FORMER Entertainment Weekly writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's enthusiasm for the show Seinfeld can't be curbed. She can barely remain master of her domain.
She finds Seinfeld to be nearly spongeworthy, and wrote a whole book about it and its cultural influence.
It’s gold, Jerry! Gold!
She appears at the Savannah Book Festival to talk about her book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. We spoke to her last week.
There’s a lot of sociopolitical commentary in studying Seinfeld. So much material probably couldn't be broadcast today. Everybody laughed their asses off at the Soup Nazi at the time, but today it's considered problematic.
Armstrong: That was part of what the show did, they tested boundaries. We really got a taste of that later, with Curb Your Enthusiasm, also of course written by Larry David.
A lot of those jokes were intended to show what it meant to be a liberal New Yorker in the ’90s. A lot of jokes are about liberal guilt and confusion, things like that.
For example, there’s the episode where Elaine dates a guy she thinks is black. And the whole episode is basically her trying to subtly figure out if he’s black. At one point he refers to them as an interracial couple, and she gets really excited, but it turns out that’s because he thought she was Latina.
So they’re both bummed. They’re like, oh, this was way more exciting when we thought we were an interracial couple. Again, it’s the idea of what liberal New Yorkers struggle with.
And that privilege, if you will, is still part of our cultural fabric.
Well, the other part of this is if you watch almost any show that’s 20 years old you’ll see stuff that will make you cringe. I’ve been rewatching Friends, and a lot of things they say are not how we'd say it now. Even with the super progressive shows occasionally you'll see stuff like that.
Some episodes hold up well, like, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
Yeah, you watch that one, and it still plays OK. That joke is about liberals wanting to seem enlightened, but still having this weird ingrained reaction to being mistaken for being gay.
One episode that really struck me as being ahead of its time is the episode where Elaine doesn’t want to order pizza from a place when she finds out the owner is anti-abortion, he’s pro-life.
In the ‘90s people didn’t talk about corporations and corporate beliefs like we do now, literally every day. These days we boycott somebody every day because of their political beliefs. We’ve sort of reached critical mass with that now. So that episode is another one way ahead of the curve.
You beat me to mentioning Friends. I was taken aback by the huge resurgence in that show's popularity when Netflix released it in 2015. Millennials especially really love Friends and seem to prefer it to Seinfeld.
Oh, that rivalry is a huge thing. And they were aware of it then! They had a rivalry very much like a sibling rivalry.
Friends people felt like Seinfeld was sort of the older brother who got away with whatever they want. The Friends people were like, we can’t even show a condom wrapper, but Seinfeld gets to do a whole episode about masturbation!
And the Seinfeld people were resentful of Friends I think because they were just younger, beautiful people in New York, just hanging out and being cute and funny.
But though the concept is basically the same, you couldn’t take more different paths with the two shows. It’s like Coke and Pepsi, or the Beatles and the Stones. That dichotomy really says something about your identity depending on which one you watched in the ‘90s. I like both!
Seinfeld is so much darker in tone, almost nihilistic at times. That's all Larry David, right? I don't get the sense that it comes from Jerry at all.
Not to overdo the Beatles analogies, but Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld had a sort of Lennon and McCartney relationship. They complimented each other in the right way, in a way that's very magical.
And they balanced each other. Jerry was sort of anchored in reality, and cut into Larry’s nihilism with his own observational humor. Before Seinfeld we didn’t know a sitcom could have that darkness.
What I find really interesting is how many Seinfeld episodes there are about getting stuck in places and not being able to get out. They’re stuck at the Chinese restaurant, they’re stuck in a parking garage. Sort of in Purgatory a lot of the time.
That’s the last scene of the last episode. Them in Purgatory together, forever.
Yes, another form of Purgatory. They’re always stuck in enclosed places not knowing how to escape.
I think Seinfeld’s precursors were the two great Fox shows from the '80s: The Simpsons and Married With Children. The first really popular shows with no likeable characters whatsoever.
I totally agree. I was just thinking about Married With Children as we were talking. Those shows made a huge contribution and were such a mass hit.
People have questioned me about why I stand by this idea that these shows ushered in the era we’re in now, this Golden Age of TV drama – where there are no likable characters to be found! It’s very difficult to find a traditional classic show anymore.
For example, in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary has to be this super sweet likeable person at the center of everything.
But I believe both those shows – The Simpsons and Married With Children — both shows got us ready for the idea of Tony Soprano.
The obligatory question: What’s your favorite episode? Sorry.
A different day sees me saying different things. Today I’m going to go with “Spongeworthy.” Mainly because that’s an Elaine episode, and I love me some Elaine.
Not only is Elaine a great character, but I believe Julia Louis-Dreyfus is our greatest working comedic actor. And like a lot of Elaine episodes, she gets to be sort of progressive, in ways that weren’t commonplace at that time.
Savannah Book Festival
Saturday, Feb. 18
9am: John Tamny
10:10am: Cassandra King
11:20am: Terry McDonell
12:30pm: William Daugherty
1:40pm: Gerri Willis
2:50pm: Dan Slater
9am: Danielle Trussoni
10:10am: Paula Wallace
11:20am: Harriet A. Washington
1:40pm: Richard Snow
2:50pm: Peter Cozzens
4pm: Greg Mitchell
9am: Caroline Leavitt
10:10am: Imbolo Imbue
11:20am: Lydia Millet
12:30pm: Terry Kay
2:50pm: Kathleen Grissom
4pm: Robert Hicks
Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall
9am: Thomas Dolby
10:10am: Alexandra Horowitz
11:20am: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
1:40pm: Frank Bruni
2:50pm: Alejandro Danois
4pm: Tama Janowitz
9am: Dorothea Benton Frank
12:30pm: Jane Green
1:40pm: Yaa Gyasi
2:50pm: Matt Gallagher
4pm: Jonathan Rabb
9am: Min Jin Lee
10:10am: Molly Prentiss
11:20am: Nora Zelevansky
2:50pm: Gerald Marzorati
4pm: Gary Belsky
9am: Thomas Mullen
10:10am: Tess Gerritsen
12:30pm: Paulette Jiles
1:40pm: Jay McInerney
2:50pm: Megan Miranda