Robert Altman's TV movie about presidential primaries, Tanner '88, contains a moment that perfectly catches the giddy self-consciousness of the 1960s generation. Tanner, played by Michael Murphy with endearing smugness, explains how he knows his several opponents for the nomination are nerds: in answer to a question from the audience, not one of them could name his favourite Beatle! These politicians were all young in the 1960s, but in Tanner's eyes they're a disgrace to their generation. Anyone who failed to choose among the Beatles should not be entrusted with the presidency. And by the way, Tanner adds, the right answer is John Lennon.
Is there a similar question that people will ask two or three decades in the future? By what cultural standard will those now in their 20s assess each other when they reach their 40s and 50s? My guess is that they'll turn to Seinfeld. Today there's no rock group reaching all classes and IQ levels, so the four main characters on Seinfeld have become by default the Beatles of this historic period. In 2016 or 2026, someone will be asking: Which character did you identify with? Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, or...George?
Seinfeld resembles the Beatles in another way--it brings to comedy the same let's-try-anything bravado the Beatles brought to music. The producers believe nothing is forbidden. A brilliant, subtle half-hour on masturbation? Why not? And why not also an elaborately inventive parody of Oliver Stone's JFK, to be followed by a burlesque of Schindler's List? What about the death of a character on the show? How funny can we make that?
At the end of last season, George's fiancee died, poisoned by licking the envelopes for their wedding invitations, cheap envelopes he insisted on ordering. George (Jason Alexander) was relieved and even delighted; now he didn't have to marry the woman. Not all viewers were pleased by this episode, and some were angry. Perhaps this time Seinfeld had gone too far. Still, the audience has come back for more. Of George's self-obsessed response to his girlfriend's death, a Seinfeld-addicted friend of mine recently asked, "How far can they push this man's insane narcissism? When does narcissism become unwatchable? Maybe, in this culture, never." My friend continues to watch.
More recently, George pretended to be blind so he could get free books on tape. In that same episode, a woman asked Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) about George, "Is there anything wrong with him?" Elaine's response was a long, thoughtful silence: she didn't know where to begin. Even so, George gets dates, lots of them. A young woman I know says this proves the program is realistic. "In the real world," she says, "George would get dates. Oh, yes, he would. That's how desperate women are." Moreover, the young woman's friends would make an earnest effort to see George's good points, if any.
George's recent actions may be outrageous, but Seinfeld has had an over-the-top character for a long time, Newman (Wayne Knight), the fiendish, grinning nuisance in Jerry's building. He's unique among TV characters in that he's despicable--not evil, despicable. Normally, mass culture can't deal with slugs like Newman. (Mass culture can handle scorpions but not slugs.) Newman is George's dark side, as if George needed one.
Seinfeld characters inhabit their own world, a plane of existence unknown to the rest of humanity. Where they live, New York apartment doors are permanently unlocked, people rarely worry about money, and everyone has plenty of time for aimless talk about their dates and what they're doing tonight. Those who lack money or time or friends (or all three) might see this as heaven, but it could well be the other place. The four characters have no interest in anything outside themselves, which is one definition of hell. Each of them is caged within the prison of the self. Their tolerance is indifference, and even their lust has a dry, routine quality, as if it were mandatory. Perhaps they've died, and what we see on Thursday nights is a brilliant theologian's ingenious account of eternal damnation.
For me, the great thing about Seinfeld is that it's never heart-warming. It never moves you to cheap tears with its sincerity, never milks the pathos in its stories. That's because it operates outside the sitcom tradition that got firmly established with Mary Tyler Moore in the 1970s and was handed down the years by Taxi, Cheers, Roseanne, etc. Sitcoms developed as condensed versions of old-fashioned Broadway comedies, which always had a touching payoff. Seinfeld belongs to another tradition, farce. Each week it builds a tower of plot points, and builds it so swiftly that the audience hasn't time to see how improbable it is, or care. You're not supposed to be touched, because Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George aren't characters; they are devices designed to move the plot and work the jokes.
Even so, viewers will insist on identifying with them. Elaine is easily the most charming, but my favourite is Kramer (Michael Richards). I like his hair, I like his 1958 shirts, and I like his spirit. No matter how many money-making schemes fail, Kramer remains undaunted. Moreover, in a roomful of grouches, he's good-humored (which might account for his success with women). Furthermore, he's played by the only actor on television who could star in silent comedy. Each week, when Michael Richards devises a new way to stumble into Jerry's apartment, he reminds us of his unique accomplishment: he's somehow turned a TV entrance into a cross between a work of art and an industrial accident. It's one of the great moments of television, on the best half-hour show of the 1990s.