A young man, graduating from Harvard a couple of years ago, applied for a high-paying job at McKinsey & Co., the management consultants. They thought he showed promise, and brought him back for successive interviews. They tested his quickness of mind, rated his problem-solving abilities, assessed his people skills. At the sixth interview, the questions grew increasingly byzantine. The strangest one, he thought, was this: if you were a character on Seinfeld, which character would you be?
That question indicates Seinfeld's peculiar place in 1990s North America. It's a universal reference point, a set of shared character types and opinions, a litmus test. Those who hate it believe both Seinfeld characters and Seinfeld fans are self-obsessed yuppies, but in my experience viewers are as likely to be 20-year-olds or 60-year-olds. The interviewer at McKinsey probably couldn't have imagined a Harvard graduate without an opinion on Seinfeld. There was only one response that would have utterly destroyed the young fellow's chances: "What's Seinfeld?"
In an obscure and barely understood way, Seinfeld has turned into a monitor of contemporary life, whether by positive or negative example. In a recent episode, Elaine bravely declared that she hated The English Patient, even though that meant being shunned by her friends and her employer. My guess is that she started a few million arguments and gave many bored moviegoers the courage to express their own (till then suppressed) hostility to the film.
When I wrote about Seinfeld last fall, my mail indicated that many people take this urban farce even more seriously than I do. One young woman said in all seriousness that she uses it to encourage good behaviour in herself, especially tolerance. When she's annoyed with her family or friends, she reminds herself that Jerry, after all, puts up with the odious George. Another reader, an ardent Seinfeld fan, pointed out that the most obvious attribute of all four characters is dishonesty. "They're all liars!" he wrote. They constantly lie, to strangers and to each other, without a second thought. He's right. But what does it say that neither I nor anyone I've read on Seinfeld noticed? I think it says that routine lying is more widely accepted than we would like to imagine.
Of course, asking what it means is typical Seinfeldian conversation. On one level it's the most trivial show in history, all about people obsessed with take-out soup and tickets to basketball games. Yet it's charged with meaning. Last week, the news that the actors playing George, Elaine and Kramer have signed new contracts for $600,000 each per show (they asked $1-million) produced an outbreak of anti-Seinfeld hysteria. There are people who love getting angry about the money paid to, for instance, baseball players. If a pitcher signs for $3-million or $6-million, it provides a clear and unambiguous reason for rage. No one can say exactly what a baseball player should make (100 times the salary of a schoolteacher, or 1,000 times?) but salary numbers ending in a string of zeroes feed an incomprehensible anger.
Last week some of this feeling descended on the Seinfeld cast. Maureen Dowd, whose life as Op Ed columnist in the New York Times has changed her from witty reporter to public scold, was beside herself with fury. She took the salary announcement as an occasion to quote Leon Wieseltier, resident moralist and chief finger-pointer at the New Republic: "Seinfeld is the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption." (Wieseltier can always be relied on for that sort of nonsense.) Dowd, for her own part, said the show reflected "the what's-in-it-for-me times that allowed Dick Morris and Bill Clinton to triumph with a campaign of `bite-sized' issues that emphasized personality over party." Poor Seinfeld--blamed as both Reaganite and Clintonite, in the same article. (Americans, of course, see the whole world through their presidents, whereas Canadian prime ministers have no meaning outside politics--even "the Trudeau era," as an isolated phrase, means nothing. Imagine applying it to clothing or television.)
Wieseltier and Dowd have it wrong. What Seinfeld cries out for is not political commentary but psychological analysis. I want to read a Freudian psychohistory of the Seinfeld world, as imaginative and over-the-top as possible. Is George, as I suspect, the dark side of Jerry, the character who states what Jerry secretly feels? Isn't Jerry a bit of a fraud, with that good-guy, class-president charm thinly papering over his anger and malevolence? Kramer, of course, is a 1990s version of the Fool in Shakespeare, commentator and clown. And Elaine? The true mystery at the heart of Seinfeld. She's the mother goddess who presides over the story, secure in her well-rooted womanly power until (as often happens) she, too, falls headlong into the pit of banality.
And what about the young man who was asked at his interview to place himself among the Seinfeld characters? When he heard that question, his brain began ticking furiously. He hadn't gone to Harvard for nothing. First he rejected Kramer. He couldn't identify with him: nobody wants a goof working for their management company. The young man's real favourite happens to be Elaine, but to choose her could raise gender-crossing issues that might be dangerous (besides, what Seinfeld watcher would tell the truth about anything at a job interview?). George, of course, is famously a creep, so he was out--but Jerry is just a clown.
The young man processed all of these subtleties with the speed of Deep Blue. He decided on a compromise. Finally he said, "I think I would be a combination of George and Jerry." The questioner solemnly wrote that down and moved on to the next question. The Harvard graduate got the job.