I firmly believe there’s a danger in first experiencing certain pop culture so far out of its time. I understand why people who didn’t grow up in the 80s think The Goonies is over-rated. I would hesitate before forcing someone who never saw Star Wars as a child to watch it now. And, at the risk of being immolated by hordes of Bowie and Jim Henson fans, I didn’t see Labyrinth until I was in my early 30s and it annoyed the living hell out of me.
All this to say: I’ve never watched Seinfeld. Or, at least I hadn’t until I was researching this article. It’s 20 years since the last episode aired (even I know it was a hugely divisive send-off), so this seemed as good a time as any to dive in. Well, actually, that’s not true. The mid 90s would have been a much better time to dive in, but it’s too late for that and if I could travel back to the mid 90s, I’d be too busy trying to convince myself not to dress like Eminem at a Nine Inch Nails gig to go and watch sitcoms.
I don’t know why I didn’t watch Seinfeld, but I was quite excited about my first experience of it. There’s no way I could set aside enough time to wade through the entire thing, so I drew up an alternative plan. I consulted all the ‘Best Seinfeld Episodes’ lists I could find online, made a list of the ones that were omnipresent across all the lists, and watched them. Some I’d heard of through reputation alone (‘The Soup Nazi’ ‘The Contest’). Others sounded promising just from their premise.
Returning to 90s sitcoms from the far side of single cam wonders like Parks and Recreation and The Office is like watching someone recreate moments from your life with actors who look ever so slightly different to you and your friends and family: everything looks familiar but just wrong enough to be incredibly disconcerting. Remember canned laughter? That wasn’t something we gave a second thought to back then, but now if feels downright weird. Will future generations watch the mockumentary format and wonder what the hell we were thinking?
“Enough stalling,” you cry. “What did you think of Seinfeld?” Well, I have to say, I was surprised at how seldom I laughed. Even Friends draws an involuntary chuckle out of me, but I went one entire episode (‘The Puffy Shirt’) with nary a single snigger. The aforementioned renowned episodes fared much better, but on the whole, I just didn’t find it all that funny. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate it. There are a lot of jokes that today would get a show kicked off the air for their political incorrectness, but that’s true of most 90s comedy, so you can’t judge the show on that basis (even though Michael Richards is living proof of that attitude extending beyond the writers’ room).
It’s obvious, especially with the benefit of hindsight, how influential a show it’s been. At the time, US comedy was mostly about likeable characters and life lessons. The Friends sextet may seem like detestable narcissists now, but back then we were all trying to decide which one we were most like (I wanted to be Chandler but was told I was Ross). Nobody wanted to be like the characters from Seinfeld because they’re all petty, reprehensible, self-serving people.
That, combined with the show’s “no hugging, no learning” policy, is what made it ground-breaking. Along with The Larry Sanders Show, it opened us up to the world of Curb-era Larry David, the Bluths, Michael Scott and other misanthropes who reflected our worst tendencies and instincts, rather than showing us who we aspired to be. Nobody was going into hairdressers with pictures of Elaine or saying “Well, I’m small, rotund and sociopathic, so I’m the George of my group of friends.” I might not be able to enjoy the show as I would have back in the day, but I certainly respect it for helping to make TV comedy better. I wish I’d been watching.
- TV Column: Does all kids’ TV have to be so noisy?
- TV Column: Is Baskets the best TV show that nobody’s watching?
- TV Column: Why even Hannibal Lecter deserves a second chance
- TV Column: Can a TV show truly be considered ‘great’?
- TV Column: Loudermilk and the problem with insults
- TV Column: What have we learned from the Arrested Development remix?