There’s a signal. Something in a show that tells you, “This is for me. This is something.”
Sometimes, it happens in the first episode. I remember pre-writer Early-Boy watching the pilot of The Dick Van Dyke Show. In that pilot story, Laura was reluctant to go out to a party, because she had a “Mother’s Instinct” that Ritchie, the Petrie’s young son, was about to come down with something. Why did she believe Ritchie was getting sick?
“He wouldn’t eat his cupcake.”
That was the signal. Smart, observational comedy was headed my way. And funny people were in charge, demonstrated by the choice of the thing Ritchie was refusing to eat. It wasn’t, “He wouldn’t eat his hot dog.” It was, “He wouldn’t eat his cupcake.” – a word with two hard “k” sounds in it. The “hard K” is the comedy “dog whistle”, a welcoming summons to comedy mavens everywhere. Its message? “We’re here, and we’re funny.”
I was hooked. And in five seasons on the air, The Dick Van Dyke Show rarely let me down.
It happened with the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There was a scene involving Mary’s contentious job interview with Lou Grant, culminating with Lou’s explosive, “You’ve got spunk!” followed immediately by his even more explosive, “I hate spunk!”
There was the signal. “This is something. This is for me.”
Seinfeld was different. At the beginning, I wasn’t a fan. I’ll tell you why. At the time Seinfeld started, I was working as a two-day-a-week consultant on Showtime’s “It’s Garry Shandlings’s Show.” Both series were about single comedians with relationship issues, and I thought Garry’s was the smarter version of two shows that were basically covering the same ground.
Then I got “the signal.” It came in the twenty-third episode.
Four people, wandering aimlessly around a shopping mall parking garage, searching for their car.
I’d been there. That exact situation. My daughter, Anna, age seven, and me – couldn’t find the car. I knew exactly how it felt. “We’re going to die here.” It was Lawrence of Arabia, with parked cars instead of sand.
In my mind, Seinfeld stands at the top of the list, because, more than any other half-hour comedy, Seinfeld came the closest to duplicating, in hilarious fashion, the identifiable experience of everyday life. By hewing insistently to that truthful path – and I find this no coincidence, the two are, I will argue, connected – Seinfeld was the most consistently funny sitcom in the history of television.
Tiny, human moments, made funnier by their startling identifiability. George’s girlfriend hands Elaine “the big salad” and Elaine thanks her for it. George is secretly upset, because he was the one who actually paid for “the big salad” and, therefore, that “Thanks” should, rightfully, have been directed to him. Unable to keep silent, George finally broaches the inappropriate “Thanks” misdirection issue with his girlfriend, who immediately dumps him for being unbelievably petty.
I don’t know about you, but I totally identified. And not with the girlfriend.
Here’s another one. Jerry’s father’s nemesis, Jack Klompus, writes Jerry’s father a check, using a pen, designed for the astronauts, which can write upside down. Jerry expresses an interest in the pen, and Klompus offers to give it to him. What follows is a heated “Take the pen” and “I can’t take the pen” exchange between Jerry and Jack Klompus. Worn down, and. let’s face it, coveting it, Jerry finally accepts the pen. The moment Klompus exits, Jerry’s mother berates him mercilessly for taking the pen.
This is Dr. M’s favorite scene in the series. It’s as real as it gets. And – here’s me, artlessly hammering my point – the reason it’s hilarious is because it’s real. (Other shows can be funny – the Friends pilot featured a monkey clambering around a Manhattan apartment, but, you know, how often does that really happen? Then again, a younger version of my stepdaughter, Rachel, enjoying, I don’t know, maybe, Who’s the Boss?, once replied to my criticism, “It doesn’t have to be real; it’s funny!” She could be right. It just may not be my kind of funny.)
I talked yesterday about the demise of the traditional sitcom. Done in by “The Sitcom Rules”, was my assessment. Seinfeld ignored the sitcom rules. Well, maybe not “ignored.” It’s my suspicion that Seinfeld’s co-creator, Larry David, having had no experience writing sitcoms whatsoever, had no idea what “The Sitcom Rules” were, so he went out and did exactly what he wanted. And somehow, the network went along.
It is my opinion that, every time a show follows the rhythms and expectations of the situation comedy, it’s signaling to the audience, “This is a television show.” The jokes – presented in standard joke constructions – obliterate the illusion that these people, and the problems they’re confronting, could actually be real.
Even classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, dedicated to identifiable characters and believable behaviors, switch at some point – unusually during the Wednesday night rewrite nights – and replace their more naturalistic dialogue with “Boom-Boom” – the biggest, funniest jokes the writers can think of. I watch, I laugh – sometimes a lot – but it doesn’t draw me in.
Seinfeld draws me in. How? By causing me to identify with the characters. How do they do that? Primarily, I would suggest, by insistently deviating from the sitcomical norm.
Seinfeld’s Deviations from the Sitcomical Norm (in no particular order):
Seinfeld’s dialogue departed from the endlessly repeated “Set-up – punchline” joke rhythm, opting, instead, for observations rather than jokes, delivered in the natural rhythm of everyday conversation. Right from the beginning (a signal I missed), when Jerry and George conversed about the problematic placement of the second button on men’s shirts – some are too high, some are too low – there’s the alerting indication that something different is happening in Sitcomland.
The four lead characters were deemed, by the normally deal-breaking “testing” process, to be losers, too unlikable, and too “New York” (read: Jewish. Even the Costanzas, despite their Italian last name acted Jewish. George’s father ate kasha in bed.) It turned out, however, that the characters’ neurotic selfishness (not that different from people we know, and maybe even us) proved to be highly relatable and ultimately endearing.
Then, there’s the choice of stories. Contrary to whatever, Seinfeld was never a show about nothing. It was about four single, deeply self-interested buddies making their way through their everyday lives.
They pitch their series. “You get up, and you go to work. That’s a story. That’s a show.” Not to the network. It’s only when Jerry pitches a story (he hates), about a judge ordering a man who hit Jerry’s car but can’t pay for the damages to work off his debt by becoming Jerry’s butler that the executives become truly excited. To them, that’s a story. And it is a story. It’s a(n exaggerated version of a) sitcom story. Is it a believable story? “A judge orders a man to become Jerry’s butler?”
This next Seinfeld deviation from the sitcom norm, was, to me, as a longtime practitioner in the field, the most shocking of them all. My jaw literally dropped.
(My best recollection, because I couldn’t find it:) “I could never date someone who thinks the Cotton Dockers commercials are funny.”
It was simply astonishing. Someone on a sitcom on a commercial network had mentioned the name of an actual product. Not only that, but they had unequivocally put that product – or at least the commercial for that product – down!
I couldn't believe it. What if they broke for commercial and the next thing that came on was the ad they were talking about for Cotton Dockers? Wouldn’t the Cotton Dockers people be mad? Wouldn’t they be mad no matter what? Wouldn’t the network be furious about Seinfeld’s losing them the Cotton Dockers account? There’s no way I could have gotten away with that. How could they get away with that?
“’The English Patient’ was terrible!”
They trashed a movie! Not a movie with a funny, made-up name, an actual movie! Nobody had ever done that before. Not because we’d never thought of it. The network would never let us. How come they let them?
My first tip-off that something was different was the cereal boxes. (I know this is going to sound trivial but it isn’t.) Jerry had boxes of cereal lined up on a shelf in his kitchen, and, for the first time in sitcom history, the cereal boxes had the actual names of the cereals on them. They were using the real cereal boxes!
We could never do that on shows I worked on. The Prop Men replicated the exterior look of the cereal boxes, but, so there wouldn’t be a conflict with potential sponsors, we were required to decorate the boxes with fictitious names. Corn Frakes. Rice Flisbies.
The Seinfeld people were committed to making their shows feel as much as possible like our lives, not because of some maniacal obsession with verisimilitude, but because they knew that this cradle of credibility (is that too poetic?) bolstered and realistified the comedy. The question is, how did they get away with it?
I met Larry David once and I asked him that very question. His answer was, if he didn’t get what he wanted, he was fully prepared to get in his car and go home. That was it, the whole genius strategy. Larry David was willing to go home. And I’m not talking about after Seinfeld was a hit. It was his attitude from Day One.
Sex? We had one euphemism. “You wanna…you know…?” That’s all we had. Seinfeld used euphemisms too. Not “You wanna…you know…?” They minted brand new ones. Euphemisms and subtle allusions. Using them liberally (again, apparently without network resistance), they rode deeper into Indian Territory than anyone had ever ridden before.
“Master of My Domain.”
“They’re real, and they’re spectacular.”
…and a number of others I’m not comfortable enough in that area to pass along.
Seinfeld spoke with the original voice of its two comically gifted creators. Week after week during its middle seasons, the show produced more memorable episodes than any comedy series I ever watched, episodes which I, and the exceedingly tough-grading Dr. M, are delighted to revisit repeatedly in reruns.
So ends my argument for Seinfeld as the best situation comedy ever.
The only hope for the future of television comedy?
I’m no optimist, as you know. But if it happened once, it can happen again.