential to cultivate new fans. Some elements were familiar even then: the Soup Nazi and the Bubble Boy, Kramer’s slapstick blunders, these had bled into the landscape. Others—George’s “restrained jubilation” at the death of his fiancé; Mr. Steinbrenner’s accusing him from the witness stand of Communism; Terri Hatcher’s spectacular allure—were, if not quite new, at least newly accessible.
The show’s protagonists are famously immature: “What kind of lives are these?” Jerry once asked. “We’re like children. We’re not men.” The foursome’s childishness, which takes substantial responsibility for Seinfeld’s parade of broken relationships, also makes them natural entertainment for adolescents, whom, having been afflicted with near-adult physicality and self-awareness, are forced to socialize with juvenile-grade interpersonal skills and impulse control. There are few creatures outside of a Seinfeld script so focused on sex—so plagued by awkwardness, insecurity, and deceit—as the middle-school student. And soon after the show’s last curtain, I started to watch in earnest the way many from my generation did: in reruns.
Since wrapping production, Seinfeld has become the most profitable 30-minute show of all time. In New York, one can, if so inclined, take in 17 hours’ worth every week. These figures attest at least in part to the insatiability with which fans watch and re-watch the same episodes. It is a habit I’ve kept for some 15 years.
The ritual began after dinner. From 7 to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, one of the networks screened a double helping, and with a notebook in my lap and a textbook at my side, I watched—ostensibly completing homework during commercials. The auteurs seemed to anticipate my routine, for the runs of bass that heralded returns from break furnished cues to look up from my studies and set my pencil down. Some of my classmates were catching on too, and together, we parsed phrases that had entered the vernacular: Festivus; the double dip and the low talker; yada, yada, yada. It was like listening for the first time in a concerted way to Sgt. Pepper’s. Everything felt familiar, yet seemed to demand greater attention than we’d been dedicating.
My family did not subscribe to TV Guide and our cable provider carried no such channel. Though we lived outside Philadelphia, we got the Times. So I never knew which episode I’d be watching. Some I saw dozens of times before encountering others even once. When I became sure I’d covered the lot, I felt a connoisseur’s satisfaction, but gave no thought to forsaking the show that had animated cafeteria discussions years earlier. I had not tired of “The Frogger” or “The Serenity Now,” of “The Rye,” “The Chinese Restaurant,” or “The Marine Biologist”—have yet to grow bored, still, of the lascivious dentist Tim Whatley or the rogue electrician Slippery Pete. In the context of Hulu and Netflix, my inefficient approach likely holds limited appeal for today’s youth. And it would be easy now, with the Complete Series DVD boxed set at hand, to watch Seinfeld in sequence. But I’ve not been tempted. On disc, the episodes seem sterile, out of place—like sad exotic creatures at a zoo.
My Seinfeld consumption tracks roughly with my adulthood. Its comic comforts attended early loves and bitter partings, moving away and coming home. It is difficult now to separate the show’s content from my recollections of watching. Because I’ve reviewed each installment again and again, though, mismatched and out of order, for more than half my life, no single episode holds an affiliation with a specific event or locale. Associations of mood, time, and place have grown too numerous, too enmeshed to disentangle. When I watch, I don’t even know what I am remembering. The show has acquired an aura of diffuse, broadly inclusive nostalgia—a resonance more poignant for its intangibility. It has come to contain a kind of collective memory: a memory of becoming.
The experience of adolescence, however, contrasted starkly with the arrested development on screen. Despite vows to alter their ways, the characters never change, and a grim birthday speech that Jerry delivers, tongue in cheek, midway through the series offers the most realistic sketch of their trajectory: “No matter how desperate we are that someday a better self will emerge … we know it’s not to be, that for the rest of our sad, wretched pathetic lives, this is who we are to the bitter end. Inevitably, irrevocably … Happy birthday? No such thing.”
Pathological pettiness sustains the group’s immaturity—an attention to peccadilloes and stray desires excessive in both constancy and intensity. Jerry manually changes the size on his jeans from 32 to 31, while George craves romance with a woman—any woman—who cannot speak English. Kramer refuses sandwiches lacking Dijon. There are complex, time-consuming machinations toward trivial ends: Elaine pretends to live in a janitor’s closet so that she is eligible for deliveries from a favorite Chinese restaurant, and Jerry drugs a woman in order to play with her antique toy collection. Kramer reassembles the set from the Merv Griffin Show in his living room.
Largely, the group avoids the question of how to proceed in adult life simply by declining to do so. Still, the skin occasionally peels back. In a moment of reflection, Jerry wonders whether perhaps there isn’t more to life. “Let me clue you in on something,” Kramer counsels. “There isn’t.”
Elsewhere, George admits that all he has to live for is his morning pickup of the daily News. “There’s a void, Jerry. There’s a void,” he says.
In a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine, Seinfeld confesses that his standup act largely addresses “the pointlessness of life itself”: “I’ve got jokes where I’m saying your life sucks, your possessions are garbage, you’re not important,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my kids, I’m pretty much done with living. There’s always something missing.”
I spent the bulk of my first years after college in an interior bullpen on the 23rd floor of a Manhattan law office. Lehman Brothers had folded and our client list seemed to include every extant global bank. I put together flowcharts and spreadsheets, binders intricate with tabbing systems. I made thousands of photocopies. On whiteboards in corner offices, Ivy Leaguers drew Cat’s Cradle diagrams, trying to parse financial mechanisms that produced nothing you could hold, and which had blackened many windows. They were so complicated that their designers struggled to explain—even to counsel—how they functioned, or what, exactly, they were supposed to do. Apparently arbitrary deadlines saw people blustering importantly through corridors, and at day’s end we had completed many tasks and felt tired and deserving.
In the evening, I’d watch a few episodes of Seinfeld and try to do some reading. I read Under the Volcano, Lord Jim, and Molloy. I read Moby Dick, skimming taxonomies of harpoons and blubber. I read and reread again Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “It happens that the stage set collapses,” Camus wrote. “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm … But one day the ‘why’ arises.” One feels a sense of “nostalgia”—a “longing for happiness and reason,” which is answered only by the “unreasonable silence of the world.”
Having long been atheist, I needed little converting to the existentialist tenets on which Sisyphus is built. I accepted without resistance the essay’s moving conclusion: though our inborn want of meaning might be thwarted, “The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Camus neglected to address, though, the more mundane exigency of what a person actually ought to do in such a world. Speaking to the Times magazine about a joke he’d been working on for two years, Seinfeld seemed to offer his own partial solution: “It’s a long time to spend on something that means absolutely nothing. But that’s what I do.”
It was an expression of deep anxiety and its embrace. It might have been Sisyphus talking. “Nothing,” as Samuel Beckett once wrote, “is funnier than unhappiness.”
During my last weeks at the firm, I attended a luncheon at a Manhattan seafood bistro. Our client, a Greek hedge fund magnate whom I will call Ajax, had triumphed in his lawsuit against a Floridian financier. The lawyers and assistants in attendance had worked killing hours and Ajax, a slim energetic man with frameless glasses and a quick wit, was ebullient and grateful.
As junior member of the team, I took my place in a Siberian region of the table. I could pick up only snatches of conversation, but midway through the meal, I saw Ajax’s eyes brighten, as he said in charming, accented English, “Do you know? He never heard of corduroy!”
The associate sitting opposite looked nervous, unsure how to respond.
“True story!” I practically shouted from my exile.
“Yes!” said Ajax, delighted that someone had caught his—fairly obscure—reference to a 1993 Seinfeld episode. “It was a true story! You are too young for that one, no?”
“Reruns,” I told him.
“Ah yes,” he said. “Me also.”
Over the table’s chatter, we traded favorite lines and plots. Ridiculously, I imagined Ajax watching dubbed episodes in a Mediterranean villa, mullioned doors open on a balcony of white marble, the darkened sea sighing below. I thought of him watching in the department faculty lounge at the university where he once taught. He had been watching the same episodes, again and again, for years. I wondered which portions of his life they had recorded—what unconscious amalgam was conjured as we spoke. Though Ajax probably never knew my name, we had been through something together, a long period during which our experiences—apart from some fritto misto—did not otherwise overlap. Through our mutual devotion to a television show, of all things, our pasts mingled. The phrases we exchanged had taken on traces of our lives. Now they zipped back and forth, ferrying with them what, we could not quite say—bringing us, strangely, closer together.
When Camus wrote of nostalgia, he did not refer to the usual longing for a roseate past. He described instead the want of faith in an orderly, purposeful existence that often dissolves in adult life, leaving us to fill the void haphazardly for ourselves. To longtime Seinfeld watchers, the reruns offer an unlikely consolation. Though the memories that attach are perhaps amorphous, in melding, they can foster an impression of seamless continuity. The pain of disillusion washes away, as we are assured—however spuriously—that we are moving forward and that our progression has been fluid, that the track remains unfractured, and that all is well.
Recently, a friend observed that watching this show, often enough, we do not laugh anymore. I supposed that was right, and we wondered why, agreeing that its humor had not diminished with age. “It’s like being with an old friend,” I ventured. “With whom you can be comfortable in silence.”
“No,” he said, making a face. It wasn’t like that at all.
“Well, what then?” I said. “It’s like something.”
“Yes,” he said. “Do you know what it’s like? It’s something like being home.”
About the author: Chris Pomorski currently takes his reruns in Brooklyn. His reporting and essays have appeared in Salon, Narratively, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and elsewhere. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Personal Essay Television Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood