[16 October 2002]
“If you think you know Jerry Seinfeld from his show, think again.”
That ‘s the hook on the inside sleeve of this Harper Collins publication. It completely fails to accurately represent this book. Nothing about Oppenheimer’s story challenges Seinfeld’s public image. Whether it changes things for his close personal friends is another matter.
Harper Collins’ titillating publicity claims that Jerry Oppenheimer’s unauthorized biography reveals Jerry Seinfeld as the man he truly is. What readers get shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who knew Seinfeld the show. Oppenheimer, mostly through oral testimonies of friends, relatives and neighbours, describes a man who is driven, focused, and isolated, who only looks after himself.
Most likely, anyone in the world who knows Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian, knows him through his highly successful sitcom, which was famously about nothing. The sitcom featured four absurdly selfish characters who all seemed to lack morals. (The last episode sees the four jailed in Massachusetts for failing to help a fat person in distress? they were too busy making fun of him). While Jerry Oppenheimer tells us his book is about Seinfeld the man, not Seinfeld the show, he goes to great lengths to make connections to these characters, and in the end, concludes Jerry is quite like them.
Not that there is anything wrong with that?
Most fans wanted the show to be real (as the Seinfeld neighbourhood bus tours in New York can attest to), and, apparently, it was. Repeatedly, Oppenheimer hears from old friends and girlfriends that watching the show was strange, as conversations they had would appear or events they experienced would be featured. Unfortunately, this is one of Oppenheimer’s weaker approaches. Throughout the book, he dumbs down his material by making multiple references to the show, as if his readers might forget the connections, for example, between Mike Costanza, Jerry’s college friend, and George Costanza the sitcom character. The repetition highlight’s Oppenheimer’s need to capitalize on the sitcom’s success to give his biography value. While this book will no doubt satisfy readers who are interested in the details of Jerry Seinfeld’s college love life and the “real” story behind his wife snatching scandal, I must point out that Oppenheimer missed great opportunities to make this book about something bigger.
There was a long comedy career for Seinfeld before his NBC show. His stand-up craft was honed on the comedy circuit, which had been created out of the ashes of disco clubs. (This is one of the few interesting historical facts Oppenheimer offers. I won’t ruin it for you by explaining it all here). Jerry was making large sums of money long before he became the highest paid TV star. He was a neat freak and a cereal freak from early on in his youth, and his personal style has altered little. Oppenheimer tells us these details through extensive interviews conducted with friends, fellow comedians and actors who knew Jerry on the comedy club circuit in New York and LA. A history of the comedy boom of the eighties is touched on, but given no depth in Jerry’s story. Using Seinfeld as a hook to reveal the inner workings of a pop-culture phenomenon could have been interesting.
Another missed feature seen in this book is the theme of contradiction. Seinfeld is a neat freak who loves cars and motorbikes. He is a man who has been mistaken for gay many times but whose public scandals have involved one underage girl and one married woman. He is a man whose best friends are both African-American, but who never featured a significant black character on his long running sitcom. While Oppenheimer enjoys the dirt these contradictions kick up, he does not challenge them or investigate them. Again, here is a potentially interesting route of investigation missed.
It is unnecessary to ask why Oppenheimer ignored the more interesting aspects of Seinfeld’s life. Pop-culture audiences, while arguably more intelligent than ever, still enjoy seeing a star torn out of the sky. Oppenheimer, and his publishers Harper Collins, have clearly focused on this one marketing aspect for his biography.
Seinfeld: The Making of an American Icon is yet another example of how tabloid culture has robbed us of a more intelligent, and more interesting, approach to storytelling.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/seinfeld/