The weekly situation comedy Seinfeld, which aired on NBC from 1990 to 1998, was the most highly-rated show on American television during much of its production run. The show marked the revival of a comic subgenre that had originated on radio and then was adapted for early television by such stars as Jack Benny and the team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Jerry Seinfeld plays himself, a standup comedian starring in a sitcom about the life of a standup comedian. Like Benny and Burns, Seinfeld retained the privilege of walking back and forth across a metaphoric proscenium, speaking to the audience presentationally (i.e., in the second person) as a standup comic in a nightclub, and representationally (in the actions of a third person). The TV Jerry is a well-to-do New Yorker with a Manhattan apartment, a small group of "off-beat" friends, a career, an active sex life, and several other recognizable trappings of a contemporary successful American.
Seinfeld however adds an element that neither Benny nor Burns ever dared venture. As a bridge in his physical movement between the nightclub stage and the apartment, he walks a balancing act of personal identities. He is, to most appearances, Jerry the American, one of TV's "us," a televisually acceptable, conventionally well-dressed single white male. But Jerry is also, by turns of emphasis, one of "them," a New York Jew, a sarcastic wisecracking cynic with an overbite, living on the margin of the American middle class. He can be funny, weird, exotic, lively, obnoxious, or any of the other qualities American ethnic mythology has tagged on to Jewishness.
In this way, Seinfeld shares more with the early fiction of Phillip Roth (especially Good-bye, Columbus, and Portnoy's Complaint) than with the Jewish-American characters that can be found in such sitcoms as The Goldbergs, Briget Loves Bernie, and Rhoda. Like Alexander Portnoy, Jerry lives out a dilemma that is simultaneously his deepest source of anxiety and the richest resource of his strength. He can easily "pass" for an American. Militantly bourgeois in attitude and taste, apparently freed of the burdens of millennial suffering, he is ready and willing to take on the high-end problems of sexual gratification and unchecked consumerism. But somehow, like the early Roth characters (especially the title character "Eli the Fanatic"), Jerry cannot help but be heir to the legacy of the Diaspora. His sense of humor, the very asset that has allowed him entrée to an advantaged hedonistic secular life among the gentiles, remains rooted in a marginalized point of view that grows out of exclusion—and he is unexcludable without his Jewishness.
Seventy years after Al Jolson opened up the age of talking pictures with The Jazz Singer, the theme of Jewish assimilation remains insistent in American popular culture. Like Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld is no Yeshiva boy, but he is also under no illusions about transcending his Jewishness. Like Jolson and Allen, he enjoys the money and the small-nosed girls. But no matter how American his show business success makes him, he takes it for granted that he will always carry a second psychological passport. He is neither embarrassed by his Jewishness (like Walter Lippman) nor enamored of it (like Norman Podhoretz). He accepts the cards that were dealt him and makes the most of his hand, moving seamlessly between two spheres of consciousness with as much grace and refinement as he can muster.
His best friend George (Jason Alexander) would like to enjoy the American garden of gentile delights the way that Jerry does, but he cannot. He remains a prisoner of the Bronx. Round, balding, and bespectacled, he is not only physically removed from ideals of gentile televisual masculinity, but he is psychologically mired in a tangle of neuroses that he has inherited wholesale from his parents (played by Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris). "Next to George," the critic Joshua Ozersky has written, "Jerry seems like Lee Marvin." And this is exactly what Jerry wants. The flexible Jerry is more successful than George at the two most important pursuits in Unmarried-American culture: making money and getting dates.
George embodies all three of the traditional Yiddish comic archetypes. George is a schlemiel. He meets a comely WASP woman, and goes away with her for a romantic weekend; however, while trying to build a cozy fire he burns down her father's vacation house. George is a schlimazel. When he is accused of racism for telling an African American co-worker that he resembles Sugar Ray Leonard, he finds himself compelled to stop black people on the street to try to befriend them. George is a nebbish. All the principal characters on the show, we learn, masturbate frequently. But only George gets caught by his parents while doing it in their home.
What does a man with successful figures at both the bank and in the mirror see in a friendship with such a broadly defined American failure? Jerry the American needs George around to remind him of his Jewishness, which, despite any problems it might still present, is after all the secret engine of his professional success as a joke-teller. He takes George as his collaborator in creating a new television sitcom. George's surname, Constanza, is not Jewish. To suggest that George is not Jewish, is itself a kind of Jewish joke.
Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), an outwardly graceful but internally haggard New Yorker, enhances the suggestion of Jerry as a cosmopolitan, enlightened contemporary. A former lover, she is now a member of his small circle of best friends. Elaine's chief identity is that of Unmarried-Gyno-American Worker. Like Mary Richards and Murphy Brown, she has yet to find a man worth slowing down for. Unlike them (or Jerry), however, Elaine lacks a lucrative position in the entertainment-industrial complex. Murphy and Mary both work in TV; when we meet Elaine, she works for a book publisher. Over the course of the series she works at a succession of jobs for neurotic and borderline psychotic men who derive much of their pleasure in life from being her boss. Elaine lacks a traditional ethnic identity, but instead is principally hyphenated by her sex and marital status. This stands in contrast to George's ethnic hyperbole, leaving Jerry just where he likes to be: in perfect balance at the American middle. He has girlfriends and girls as friends. He has money and power enough to play philosopher-king among the working stiffs (a group which includes the other members of the cast as well as the television audience).
Jerry's balance in the order of things is emphasized yet again by his physical positioning between tall, ectomorphic, manic Kramer (Michael Richards) and short, endomorphic, mono-polar George. Kramer functions in the sitcom as a kind of postmodern Ed Norton, entering and leaving Jerry's unlocked apartment at will. (The unlocked door of the inner city apartment somehow endured from The Honeymooners to Seinfeld as a teledramatic convention in defiance of rational convention.) Kramer's susceptibility to every identity that passes him by—entrepreneur, gambler, chef, playboy, hot-tub owner—puts him in a state of eternal self-image chaos, a sharp contrast to Jerry's elegantly constructed balance of American, Jew and Jewish-American. Jerry, the least marginal of the four characters, is the only one who is specifically and repeatedly identified as a Jew.
Jerry seems to be mocking himself when he refers to the sitcom that he and George pitch to NBC as "a TV show about nothing" (the idea is originally George's). But if Seinfeld is "a TV show about nothing," as the magazines liked to hail it, then it would have achieved what Samuel Beckett just fell short of in stageplays such as Waiting for Godot and Endgame. But real life Jerry Seinfeld and his producer, Larry David, learn the lesson of Beckett's struggle: narrative cannot be stamped out. Like God, where it does not exist it will be created.
Jerry is a man committed to only one thing: detachment. He can make fun of fascists when George is mistaken for a neo-Nazi leader. He can make fun of communists when Elaine starts dating one. Jerry makes fun of Elaine when she stops going out with an attractive man "just because" he is an opponent of abortion rights. But positing no political beliefs of his own, and glad to take pot shots at anyone who does, he leaves the viewer with the implication that anyone stupid enough to be committed to political causes (or anything, as opposed to nothing) deserves ridicule. The metamorphosis of alienation into detachment is a signal achievement of the sitcom, the most popular of all commercial narrative genres.
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Seinfeld, Jerry, et al. Sein Off: The Final Days of Seinfeld. New York, Harper Entertainment, 1998.
Tracy, Kathleen. Jerry Seinfeld: The Entire Domain. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Publishing, 1998.