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Happy Birthday, Jerry Seinfeld

April 29, 2009

I wrote this essay for my Symbols and Conceptual Systems: Artifacts of Self-Regard class. Seeing as it’s Seinfeld’s birthday, thought I might as well share. Still kinda working on it, even though I’ve turned it in… Enjoy.

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“So you’re saying I go in to NBC and tell them I got this idea for a show about nothing…” (“The Pitch”)
-Jerry Seinfeld

The hit 90’s television show Seinfeld has simultaneously been called the greatest television show of all time (“TV Guide”) and “a show about nothing.” This show about a fictionalized version of stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld details his entertainingly mundane life, and the lives of his best friend George Costanza, ex-girlfriend Elaine Benes, and kooky neighbor Cosmo Kramer. It is about the minutiae the everyday, and often its finest are the observations made by the main characters about the world around them. In other words, the show was about nothing– so much so that the fourth season is practically about the show itself. In it, Jerry and George write a television show about themselves, humorously undermining the whole impression of these characters being real by reminding viewers about the inner workings of television. Paradoxically, it also reaffirms that they are not merely characters, as they creating something of their own.

The fourth season begins with Kramer in Los Angeles, pursuing an acting career despite his inability to act. Jerry and George, his friends back home in New York, and aware of Kramer’s incapability, are stunned to hear that Kramer has had any success in Hollywood. When he hears the news, George asks Jerry “Kramer was on Murphy Brown?” in disbelief. When Jerry responds that he was, George shouts, “Are you sure?” needing a second confirmation. Even after Jerry answers him yet again, George repeats, “Murphy Brown, the TV show?” requiring a third clarification (“The Trip: Part 1”). George’s lasting disbelief is exaggerated by his repetition. Additionally, in mentioning another situational comedy, his incredulous remarks serve as a reminder that both he and Jerry are merely characters on a popular sit-com themselves. This realization makes the unlikely story of Kramer’s success in Hollywood seem more plausible as well. Kramer can be an actor on the television show Murphy Brown, just as the real Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander, playing Jerry and George onscreen, are actors on the television show Seinfeld. This irony also serves in a comedic sense. It is doubly funny that George cannot believe that Kramer is on a television show because not only is the character Kramer on Murphy Brown, but his character, portrayed by the actor Michael Richards, is on television on Seinfeld itself.

A following scene shows Kramer backstage of a Hollywood set, smoking a pipe, with other aspirant actors listening almost dreamily to Kramer’s made up “methods.” The set-up of the scene itself poses several questions to viewers of the scene. The set may in fact be the actual backstage area of the show Seinfeld, comically undermining the concept that Seinfeld is a realistic show about the lives of four friends, and reminding the viewers that these are not real people, but actors. Kramer’s mannerisms as he acts out the part of the actor also are self-reflexive and humorously self-deprecating. He sits in a director’s chair with his legs crossed, saying through his teeth, which are clenched down on the pipe he is smoking: “my personal acting technique is working with color, imagining color, then finding the emotional vibrational mood connected to the color… you’ll see that all my lines have a special color, so I don’t memorize language, I memorize color” (“The Trip: Part 1”). Kramer appears to be making this up, particularly because he mediocre actor, but everyone who is backstage with him clings to every word and thinks he is a genius, merely because of his confidence and body language. His actions characterize the Hollywood crowd as gullible and drawn to falseness. In this sense, Michael Richards as Kramer is an actor who is merely acting the part of an actor.

Later, Kramer returns to his apartment in Hollywood to find his neighbor Helena, an older Hollywood actress who is attracted to him, come out of her apartment to speak to him. She tries to convince Kramer that the acting business will kill him, and when he tries to ignore her she overdramatically shouts at him “Kramer, they’ll hurt you, they’ll destroy you! You’ll never make it in this town, you’re too sensitive like me!” (“The Trip: Part 1”) Helena’s obvious overacting paints her as an actress of a past era, when dramatics in acting were the norm. It too reminds the viewers that, even within the show, she is merely acting. Again, attention is drawn to the concept of the falseness of playing a role. She wants Kramer to listen to and stay with her, but he recognizes that she is intensifying her emotions to get what she wants. The fact that she is an actress, however, reminds the viewer that Helena is not just putting on a façade within the show, but that an actress also portrays Helena.

Around this time, Kramer’s friends Jerry and George happen to be visiting L.A. because Jerry is appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. When they arrive at the NBC studio George exclaims “This is very exciting! You’re on the Tonight Show, NBC, who else is on the show?” His excitement is particularly humorous because his animation stems from the fact that his friend is going to be on television when, to the audience, it is clear that all of these characters, including George Costanza, are on television. The show is even on the same network: NBC. Jerry replies to George that he doesn’t know who else is going to be on the show with him, to which George replies quite eagerly that he “Might meet a celebrity!” (“The Trip: Part 1”) There is humor in George’s excitement, considering that Jason Alexander and the real Jerry Seinfeld, playing George and Jerry, are celebrities themselves. George’s enthusiasm reminds the viewers of this distinction and makes the situation all the more comical.

Later in the season, an NBC executive approaches Jerry with the notion that he should create a television show of his own. The life of the character Seinfeld closely imitates that of the real Seinfeld, in that both are stand-up comedians who are offered television shows on NBC. Clearly, the real Seinfeld has already done so, and the season’s primarily plotline becomes the development of this television show that Jerry writes. George is with him when he gets the news, and Jerry expresses that he isn’t entirely sure of his abilities when he states “they want me to come up with an idea… I don’t have any ideas” to which George immediately responds with “Come on, how hard is that? Look at all the junk that’s on TV!”  (“The Pitch”) He humorously denounces the quality of contemporary television shows, including the one in which he is a character. Later, when George insists that he should be a co-writer of Jerry’s show, he deflects Jerry’s reluctance to let him, because he isn’t a comedy writer, by scoffing and saying “Writer? We’re talking about a sit-com!” (“The Pitch”). When George later tries to use the fact that he is a writer for a sit-com to impress a woman in a bar, she shoos him away and tells her friend, quite derisively, “A sit-com. Can you imagine? And he actually tried to use it to hit on me!”(“The Virgin”). The attitude of the characters toward situational comedies, despite the fact that they are in one, has a humorous effect. The self-reflexive nature of his statements is somewhat humbling of the writers of the show, and also asserts that they are self-aware.

Eventually, Kramer also gets involved in the idea-generating process. He suggests that the show should be about Jerry as the manager of a circus, with the show centering around the circus’s freaks. Jerry voices his reservations immediately, but Kramer attempts to change his mind by telling him that “the show isn’t about the circus, it’s about watching freaks.” Kramer’s idea focuses around the concept that it is not always necessarily what a show is about that draws in viewers, but the characters. While Seinfeld’s four protagonists are certainly not circus freaks, Kramer’s mention of the predisposition of viewers to want to watch freaks does draw attention to their quirky idiosyncrasies. When Jerry again insists that he’s “not pitching a show about freaks,” Kramer buts in with “People… want to watch freaks. This is a ‘can’t miss’ (“The Pitch”). Kramer’s statements draw attention particularly to himself. Out of his group of friends, he is arguably the most “freaky,” due to his spastic personality and gawky appearance. Seinfeld is a show about friends and their interactions, rather than an overarching plot. Perhaps it is this focus on stories about people that make Seinfeld so popular. Later in the season, for example, when an executive from NBC tells George how important it is that people care about a show’s characters, he responds promptly with “Care? Forget about care. Love. They have to love the characters. Otherwise, why would they keep tuning in?” (“The Ticket”). In this way, it is funny that Jerry refuses to consider Kramer’s idea because it is the concept of the “show about freaks” that is really the basis of the success of Seinfeld.

After a silly, but for some reason hilarious, discussion that Jerry and George have over lunch about the similarity between the words “seltzer” and “salsa,” George comes to a realization. “See, this should be a show. This is the show… This, just talking,” he says smiling, but Jerry dismisses the idea. Ironically, as viewers watch this conversation unfold, this chat between friends has already been televised nationwide. What Jerry sees as an impossible premise for a television scene already is one, and he is a part of it. When Jerry asks George what the show will be about, George replies, quite smugly “It’s about nothing.” Similarly to when Kramer said that Jerry’s show about the circus wouldn’t be about the circus per se, it seems that the premise of the show itself is not what makes the show. In fact, in George’s mind, a show does not need a premise at all. Jerry, still in disbelief, goes over their plans again: “I go in to NBC, and tell them I got this idea for a show about nothing” (“The Pitch”).  In fact, when the show’s creators, Larry David and the real-life Jerry Seinfeld pitched the show Seinfeld, they did precisely that (Popik). The show that George Costanza suggests that he and Jerry create, therefore, is basically Seinfeld.

Their conversation continues with Jerry’s insistence that their show needs a plot. George replies by asking “Who says you gotta have a story? Remember when we were waiting for–
for that table in that Chinese restaurant that time? That could be a TV show” (“The Pitch”). Though George Costanza does not know it, he is blatantly referencing an episode from the second season of Seinfeld, aptly titled “The Chinese Restaurant,” whose plot goes precisely as George describes it here (IMDb). Like many episodes of the show, the story of “The Chinese Restaurant” is plainly understandable without knowing what happens in the surrounding episodes, and is not integral to the rest of the season. In the broader scheme of things, it accomplishes “nothing” besides being a very funny episode of a television show.

The parallels between the life of the real and the fictional Jerry Seinfelds are furthered by the inclusion of the eccentric next-door neighbor Kramer as a character. When Jerry tells Kramer about his new concept for what the show will be and that he intends to base a character on Kramer, Kramer says he will let Jerry do it one on condition: he gets to play Kramer (“The Pitch”). Interestingly enough, the character of Cosmo Kramer is based upon the real-life neighbor of co-creator Larry David named Kenny Kramer.  Like Cosmo, Kenny Kramer insisted upon being cast as his namesake on Seinfeld, but was turned down in favor of Michael Richards, just as Kramer’s role is given to an actor on the show (“Kramer vs. Kramer”). Just like the characters within Seinfeld, who plan to interject the daily occurrences of their lives into their television show, the creators of Seinfeld take real life events and place them within the frame of the television show. The inclusion of this detail may also serve almost as an apology to Kenny Kramer. Within the show, the viewers’ sympathies are with Kramer to get the part, which he does not. The self-reflexive nature of the incident reveals that both Kramers are denied the roles as themselves, not for personal reasons, but for the sake of the show itself.

After a first unsuccessful meeting with NBC concerning the show, Jerry gets a phone call from the executives saying that they would like another meeting with him. George is ecstatic, shouting “We’re gonna be rich! What are we gonna get for this? Fifty, sixty thousand dollars!” (“The Ticket”) The mention of salary raises the question within the viewers of how much the actors playing the characters within Seinfeld made, especially considering that Jerry Seinfeld is known to have been paid extremely well. In fact, in 2004, six years after the show had finished its nine-year run, Jerry Seinfeld still made $264 million, making him the highest paid celebrity of that year, though the show was only in syndication. George also repeatedly brings up Ted Danson from Cheers, which was on right before Seinfeld on the same network and therefore a comparable show, to which Jerry responds, quite ironically viewers, “How are you comparing us to Ted Danson?” (“The Ticket”) In fact, Seinfeld outrated Cheers before its third season (“Suddenly Something”). George’s comparison is apt. George even says later that “Ted Danson makes eight hundred thousand dollars an episode,” (“The Ticket”), which next to the comparatively meager thirteen thousand that George and Jerry are jointly offered per episode seems quite hefty, but compared to the actual salary of Jerry Seinfeld pales in comparison.

The second meeting with the executives of NBC goes over more smoothly, with George having abandoned the notion that the show should lack any kind of premise or plot. In fact, he changes his stance completely about the idea, stating “The story is the foundation of all entertainment. You must have a good story otherwise it’s just masturbation” (“The Ticket”). George’s statement hints that, like the real show Seinfeld, the show that George and Jerry are writing will not function unless it has some kind of underlying premise. Though Seinfeld has been heralded as “the show about nothing,” it does have a basic plotline, centering around stand-up comedian Jerry and his three friends who frequently find themselves in unfortunate and comedic situations. The fourth season, specifically, focuses on Jerry’s developing show. The line reminds viewers that coherence and cohesiveness are necessary to for this type of comedy to be enjoyable. The show’s “nothing” is the everyday and mundane, rather than actual nothingness. George’s statement that a show without a show is “just masturbation” is provocative but not necessarily insightful. He just means that plotless television can be enjoyable, but it is not substantial, and even looked down upon. Just as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David had to eventually pitch their show not as the show about nothing but “all about how Jerry came up with his material for his standup” (Interview), the fictional Jerry and George must change their pitch in order to get their show deal.

At points, it is almost as if Seinfeld is imitating the show that Jerry and George are attempting to write, rather than vice-versa. In one instance, for example, Elaine tries to convince the two of them to include a character based on her in the script: “suppose the Elaine character comes in wearing… a low-cut dress. And the butler is very distracted, and can’t work” (“The Shoes”). Jerry and George write it off, but later in the same episode, they have her actually act out the plan with Russell Dalrymple, an NBC executive, wearing a low-cut dress so that Dalrymple will be distracted by her breasts and accept her desire for Jerry and George’s show to be put on television. Rather than Seinfeld being influenced by the real lives of the actors and writers, or the show within the show Seinfeld being influenced by the characters who write it, it appears that the show twice removed from the real world is influencing the reality that exists within Seinfeld. A viewer must remember, however, that both shows, the fiction and the fiction within the fiction, are just fiction, and that neither is really influencing the other because neither is real life.

When the characters finally get around to filming the pilot of their show, which they call Jerry, mirroring the actual show being called Seinfeld, casting decisions have to be made. When Kramer is refused the role of himself on the show Jerry, he insists on coaching Tom Pepper, the actor who will play hum, how to be just like him. Kramer insists on filling him in on his techniques for eating spaghetti and having sex when Tom replies “This stuff doesn’t matter to me. See, I’m gonna do the character like me, not like you” (“The Pilot”). This plot point mirrors the real life interaction between Kenny Kramer, the man upon whom the character of Kramer is based, and Michael Richards, who plays Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld. Kenny Kramer has said that “People will ask me if Michael met to study and the answer is no. He did not want to have anything to do with knowing about me… Larry wrote the words, you know, and he just interpreted it himself” (Kramer Vs. Kramer). This mimicking of real life serves as a humorous homage, or a kind of inside joke, to those who know the history of the development of the character of Kramer.

By being doubly self-reflexive, with Seinfeld being an imitation of the life of Jerry Seinfeld and with Jerry being an imitation of Seinfeld, the show humorously represents everyone involved with the show as not really knowing what they are doing. Actors are depicted, for the most part, as extremely self-involved and fake, while writers are portrayed as people who haphazardly throw scripts together, get looked down upon, and are not original enough to base what they write on anything that is not basically a true story. The fact that the writers of Seinfeld are aware of these ideas, and are willing to but them up on display by parodying them, suggest that they are different. Viewer recognition of this, and the show’s other suggestions at reality, just make the show funnier.

Works Cited

  • Cerone, Daniel. “Seinfeld’ Is Suddenly Something.” ProQuest Archiver. 4 Mar. 1993. 27 Apr. 2009. <http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/latimes/access/60203201.html >.
  • Charles, Larry. “The Trip: Part 1.” Seinfeld. Dir. Tom Cherones. NBC. New York, New York. 12 Aug. 1992.
  • Cosgrove-Mather, Bootie. “TV Guide Names Top 50 Shows.” CBSNews.com. 26 Apr. 2002. CBS News. 26 Apr. 2009. <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/04/26/entertainment /main507388.shtml>
  • David, Larry. “The Pilot.” Seinfeld. Dir. Tom Cherones. NBC. New York, New York. 20 May. 1993.
  • David, Larry. “The Pitch.” Seinfeld. Dir. Tom Cherones. NBC. New York, New York. 9 Sept. 1992.
  • David, Larry. “The Ticket.” Seinfeld. Dir. Tom Cherones. NBC. New York, New York. 16 Sept. 1992.
  • David, Larry, and Jerry Seinfeld. “The Shoes.” Seinfeld. Dir. Tom Cherones. NBC. New York, New York. 4 Feb. 1993.
  • Farrelly, Bobby, Peter Farrelly, and Peter Mehlman. “The Virgin.” Seinfeld. Dir. Tom Cherones. NBC. New York, New York. 11 Nov. 1992.
  • “Forbes Celebrity 100- 2004.” Forbes.com. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.forbes.com/lists/home. jhtml?passListId=53&passYear=1999&passListType=Person>.
  • “Kramer vs Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo.” Seinfeld- Season 3. DVD. NBC, 2004.
  • “Model for character talks about ‘Kramer.’” USATODAY.com. 24 Nov. 2006. USA Today. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-11-24-kramer_x.htm&gt;.
  • Seinfeld, Jerry. “Jerry Seinfeld Interview.” Interview with Jon Stewart. The Daily Show. Comedy Central. New York, New York. 5 Apr. 2004.
  • Popik, Barry. “Seinfeld Session.” The Big Apple. 30 May 2008. 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www. barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/seinfeld_session/>.
  • “Seinfeld (1990) – Episode list.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). 20 Apr. 2009 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098904/episodes#season-2&gt;.
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