Master Of All: Why ‘Seinfeld’ is still the sitcom to beat
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What’s the deal with tunes that get stuck in your head?
There are times when a song—one you don’t like, something tinny, something irritating, or simply something catchy you heard the other day—slides to the back of your head and sticks there, no matter how hard you try to shake it off, or to substitute it with something less outlandish. For it keeps slipping out of your mouth at the most inopportune of moments. And thus it is midway through the second season of Seinfeld that George Costanza finds himself unable to stop singing Master Of The House, from Les Misérables.
“I can’t get it out of my head,” he confesses to Jerry Seinfeld. “I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out. I have no control over it. I’m singing it on elevators, buses. I sing it in front of clients. It’s taking over my life.” Jerry immediately seizes the opportunity to tell George, somewhat accurately, how Schumann, the composer, was institutionalized because “he went crazy from one note. He couldn’t get it out of his head. I think it was an A.” Costanza leaps into one of his colourfully apoplectic fits of panic, not least because the duo is meant to meet Elaine’s gruff father for dinner, and the resulting laugh is a fine one.
To me, however, the genius of this specific Seinfeld exchange lies a few lines before the Schumann joke, when Jerry casually calls George an idiot. “What are you, Bud Abbott? Why are you calling me an idiot?” George’s consternation here comes not from Jerry, his closest friend, calling him an idiot, but rather from the fact that Jerry would call him something as dated and uninspired as an idiot. Seinfeld changed not just the way television spoke but the way we spoke. From the astoundingly useful “yada yada yada” to act as verbal ellipses we use to paper over irrelevant detail, to potently hashtag-worthy coinage like “sidler”, ”double-dipping” and “low-talker”, we still speak the way Seinfeld showed us.
Created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld threw the television rulebook out of the window. Starting with an uneven handful of episodes in 1989, the show found its groove across the 1990s, going out in a blaze of glory in 1998, capturing the zeitgeist of the decade and the changing mindset in unforgettable fashion. Far more people, for instance, are aware of the Seinfeld scene spoofing the movie JFK than they are of the movie JFK. The characters are unapologetically unlikeable and self-centred, their interpersonal dynamics relatable but dysfunctional, and the storylines—even compared to current television in its golden age—remain impressively complex, with one story for each character fluttering by seemingly on its own, before they would all be choreographed to come together in the most unexpected, exquisite way.
Speaking of the golden age, the Seinfeld influence can be felt across so much of what we watch today. From the cheerful misanthropes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to inward-looking New York comedies like Louie and Master Of None, the Seinfeld hangover cannot be overemphasized. The truly revolutionary thing, though, lies in Seinfeld’s impact outside comedy. Television critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that Jerry Seinfeld and his selfish friends paved the way for Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, the show considered the first true step towards television greatness. “Would Tony Soprano have strangled that snitch in the woods, would Six Feet Under’s Nate Fisher have been a sonofabitch right up to his final moments on Earth, would 30 Rock’s Jenna have treated the entire known universe as a ladder leading to her own career success, if Seinfeld hadn’t steamrolled an artistic path for them back in the early ’90s?”
David, Seinfeld and their writers had one unbreakable rule: “No hugging, no learning.” They decided that television comedy needed a (believably) mean streak, and that their four solipsistic characters would never be wiser, despite numerous goof-ups and regrets. That quartet is gold (“Gold, Jerry, gold!”), with Seinfeld playing a version of himself in the centre, obsessed with Superman and breakfast cereal, trying to hold a straight face around razor-sharp performers. Michael Richards plays Kramer with a supernatural blend of overconfidence and bafflement, like a mad doctor brought in from another time zone—and then electrocuted. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, laughing pricelessly at the fools around her, is magnificent as the catastrophically impulsive Elaine, awful at dancing and even worse at lying about the ugliness of babies. And then there’s Jason Alexander’s George Costanza, conniving yet toothless, scheming yet stupid, the most depressing and pathetic of characters—and hence the one who hews closest to reality.
Much like The Beatles, these four give us an episode for every subject and occasion, and, as I have said in the past, Amazon Prime in India is easily worth its annual subscription rate simply for the chance to walk around with this entire collection on our various shiny rectangles.
I dig out an episode or two every so often as an unfailing restorative tonic, and end up fixated most strongly on Costanza. Every time, I thank the TV gods that this is a character I know, and that I have access to his dementia. While his helplessness makes him adorable, he who buys shirts with their buttons in the wrong places may perhaps be the coldest of all. His humdrum reaction to the passing of his fiancée (“Huh.”) would even mortify television monsters like Walter White or Lucille Bluth, but there’s something disturbingly relatable about George’s gracelessness.
Costanza and his inadequacies sum up the 1990s, New York City and the human condition like few can. All I’m saying is that if Kramer really does bump into Salman Rushdie in the sauna, the novelist would do well to ask for an introduction.
By the end of the episode I mentioned at the start, Elaine’s father drives off alone. And he’s singing the song George was singing. Aren’t we all?
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.
The writer tweets at @rajasen