During my pre-teen years, it became a standard ritual at school to show up having fully rehearsed the choice rhetorical nuggets my classmates and I had learned from that week’s episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (video below). Friend would innocently sidle up to friend, only to unleash such greetings as — “Shut your festering gob, you tit! Your type makes me puke! You vacuous, toffee-nosed, malodorous pervert!” — appreciatively aware that such verbose abuse would elicit knowing laughter rather than a punch to the nose.
That Python-esque childhood has since been replaced with an adulthood of Seinfeld catchphrases, references, and allusions. Find a setting where a group of friends is gathered, and it’s likely that during their conversation a Seinfeld expression will be shared or one of its key scenes alluded to. Indeed, it is barely an overstatement to suggest that there are Seinfeld phrases and parallels for every life situation — and we are certainly not reticent in letting them be known. Even today, 19 years after the last episode aired, we are regularly speaking in Sein language. But why?
Script segments from the aforementioned Monty Python, as well as from The Simpsons and The Office, often insinuate themselves into our everyday exchanges, but not to the degree that Seinfeld’s have. That’s because Sein language resonates as social sign language, its connotations capturing the tenor of our times. Catchphrases like “yadda yadda yadda”, “re-gifting”, and “double-dipping” can only be fully appreciated in the context of the scenes from which they derive, scenes that dramatize disinterest, bad manners, and combative communication. Other phrases signify the narcissism, self-absorption, and cynicism of not only the characters that voice them but of the audiences that hear and see them, too. Besides being clever, Sein language functions as a cultural mirror, showing us what we really are with all the brutal candor of the very best comedy.
This elevation of the show to being our premier societal court jester is an unlikely one, considering that it barely survived its early years on the air. Then NBC President Brandon Tartikoff thought it “too Jewish” and “too New York” on first seeing the pilot, and he no doubt felt vindicated when witnessing the show tank in its first three seasons. It wasn’t until the show was given a prime-time slot next to Cheers that it finally took off, subsequently ranking at either one or two in the Nielsen ratings for its final four seasons.
Nevertheless, it was more than just fortuitous scheduling that ultimately made Seinfeld the most quoted sit-com in TV history. With its concentration on a comedy of manners and on topics of the everyday, the show appealed to a broad demographic that made a mockery of Tartikoff’s initial complaints. From being a show supposedly about “nothing”, Seinfeld became a show about everything — and for almost everyone — such that in 2017 it ranks as the most syndicated TV program ever, still playing in 90 percent of markets across the US, as well as all around the world. (Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything, Simon & Schuster, 2016, p.225)
Such sustained popularity endures because, as Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz explain, Sein language has taken “deep root in our larger cultural lexicon”, known, used, and re-used even by people that have rarely seen the show. (TV: The Book. Grand Central, 2016, p.60) Syndication success, moreover, has created a cross- and multi-generational mass audience, such that young and old viewers now trade Seinfeldisms as though a generation gap did not exist. And why not? Have not the cynicism and narcissism of Generation X only become the more pronounced traits of Generation “Like”?
Signs of the Times
“No soup for you”, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”, and “A Festivus for the rest of us”: Who is not familiar with these Seinfeldisms? They’ve become commonalities of the American lexicon. Just like with hip-hop over recent decades, Seinfeld has broadened our collective slang and everyday rhetorical wit. Common to both is a fascination with conversational language, with its rhythms, sonic properties, and wordplay. Perhaps we should expect nothing less in a program about a stand-up performer, co-written by stand-up performers.
Investigating the wit and wonder of words had long been the modus operandi of both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David in their stand-up routines, and both have often reflected in interviews about the joys of script-writing together.Indeed, their initial goal was to produce a show that would consist only of two guys sitting around talking about the trivialities of the every day, the template of a show about “nothing”. Slapstick and physical humor were added, but Seinfeld has always been more about language than action, driven more by conversation than plot. Furthermore, with the catchphrases “low talker”, “close talker”, and “shusher”, the writers doubled-down on their contemplations of conversational manners, essentially speaking about the very act of speaking itself.
Such catchphrases are oft-repeated in subsequent episodes, cementing them into our collective consciousness for our own repeat usage. They are also always relatable, humorously calling attention to “everyday phenomena we all recognize yet have never given name to” (Sepinwall and Seitz. p.60). Insult and embarrassment are invariably the signifieds of such Sein language, feelings we can all relate to. Every male surely shriveled up a little on first hearing George cry “shrinkage” after being caught naked by Jerry’s girlfriend just after he had been swimming. Such linguistic tidbits touch nerves, uniting us to laugh at the everyday minutia at once common yet rarely given voice to.
What do millions of Americans do seemingly every minute of every hour of every day? Eat! Thus, food items abound in Seinfeld, serving as images of our gluttony, sweet teeth, and penchant for silly-sounding junk candy. Whole plot narratives revolve around Drake’s Coffee Cake, PEZ dispensers, Snickers bars, and Junior Mints. Some advertisers have even capitalized on such free plugs, later hiring cast members to shill for their products, further collapsing the separation between art and reality, TV and mass commercialization. The result, whether planned or not, is more assimilation of the program into our daily culture.
The appeal of Seinfeldisms ultimately transcends the words or images; they tap into our desire to be part of a humor universe, to be in with the in-crowd. (Re-)citing euphemisms like “master of your domain” and “sponge-worthy” with our friends allows us to enjoy some of the comedic payoffs, to bathe reflectively in the pool of cool, comedy, even character, to become participants as well as viewers. Such self-congratulatory pilfering is as much a sign of our times as the expressions we are co-opting. We can even add a modicum of our own creativity, adapting Sein language for new contexts and purposes. For example, “soup nazi” and “anti-dentite”, by becoming universal reference points, have now morphed into “grammar nazi” and “anti-grammarite”, recycled ready for posting on your social media outlets. And if a reader doesn’t get the reference, that is the reader’s fault for being Sein-illiterate, ergo out with the out-crowd.
In With the Intertextual Crowd
The in-crowd appeals of Seinfeld humor are not only in the catchphrases, but also wherever allusions and references create intertextuality between the show and the broader culture. Our awareness and knowledge of these moments offer markers of our tribal affiliation with the show. Some might consider such group identification as snobbish in that for all those celebrated as in-the-know, there are others ostracized for their incapacity to spot a reference. Sigmund Freud would no doubt agree, as he defines humor in “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious” (1904) as a process of shared inclusion and excluded “others”. It’s intertextuality that has encouraged the forming of websites with the express purpose of explaining Seinfeld’s allusions, and it’s intertextuality that has made the show a perennial category of quiz nights, where intertextual intellectuals can show off their encyclopedic knowledge in front of their “similarly endowed” peers (Michael Dunne. Intertextual Encounters in American Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture, Bowling Green State University Press, 2001, p.174) Tacitly invited to decode the reference. points, we are seen as contributors in the recitation of the humor, getting (undeserved) credit as associate humorists. In “Laughter” (1900), Henri Bergson says of this communal function of humor: “Our laughter is always the laughter of the group. You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself isolated from others. Laughter appears to need an echo” (Qtd. in Dunne. p.174).
Dunne says that “intertextual encounters occur whenever an author or the author’s text recognizes, references, alludes to, imitates, parodies, or otherwise elicits a reader’s familiarity with, other texts, however defined” (p.6). A rhetorical communion is thus established between the creator, text, and recipient. Such unions are not unique to our contemporary times, but they have become a recurrent feature of postmodern art. Robert Morris sees in the culture vultures an “iconophilia”, “lust for the represented”, and “appetite for the quotation” (Qtd. in Dunne. p.159). The most superficial practitioners use intertextuality to substitute for rather than supplement any broader artistic ambition. In the hands of Seinfeld and David, though, referents usually come with an array of metaphorical and cultural meanings.
Allusions to popular culture texts abound throughout Seinfeld’s nine seasons; they are instantly recognizable but presented in ways that force us to re-see them. When George can’t stop humming Les Misérables’ “Master of the House” in front of Elaine’s father, the lyric draws us into a plot line in which Mr. Benis is portrayed as commanding and intimidating; when Elaine expresses to her boyfriend that she prefers The Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” over “Desperado”, we are reminded of how saccharine some of the band’s ballads were; and when Jerry is revealed by a lie detector to be a secret watcher of Melrose Place, we can all relate to having our own guilty viewing pleasures. These referents — in plot context — tease below their surface meanings, drawing out our feelings lingering beneath.
We Belong to the Blank Generation
One scholar fascinated with the philosophical aspects of Seinfeld is Thomas S. Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University. He devotes a chapter to the show in his book, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture (Baylor University Press, 2012). For him, the program is about “nothing” in the existential sense, in that it dramatizes lives that lack meaning, purpose, and morality. As such, it’s antithetical to the conventional sit-com, a genre usually revolving around family, children, community, and traditional American values. Instead, we get a show for which its creators had only one rule: “No hugging, no learning”.
Applying incongruity humor to form as well as content, Seinfeld did not so much critique the family as remove it and largely ignore it. By doing so, the show unmoored its characters from any base, denying them the usual love and support we are accustomed to seeing in the resolutions of sit-com episodes. Even when family is present, such as with the parents of Jerry and George, they are shown as dysfunctional, if not crazy.
Relationships and community are also eschewed by the show, each revealed as barriers blocking the characters’ intrinsic selfishness, self-absorption, and cynicism. Jerry’s life goes into a tailspin after Kramer — seeking a more community environment — pastes the pictures and names of the residents of their apartment building in the front lobby; and when Elaine suggests to David Dinkins’s chief advisor that everyone in the city wear a name tag to make New York more like a small town, his boss loses the mayoral campaign.
The attraction of such comic consequences when pursuing traditional values is in our recognition that those values are of fantasy and mythology, not reality. To Seinfeld, and apparently to its viewers past and present, we live in an age of postmodern cynicism, where rejection and alienation are our natural conditions. These are particularly highlighted in “The Parking Garage” episode, in which a misplaced car leads to our anti-heroes wandering around without direction, like “rats in some experiment”, as George comments at one point. These “road to nowhere” episodes, common to the Seinfeld oeuvre, were no doubt what provoked Roseanne Barr into dismissing the show with the comment, “They think they’re doing Samuel Beckett instead of a sitcom” (Qtd. in Armstrong. p.150). Of course, her show, despite its rare working-class consciousness, promoted the very American home and hearth values that Seinfeld so consciously subverted.
Seinfeld’s incongruities captivate not only because they tacitly rebel against traditional sit-com bromides, but because they tell the truth about the times we live in — even though the picture painted is not a pretty one. Notably, the harshest criticisms of the show have come from religious or “professional moralist” commentators who regard the show’s strip-searching of American values as anathema to their nationalistic belief in the country as the mythical shining city upon a hill.
The Show Must Go On
As contrarian and revolutionary as Seinfeld proved to be, it still went out on top, with Jerry turning down big buck offers to bring it back for a Season 10. Although the final episode was much maligned, it drew 70 million viewers — a near record in the annals of TV history. Moreover, that episode was tailor-made for the show’s dedicated and informed core audience, bringing back myriad minor characters — along with their catchphrases and idiosyncrasies — for one last (re-)run across the screen. To fully appreciate that episode, you had to know your Sein language by heart.
A cottage industry has developed since the show’s conclusion, keeping it and its language at the forefront of our lives. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong refers to this posthumous life as “Seinfeldia”, a universe located somewhere between fantasy and fiction where the show is kept alive. She talks of the fans’ “urge to express their fandom” by organizing tribute nights at sporting events, quiz nights in bars, and bus tours of the show’s New York sites. Also, the internet has exploded since Seinfeld’s inception, spawning websites like SeinFAQ, dedicated to housing every detail of program information one could possibly want to know. Another, SeinfeldToday, imagines new plots and scripts for the characters as they age into the 21st century. This, in turn, has inspired response sites like Seinfeld2000, which seeks to undermine SeinfeldToday through its own bizarre parody post-scripts.
For Armstrong, being a Seinfeld fan is “like knowing a secret password — a very widely known secret password” (p.4). Congratulating ourselves for our command of Sein language while enjoying the reciprocal embrace of our like-minded peers, we have no reason not to remain participants in Seinfeldia. So, with tongue metaphorically in cheek, we continue to dance like Elaine, walk like Kramer, and trade Seinfeldisms with each other like precious baseball cards.