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Monday, July 26, 2021

“Seinfeld” 20 Years Later

No hooks, no gimmicks. It was, and is, about, well, nothing  

I have no reservations saying that I am late to the party. But often, it’s better to be late, with a little sweat on your brow and a small huff in your breath, than to not show up at all. Throughout my time at UC Davis, I have often felt this way. I show up to a party happy to see friends, even though my bones are brittle and my spirit slowly fading. I enter Wednesday’s exceptional Funk Night after an hour of standing in line, a maligned, beaten down spectre of a man, yet one with a smile.

The same can be said of media and of media that truly touches you, which I classify in my mind as art. When you’re “late” to art, however, you really haven’t missed anything at all. In fact, you’re confirming one of art’s most beautiful qualities, which is that it moves in cycles. 

I am both delighted and thankful that the cycle has moved in such a way for me to be able to appreciate the 1990s television show and phenomenon “Seinfeld.” A self-described show about nothing, “Seinfeld” was the peak of ’90s televised entertainment, laughtrack and all. Yet, there was never any pressure to laugh at the subject matter, whether it was a live studio audience or pre-recorded. No hooks. No gimmicks. It was, and is, about nothing. That is, ostensibly, the magic of the show.

I always hear folks (often older), like my father and his cohorts in their thick Soviet accents, exclaim about whiskeys and the beautiful aging that comes with them. My father picked up whiskey as a hobby as soon as I left for Davis — a strange attempt at assimilating into American culture, as well as empty nesting. The best whiskey, he says, comes seemingly out of nowhere and has a good age, as it’s left in barrels for 10 or 20 years. He says the two decade period is an especially good indicator of telling if the people knew what they were doing or not. The same, strangely enough, could be said of television, and “Seinfeld” is no exception. 

To say that “Seinfeld” has aged well would be a devilishly sly understatement. I have not laughed so hard in a very long time. In one episode, George Costanza, a lovable, bald oaf with a penchant for deep neuroticism, is planning something with Jerry, our titular protagonist. Both of them are waiting in the lobby of a building to “bump into” a lady Jerry met the other night, while at a birthday party, who informed him she worked there. George debates endlessly about what his cover should be. He’s always wanted to be an architect, but this guy, this veil of anonymity, should be an importer? An importer-exporter? A mixture of the two, perhaps?

They eventually settle on a guise for George. His name is Art Core Velay. And you’ll never guess — he’s an architect. When Jerry’s love interest, Vanessa, shows up, she questions them both, with Jerry deflecting quickly back to “Art Vandelay.” Art begins to go off about the love of his craft, while a beguiled Jerry looks to move past the whole thing.The situation is simply absurd in its entire construction. Jerry likes Vanessa and then orchestrates this entire stake out to get a chance at bumping into her. But he spends the entire time constructing a fake identity for George in case Vanessa asks them too many questions. In this moment, “Seinfeld” speaks to the absurdity of real life. 

Is this not the 1990s version of posting a specific story on Instagram to try and get a specific someone to reply to it? The emotional honesty here is refreshing, heartachingly real and most of all, hilarious.  

The cultural malaise that “Seinfeld” depicts is equally as fascinating, with profound relevance and almost alarming accuracy. How long you wait to call someone has been replaced with how long we must wait to send a DM or a text. Driving up to the Hamptons with your friends to see a friend’s newborn, only to discern that they’re the ugliest baby you’ve ever seen may sound hyper specific, but the heart of this is making a great effort to ultimately end up with nothing. The deft yet extensive list of side hustles each character gets into (most notably, George’s position as official car re-parker for Jerry’s block) hits home with any young person who feels as if they must be actively generating profit to make use of their time. Not to mention, sometimes people who work at trendy soup stands can just be really mean. These and so many more examples are on display while watching “Seinfeld,” and you notice that there is so much to glean, both culturally and metaphorically, that it’s almost impossible to overlook the influence the show has had. And yet, many do.

When asked if they remember “Seinfeld,” many students on campus were hard pressed to remember anything other than its catchy bassline of a theme. Many remember Jerry, but now see him as the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” guy. This is just a tiny bit tragic, considering he used to be the star of the most popular show on television. 

“I remember that show!” said Hank Reich, a third-year environmental engineering major. “My parents threw it on over break while I was on my phone, and I didn’t look at it for the rest of the episode. I loved it.” 

Ignoring the show for 30 minutes is one thing, but actually enjoying it, as Reich remarked, is a clear marker that the show still has appeal, yet maybe doesn’t have the spread it deserves. 

Over Winter Break, I binged the first four seasons of “Seinfeld” on my couch. I had things to do. Friends I’d promised to see. Employers I fooled into hiring me. Grandparents for whom I swore to install Skype. All these things went out the window the moment I saw Jerry go up on stage at the end of an episode and do a little stand up set. I couldn’t stop. Even worse, I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to experience this slice of life, even if it was just four friends in pre-Giuliani New York City simply clowning around and revealing things about life in the process. 

In the very end, that slice of life, that glimpse into a truth, is all we can ask of art. For a show about nothing, “Seinfeld” really did make me feel everything. 

Written by: Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org

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