[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 3 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Self-Deprecation,” available for free for a limited time. You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

In regard to the tongue-in-cheek philosophy of his very popular 1895 play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde famously said, “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” And in his theatrical microcosm of Victorian bourgeois society, we see this acted out: smoking is seen as an important “occupation,” cucumber sandwiches are more important than relationships, “true” love is based on having the right name, and an imaginary “invalid friend” called Bunbury is invented to enable one character to use his illness as an excuse to get out of situations that might be the slightest bit boring or unpleasant. The title of the play is characteristic of Wilde’s sharp wit; his characters are anything but earnest, yet their continual lies and manipulations are, in the end, rewarded. But we still like them. And it seems as if Wilde might have liked them as well.Wilde is clearly mocking the shallow elitism of London society—yet it is hard to know if this is more of a satire or a farce? A satire exaggerates the ugliness or problems within society and/or human nature in order to point out what is wrong—and often advocates change. In this regard, satire has a moral core. But Wilde’s play does not judge its lovingly vapid characters; and like the typical traditional comedy, the story—full of comical misunderstandings and petty problems—ends with a resolution that is visibly depicted in the formation of happy couples. At the same time, the deeper problems of deception, artificiality, and class snobbery are left as is. Characters don’t change but things appear good. And we love it.

If we believe the scriptural description of humanity’s blinding greed and continual ability for self-deception, then we must admit that Seinfeld is funny because we really get it.

Wilde’s description of characters that see the trivial as deeply significant, continually losing sight of both relational and moral meaning, could just as easily be said of the self-seeking foursome from the long running (1989–1998) sitcom Seinfeld. George, Elaine, Jerry, and Kramer change partners as often and easily as they change shampoos. And the reasons for these breakups are as trivial as they are humorous: “She has man hands.” “He is a re-gifter.” “She’s too tan.” “He’s poor.” “She eats her peas one at a time.” And whether their significant others get the boot because he/she is a “close talker” or a “high talker” or a “low talker,” we love to laugh at their utter frivolousness. Although they constantly inhabit each other’s space, we get the sense that their friendship is based more on habit and convenience than any deeper connection or care for one another. Even acts of kindness toward one another are suspect; when Elaine pays for George’s coffee, he assumes that she is “sticking it to me” because she wants to show off that she makes more money than him.

Anyone watching even one episode of Seinfeld will likely conclude that these are four unapologetically selfish human beings: George pushes an elderly woman and children out of the way in order to escape a fire; Elaine stops at a theater concession stand for Jujyfruits rather than going directly to see her boyfriend who has been in an accident; Jerry mugs an elderly woman on the street for her marbled rye. These are not people we would want to have as friends. Kramer is perhaps the most sympathetic character because his greed has a sense of childish innocence to it, like a toddler grabbing awkwardly for anything he can get. But the others are calculating and manipulative—perhaps they are drawn together because of their shared amorality.

The humor in Seinfeld follows multiple standard comedy conventions, including farcical misunderstandings and cases of confused identity (in one episode, George and Jerry are mistaken for Neo-Nazis) and the typical standup shtick of pointing out the absurdity of everyday events and behaviors (“You know how to take the reservation; you just don’t know how to hoooooold the reservation.”). According to Frank McConnell, David P. Pierson, and others, Seinfeld is a sort of “modern day comedy of manners” in its focus on satirizing the everyday habits, fixations, and manners of a particular sector of upper-class society. Granted, the “New York Four” (as they are deemed in the show finale) do not have the wealth or hold the status of Algy, Lady Bracknell, or Jack in Wilde’s comedy of manners. But they live in Manhattan (and Elaine blacklists anyone with a different area code), spend meandering days of leisure and frivolous pleasure, and rarely seem to worry about money (even if this means that George must intermittently live with his parents).

Seinfeld follows in a long line of self-deprecating humor; like Woody Allen’s comedies, the character types and many comic tropes are steeped in the Jewish comic tradition. At the beginning of Allen’s brilliant romantic comedy Annie Hall, he paraphrases Freud via Groucho Marx: “ ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’ That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.” Of course, George Costanza could have also said these words. He is the “schlemiel” at the center of Seinfeld, an unlucky loser who can’t ever seem to get a break. But his role also somewhat subverts this Jewish comic convention because, although George is a born loser, he is too conniving and manipulative to be a total sad sack. His lies and attempts at manipulation seem to initially pay off (“I am a marine biologist”), yet he is always found out, falls on his face again, and we love every minute of it. Confident George, however, is much less funny than schlemiel George. We see the many faces of George, the loser, in an episode called “The Opposite,” when he decides to do the exact opposite of anything he ever felt was the right or opportune thing to do. So instead of lying about being a wealthy architect—or any of the many variations on his Vandelay myth—he decides to approach a beautiful woman in a diner and say, “My name is George. I’m unemployed, and I live with my parents.” She replies, “I’m Victoria. Hi.”

George’s perpetual acts and comments of self-deprecation are not true self-critique; they are just as self-centered and narcissistic as Elaine’s all too positive perception of herself (remember the scenes of her dancing at the office parties?). All of the characters are blind to any actual need for substantial change. At the same time, their exaggerated self-centeredness and deeply immature behavior is a picture of us just as much as it is of them. Perhaps part of its awkward charm is that the finger of petty concerns is pointing straight back at us, the audience. There is something very familiar in the multilayered, hilariously depraved storylines; the deep selfishness, mockery of others, and sometimes, utter callousness, strikes a familiar chord. If we believe the scriptural description of humanity’s blinding greed and continual ability for self-deception, then we must admit that Seinfeld is funny because we really get it.

But is this quirky, comic, and at least partially accurate depiction of human nature a true satirical critique? As mentioned, a true satire indicates that something is wrong and needs to be changed—but does Seinfeld even hint at an alternative? Is there a moral core?

The series finale speaks both directly and elusively to these questions. Although many complained that the finale was disappointing, it seems an appropriate end to this narrative of “nothing” in which characters don’t enrich their lives, but clutter them. In this episode, the main characters finally get a shot at having their proposed “show about nothing” produced by NBC (an interesting meta-comment on the show itself). The first perk of this new deal is they are flown on a private jet to Paris. But before they even leave U.S. shores, the plane has major technical problems, and the four are almost certain that they are dying. In typical George Schlemiel Costanza fashion, he focuses on himself even, and especially, in the midst of a tragedy: “Just when I was doing great. I told you God would not let me be successful.” Miraculously, the plane does not crash, yet an emergency landing must be made in small-town New England. While George, Elaine, Kramer, and Jerry wait for another private jet to arrive, they witness the mugging of a very overweight man on the street. Kramer films the entire event while the others make jokes at the victim’s expense: “There goes the money for lipo!” Jerry finally says (in the most condescending, detached fashion possible), “Well, that’s a shame.”

The gang is soon under arrest for breaking the newly passed “Good Samaritan Law” making it illegal to refrain from giving another person aid if they are in need. Jerry responds: “Why would we want to help someone? That’s what nuns and Red Cross workers are for.” When they contact their lawyer, Jackie Chiles, he exclaims, “You don’t have to help anybody. That’s what this country is all about!” This brilliant satirical jab might make us laugh a little too loud, perhaps uncomfortably.

As the New York Four prepare to go to trial, one of the most pressing worries is that Jerry won’t get the wide variety of cereal that he is used to eating on a daily basis. Once in the courtroom, the group is accused of having a “history of selfishness, self-absorption, immaturity, and greed,” and even their lawyer admits that they “have no moral compass.” In one of the most cleverly constructed retrospectives ever to appear on television, we see many of the minor characters who have been supposedly mistreated by these four come and testify on the stand as witnesses to the bad character of the accused. There is the bubble boy who had his bubble popped by George in a Battleship board game fight; the library cop who told about Jerry’s library delinquency; the cop who arrested George and Jerry for urinating in public (Jerry tried to get out of this by claiming that he has a tendency for “uromycitysis”); and, of course, the Soup Nazi, whose recipes were stolen by Elaine out of spite.

On this overwhelming evidence, they are sent to prison. Elaine is initially concerned because she “doesn’t look good in orange.” When George, Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine are finally placed in their cell, they look forlorn for a moment. Then Jerry’s focus on the trivial takes us right back to the first episode and every episode since: “That button is in the worst possible spot. The second button is the key button. It literally makes or breaks the shirt.”

A classic comedy ends with an obvious resolution—the tidying up of misunderstandings and even injustices—ushered in by a change of character (think Jane Austen and Shakespeare). Circumstantial changes are second to character changes, which are of utmost importance. But at the end of the Seinfeld series, just as in the end of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, we see no real character change. In both stories, the circumstances have changed (Seinfeld for the worse, Earnest for the better) but we leave the narrative knowing that the characters we say goodbye to are the very same ones that we met at the beginning of the story. There is no substantial narrative arc, no real justice is done, no meaning is found. Although Seinfeld has satirical elements, I am still asking myself if it is a true satire (I ask the same thing about Wilde’s play). In the parallel worlds of these Victorian and contemporary comedies of manner, Wilde’s pronouncement is perhaps the only sad, one-dimensional truth: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


4 Comments

  1. Part of me says that the reason so many people were disappointed in the finale was that they had spent years kidding themselves that the show wasn’t crap, and now that it was over they realized how many 24-minute chunks of their Thursdays they’d wasted on it.

    That said I think you’re onto something. If satire indeed has as its purpose pointing towards something else — whether a full-scale solution to a matter or at least towards the realization that things should be other than they are — then “Seinfeld” doesn’t seem to qualify. It seems like the word “satire” is used most often to describe what is actually just mockery, and thinking of satire as mockery with a purpose beyond itself seems closer to the mark. If I squint really hard and close one eye, I think I could see “Seinfeld” pointing to a realization that people shouldn’t be selfish jerks. Which is not very much of a revolutionary thought at all, even if measuring up to it may not be as widespread as we would like.

  2. I definitely agree with you, Mary. The more I read and hear comedy by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the more I’m assured that they recognize selfishness very well. They seem to base most of their comedy on the odd thoughts that run through an unbridled mind as it wonders through a mediocre day. Although it never really “points” to a solution, it personally reminds me that I should laugh at those thoughts sometimes. They may not have a solution, but these comedy giants know that they don’t. Otherwise, they wouldn’t make the joke.

  3. As a theatre major, I have to give out major kudos for using Oscar Wilde as the standard model of satire in this piece. Good call…now I just wish I would have thought about doing some compare-and-contrasting of SEINFELD and any of Wilde’s works…and I’m slightly jealous that I didn’t think of it first.

    I’ve always seen the characters of SEINFELD as modern-day Roman stock characters of comedy: Jerry being a type of “adulescens amator” (young man in love), Elaine as the courtesan, George as the cunning and clever slave, and Kramer as the parasite. I could go on about the parallels of Ancient Rome and As-Is New York, but I would rather eat a cucumber sandwich.

Comments are now closed for this article.