Quite aside from the fact that, snicker for snicker, belly laugh for belly laugh, it’s probably the funniest show on television, Seinfeld is also one of the purest of all TV-viewing pleasures. This sitcom, which stars stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld as stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, is blissfully free of creaky plots, trumped-up romances, and wise-mouthed kids.
Instead, Seinfeld proceeds from the assumption that the little things that happen to all of us — forgetting where you parked your car in a mall garage, waiting too long for a table in a restaurant — are the true stuff of comedy. (This is a series that seems to take its grandest inspirations from the most insipid of TV Guide plot summaries.) Seinfeld insists, week after week, that you can build whole, hilarious shows around the most ordinary incidents.
Its two primary characters are ordinary, too. The Jerry Seinfeld in this series may be a successful comedian, but he’s also a regular guy — a genial goof — off with a simple New York bachelor pad. (In keeping with the rigorously specific nature of the show, we even know Jerry’s address: 129 West 81st St., apt. 5A.) Our Jerry is a fellow who works nights and spends his days hanging around a coffee shop with his unemployed pal, George Costanza, played by the so-understated-you-forget-he’s-great Jason Alexander. George — intense, intelligent, neurotic — is Jerry’s verbal equal, and lots of episodes proceed from some sort of ludicrously intricate discussion they might have about life, death, sex, food, or the hierarchy of the toes on your feet (”The big toe,” Jerry asserted with mock gravity, ”is, after all, the Captain of the Toes”).
But if Seinfeld were just the misadventures of Jerry ‘n’ George, the show would be little more than a hip update of The Odd Couple, or Perfect Strangers with brains. Instead, Seinfeld has come to center on a quartet of essential players: Jerry, George, their mutual friend Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Jerry’s neighbor Kramer (Michael Richards). Elaine is in some ways the most fully defined female character on television right now — she gets to be smart, goofy, sexy, obsessive, and generous. Louis-Dreyfus has done TV ranging from Saturday Night Live (1982-85) to a great bit role in the lousy ’88 sitcom Day by Day.
On Seinfeld, she elicits laughs by having Elaine be spontaneously nutty; trapped at a party with a deadly conversationalist in a recent episode, for example, Elaine brought the tedious chat to an abrupt halt by assuming a bad Australian accent and paraphrasing Meryl Streep in A Cry in the Dark: ”Moy-be the dingos ate your boy-by!”
Richards’ Kramer is the exact opposite of Dreyfus’ character: He’s the most cartoonish, least-defined person in Seinfeld. Kramer is an earnest dope whose long, gangly body always seems to surprise his mind — he’s always running, stumbling, bumping into things; he doesn’t enter Jerry’s apartment so much as he explodes into it.
Surrounded by these edgy characters, Jerry is free to stand around with a blank, raised-eyebrow stare — he’s Jack Benny in Nikes. (As hysterical as the show is, it doesn’t do much good to quote jokes from Seinfeld — so much of it has to do with the actors’ expressions and reactions.) As a stand-up comedian, Seinfeld has always presented himself as a low-key, pleasant young man, the undisputed leader of the didja-ever-notice school of comedy. Laid-back mildness is essential to Seinfeld’s nightclub appeal, and you can experience it every week in the brief stand-up bits that frame each episode of Seinfeld.
On his own, Seinfeld can be a tad too whimsical, and I think we have to assume that a lot of the shrewd sharpness that has done so much to enliven Seinfeld this season is due to cocreator and writer Larry David. Like Michael Richards, David was once a performer and writer on ABC’s Saturday Night Live rip-off, Fridays (1980-82). On Fridays, David was little more than a glowering nerd — Woody Allen trying to be Travis Bickle; as the id behind Seinfeld, though, David has channeled his style, which is one of comic frustration, into these genial but driven characters, giving the show an urgency it wouldn’t otherwise have.
The result is that there have been episodes of Seinfeld this season that were as hilariously performed, as coolly logical in their absurdity, as the most elegantly crazy sitcom ever created, John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. I wouldn’t be surprised if, years from now, PBS tries to pry a few bucks out of you by airing Seinfeld reruns during pledge drives.
Seinfeld is a medium-size success in the ratings, having beaten ABC’s sitcom competitors, Sibs and Anything But Love, in its previous time period. Still, it’s unlikely that Seinfeld will ever be as popular as, say, Roseanne — Jerry Seinfeld just doesn’t possess the ambitious cultural outreach that Roseanne Arnold takes for granted. It’s clear by now that Roseanne is capable of being as great as any sitcom in TV history — it’s our generation’s Honeymooners. But Seinfeld isn’t trying for greatness — instead, in its own modest, quietly loony way, the show is trying for something else: for perfection. You get the feeling these days that Seinfeld, David, and frequent director Tom Cherones are striving for a show in which the laughs flow with unceasing ease. Each week, they get a little closer; be there when it happens. A