Friday, December 2, 2011

"Why 'Seinfeld' Reruns Are The Only Situation Comedy Reruns I Watch - Part Two"

This morning at breakfast, I told Dr. M a story, recounted to me by a friend who had recently returned from a luxurious trip to French Polynesia.

Part of his adventure involved a guided scuba diving excursion during which, at one point, he found himself in the company of half a dozen of sharks. Later, back on the boat, the guide informed the divers that normally, the sharks would not have bothered with them. The guide, however, had secreted some dead fish parts on his person, to arouse the sharks’ interest, and give the divers an exciting story to tell when they got home.

Upon hearing this, Dr. M immediately remarked, “Well, we won’t be hiring that guy.”

I laughed really hard. Why?

Because that’s exactly what I would have said (had the tables been turned and she was telling that story to me.) And I’d have used precisely the same words.

It is possible that the explanation for my unbounded enthusiasm for Seinfeld reruns over comedies that I watched during their original runs but now shun in syndication is as simple as that. The show sounds like me. (A more consistently funnier version of me, but I’m in the vicinity.)

When I’m laughing at Seinfeld, I’m simply laughing at myself…being funnier than I actually am.

Though it’s more than just the “funny” that makes Seinfeld remind me of me. It’s the overall sensibility. The semi-skeptical tone. The focus on the “little things.” The conversational rather than joke-structured dialogue.


Kramer and Jerry are driving along, and out of the blue, Kramer asks Jerry

“How often do you trim your toenails?”

I’ve been known to do stuff like that. Though not necessarily with laugh-inducing results.

I also identify with Seinfeld’s use of language, their deftly worded turns of phrase. Like, when George, devising a fake career for himself comes up with “architect”, Jerry unhesitatingly responds,

“I do not see architecture coming from you.”

Not, “You? An architect?” Which is mean. And not at all funny.

“I do not see architecture coming from you.”

Gentle, yet truthful, mocking.

I might have done that.


Saying I watch a show because it reminds me of me (at my fantasized best) only explains why I am drawn to continual return visits to Seinfeld reruns. There remains the issue of whether something inherent in the series itself makes it eminently re-watchable?

I believe there is.

What is it, Earlo? We’re excited to be the recipients of your wisdom on this matter.

Well, sarcastic “Italics Person”, I will tell you.

It is the nature of the comedy itself.

Meaning it’s truly, inherently and deliberately funny.

The only series I’m aware of that is equally re-watchable – and in the case of this show it’s for decades – is I Love Lucy.

Lovers of Lucy, produced in the early 1950’s, can recall episodes that throw them into paroxysm of laughter every time they see them. (Or even just remember them.) Lucy working on the assembly line of a chocolate factory. Barefoot Lucy, crushing grapes in an enormous barrel. Lucy trying to smuggle a giant wheel of cheese into the country. A motel room next to the railroad tracks, where the beds slide around whenever a train goes by.

These scenes are funny decades after they were originally broadcast because, though grounded in the identifiable characters of the series, the premises of these scenes generate from the fertile, rib-tickling terrain of “pure comedy.” They are first and foremost and eternally – if you consider sixty plus years “eternally” – funny.

Everybody Loves Raymond is fundamentally an extremely funny drama. The show’s declared mandate is to ground its stories in the reality of everyday family life. And they did a great job of that. But the stories themselves are not, essentially, funny. They are, more often than not, painful.

What ultimately makes them funny is that their situations are identifiable to most of us, they were survivable (few situations are humorous if they end up killing you), and the writers found ways of finding humor through a combination of reluctant self-awareness (the ”Raymond” character) and its almost complete absence (“Ray’s” mother.)

Do I really want to revisit the Sturm and Drang of, albeit real-feeling and humorously observed, family turmoil?

My avoidance of Raymond reruns suggests I do not. With the exception of the aforementioned (meaning yesterday) “Baggage” episode, which, though firmly grounded in reality, includes, what for me are, timeless elements of sparkling comedy.

Friends is a show about six people who are not me, and never were. I watched Friends for the jokes. But after I heard and enjoyed those jokes, there was no reason for me to return. Especially, in the later seasons’ episodes, where the show evolved into a “soap opera”, concerning who the father of “Rachel’s” baby was. I did not care about that the first time around. The “mystery” has already been revealed. You could not get me back there with a gun to my head. (Though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try.)

A similarity is that both Friends and Seinfeld were comprised of characters who were essentially superficial, single people looking to “hook up”, and invariably failing to do so. But rather than remaining grounded in the realistic arena, Seinfeld takes these relationship failures to quasi-surrealistic extremes.

Jerry rejects a woman for having “Man hands.” Elaine rejects a man because his car radio is tuned to an “inspirational music” station. George breaks it off with a woman, because his friends convince him that, in looks and behavior, she is simply “Jerry as a girl.”

I also seem to recall Jerry dumping a woman, because she ate her peas one at a time. Another woman, a masseuse, disappears, because, though she was more than willing to have sex with him, she was adamantly unwilling to give him a massage. Yet another woman annoys Jerry by insisting on remaining naked at all times. And then there’s Jerry’s budding romance with a Native American, which is scuttled by the ill-timed appearance of a Cigar Store Indian.

The result in both series is the same: The characters end up alone. But, invariably, Seinfeld takes a more originally comedic journey to get there.

For me, though undeniably entertaining, Friends and Raymond episodes wore out their welcomes after a single viewing. But, the listings alert me to a much rebroadcast Seinfeld episode called “The Pen” where Jerry shows an interest in a special pen owned by his parents’ retirement community nemesis, he’s offered the pen, he turns down the pen then reluctantly accepts it only to later be berated by his mother for taking it, and my response is an enthusiastic,


Pure comedy.

Plus, I’d have taken that pen too.

And have gotten into equally as much trouble.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; comedy strikes folks in different places, doesn't it?


PG said...

I think the 'pen' episode is the one where Jerry takes Elaine along for a visit to Florida. It was practically a documentary on the subject for anyone who has visited with retired parents in the Sunshine State (like me).
Pen aside, there wasn't a moment where I wasn't convulsed to the extent that I had to reach for my puffer at times.
1. The parents don't use the AC in the apartment
2. The fold-out couch is paralyzing to sleep on
3. They don't see why Jerry wants to go snorkeling
4. The father gives exhausting driving directions
5. They eat dinner at 4pm
And this is in addition to the pen nonsense!
I felt that the writers must have paid a visit to my father in Pompano Beach before they wrote this.

Frank said...

I agree that you can't beat Seinfeld when it comes to great tv comedy.

PALGOLAK said...

Your posts have got me thinking-- I too value Seinfeld more than any other re-run. In addition to Friends, I also liked MASH, WKRP, Family Ties, and I am sure lots of others I have forgotten.

For me, I think the most important element is the antagonist as someone you love to hate. Frank Burns in MASH, Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties, Herb and Les in WKRP,
were what made the series entertaining.

What makes Seinfeld stand out is that all the characters aside from the limpid main character were antagonists. 3 antagonists? Great comedy.

Anonymous said...

Earl, come to think about it, I won't hire that guy again!
And I love those old Seinfeld episodes. It's like reliving scenes from my own family. Kramer hitting golf balls into the East River and driving in the postal delivery truck with Newman has to be one of the all-time best.
Thanks for the memories--Allan