Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / December 31, 1997 / 2 Tevet, 5758
Jerry Seinfeld, All-American
IT'S TIME TO FESS UP. I may be a conservative, a believer in traditional family values and, at times, even a bit of a prig, but for nearly a decade now, I've been a secret "Seinfeld" fan.
I got hooked during the show's first season, when NBC couldn't even decide what night to air the off-beat comedy about four totally self-absorbed, hedonistic New Yorkers and kept changing its time slot. It took a couple of seasons, but the country finally caught the "Seinfeld" bug, making the show one of the most popular comedy series in TV history and transforming the popular culture.
Now, Jerry Seinfeld, the eponymous star of the show, has announced this will be his last season. Suddenly, 1998 looks a lot grimmer.
"Seinfeld" captured everything wrong with the '90s and made it funny. Both Jerry and Elaine, his former girlfriend and ubiquitous pal, went through an endless series of shallow romances that rarely survived more than a few episodes. Jerry was always in pursuit of the perfect female. But no matter how pretty the parade of models, beauty contestants, gymnasts and physical therapists who marched through his life, Jerry quickly found their fatal flaws. One woman had hands like a stevedore, another's face turned from beautiful to ghoulish depending on the light, and another refused to give massages. Jerry simply couldn't commit to any woman and seemed to prefer the company of his three wacky buddies to any long-term romance.
The show was never really about romance -- or sex, for that matter, though sexual innuendo and wordplay were staples of the program's humor. It was about relationships: with friends, neighbors, parents, co-workers. And as self-centered as the show's characters could be, they had their finer moments.
Jerry was always the devoted son, who faithfully visited his parents in their Florida retirement community and once bought his father a new Cadillac. Elaine, searching for meaning in her otherwise fatuous life, once convinced the others to volunteer their time visiting elderly shut-ins (never mind that the seniors barely survived the experience). Kramer befriended a never-ending procession of misfits, immigrants, tourists, dwarfs and social outcasts. Even George, the character with the fewest redeeming virtues, spent time with his totally dysfunctional parents (though his attention may have had more to do with being unable to afford his own apartment than any filial devotion).
But mostly, the show was funny because it exaggerated the worst aspects of our narcissistic, materialistic, politically correct culture. "Seinfeld" was as likely to skewer communists and labor organizers as it was white supremacists or businessmen. Where most comedy shows eschew offending any liberal interest groups, "Seinfeld" was an equal opportunity insulter, with homosexuals, handicapped persons and minorities fair game for parody. The humor was never cruel or malicious, poking fun instead at the characters' own unconfessed prejudices.
Where Ellen DeGeneres failed to turn lesbianism into anything other than boring in her weekly sitcom, "Seinfeld" managed to turn social attitudes about homosexuality into a hilarious episode. When a reporter accused Jerry and George of being gay lovers, Jerry tried to seduce her in order to disprove her claim. Dozens of time, he proclaimed he was not a homosexual, always careful to add, "Not that there's anything wrong with that." The refrain is funny precisely because we know most people (including Jerry) don't believe it, even if they're now required to say they do.
"Seinfeld" captured the '90s the way "Leave It to Beaver" captured the '50s. Unfortunately, America is no longer characterized by its two-parent families whose worst crisis developed when one of the kids sneaked out to see a movie with his pals instead of raking the family lawn on Saturday. Today, there are as many households made up of single persons as there are married couples with children. Twenty-five years ago, traditional families outnumbered single-person households by more than 2-to-1.
"Seinfeld" may disappear from the prime-time lineup in 1998, but Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine -- with all their shortcomings and character flaws -- have already become the new American archetypes.
12/17/97: Opening a window of opportunity (a way out of bilingual education for California's Hispanic kids)