By PJ Grisar
In a clever turn of parenting, much of my early TV viewing was policed by something called the “Seinfeld Rules.” The policy was simple: I could watch anything my parents did, I just couldn’t ask any questions when things got racy. The working theory was if I didn’t understand it, I was too young to, and if I did get what was going on, I’d have no need to ask. This dictum extended beyond the eponymous sitcom, but since it originated with Seinfeld, I may as well add to the heap of think pieces marking the show’s quarter-century. First, though, let me get a few things out of the way.
My parents have every episode of Seinfeld on VHS. Yes, first run. They didn’t think anything as unique, niche, bizarre or morally bankrupt as the travails of the nihilistic quartet would last past Sweeps; this was at a time before box sets were handed out like participation trophies to everything from Sons of Tucson to Sh*t My Dad Says. After its meteoric rise and appointment to Must See TV, I guess the ritual of taping became a force of habit. They also have a framed cocktail napkin signed by Jerry in 1987. And before anyone asks, yes, we’re Jewish.
But the Rules’ applications with Seinfeld illuminate a lot of the show’s brilliance. This is a show that had a whole episode about masturbation (“The Contest”) and managed not to use a euphemism more explicit than “master of [your] domain.” This wasn’t simply dodging the censors; it was freaking “Hills Like White Elephants,” people. Its use of subtext is as elegantly suggestive as a line in a James Thurber drawing. It’s art. And of course I didn’t get it at the time. I didn’t get any of it. But I have the advantage of getting it now, and not just the bluer stuff.
I entered the Seingeist (N. the zeitgeist or cultural climate surrounding, created by or attendant to the nineties sitcom Seinfeld (1988-1999). See also: Normcore). The show was remarkably prodigious – maybe only exceeded by The Simpsons – in producing quotables, lingo and a sort of index of Pop-awareness we still reference to this day. And half of those references are on loan; Junior Mints, “Stella,” “The dingo ate your baby,” “I am not an animal!” and Boutros Boutros-Ghali are not inventions of the Seinfeld writer’s room, but tell that to eight-year old me. Most of these direct nods to adult culture flew right over my head, but would eventually loop around to hit me in the back of it a la Keith Hernandez’s magic loogie. Where was I when I heard said loogie was a riff on JFK’s magic bullet? Seventh grade, Mrs. Sanders’ history class. It rang me like a gong.
When Seinfeld pulled a reference to a movie, or a politician, or a brand name (the show was about nothing by way of plot or arc, but has there ever been a show more saturated with stuff?) it was transformative. It briefly developed ontology unto itself through that lens of observational deconstruction it was built around (“what’s the deal with…?”). And believe me, hearing the names of Israeli Prime Ministers in Jerry’s nasal voice cemented them in my mind better than my Global Civ. unit on the modern Middle East.
Then, of course, there are the originals: High-Talker, Low-Talker, Close-Talker, Man Hands, Vandelay Industries, shrinkage, Dolores, “They’re real and they’re spectacular.” As far as modern taxonomy goes, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are Shakespeare. They’ve transcended their vehicle and entered into the common vocabulary a kind of Sein-shorthand. Syndication helps.
Others may believe double-dipping to be something verboten by Emily Post, “It’s not you it’s me” to be a standard in the breakup playbook, or “The sea was angry that day,” a refrain from Moby Dick – not that there’s anything too wrong with that – but I know my scripture. I’m an old soul who gets that reference, or knows that actor, or can write with a mind for discretion because I bore early witness to the cultural atom smasher that this thing was. And, truth be told, I am a bit leery of those who don’t get my meaning when alluding to that Show About Nothing, precisely because it’s something. A big something.
If OJ or Melrose Place made for a better entree into the center-part-swimming-in-your-dress-shirt-with-tennis-sneakers world of the ‘90s, Seinfeld still had an episode where I learned it first. It’s because my parents let me stay up some Thursday nights to watch, and find the answers on my own. They planted the seed and gave me the gift of late epiphany. Now I know and, yada yada, I’m happier than George with a severance package that I do.
For more on Seinfeld, tune into like, literally any FOX affiliate from the hours of 10-11 pm. TBS plays it a lot too.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, for those who just want to see Jerry’s cars and his famous friends, just wrapped up its fourth season this summer. You can check it out here.