Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seinfeld and Time or sooner of later we all become George

Each day that passes Seinfeld becomes a little more dated. Its relevance becomes more historical and its present-day legacy becomes less relevant. The continued contributions of Larry David to culture present his '90s sitcom as a kind of joke, his character in Curb Your Enthusiasm speaking under his breath when he needs to impress someone, "You ever see the Seinfeld show? ... I did the Seinfeld show...." Jerry Seinfeld, the macguffin center of the show, has yet to create anything better or even in the same league as Seinfeld, and he increasingly alienates himself from a place of relevance by denying the need for a more, or at all, inclusive world of comedy. After all, why would there be any flaws in the system if it put him at the top? He is an exceptional comedian, and worked hard to produce the most popular show ever. Capitalism is a meritocracy and we have a black president, so can we move on and film ourselves driving fancy cars now?

I started this writing project eight years ago, finished a draft 5 years ago, and published it as a book 3 years ago. Analogies between the personas it analyzes and myself are inevitable, or at least from this perspective. This past week an article entitled "On the Radical Self-Referentiality of Consciousness" came my way and I couldn't help but eat it up. Michel Bitbol begins his essay with a 1964 quote from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, describing philosophy as "the set of questions in which the one who questions is himself implicated in the question."

From where I'm sitting now certain questions about Seinfeld are immensely prescient to my own situation. When is work to be done, and when instead is the work already done to be documented or promoted? When one has created something--whether a joke, a 10-minute set of jokes, a pilot episode or whole series of a show, a critical essay, or a whole book of them--what do they do next? Do they dedicate themselves to finding that joke an audience or to making more jokes? A few overlapping spectra develop through this questioning: to what extent is a creator successful at promoting their work? To what extent do they try to do so? To what extent is their work even marketable?

In my book I've developed a sort of amalgam of identity. I've described how the character of Jerry carries traits held by real-life Larry David. His dad's name is Morty. His neighbor's name is Kramer, etc. But more, considering time past, and how time then passed, what strikes me is that the character of Jerry on tv is in his mid-thirties and has not successfully graduated from stand-up comedy to television, while Jerry in real life is very much successfully on tv, as that is where we are watching this character. The subject and creator of the material of the show, the reality behind this illusion, is therefore first and foremost the 7-years older Larry David who was already 40 before the two considered making a pilot.

In this way Larry David found a collaborator who could translate his life story into a palatable joke for mainstream audiences, in a sense publishing David's real life behavior as a kind series of performance art pieces, or social experiments. In this 2011 acceptance speech for the Laurel Award from the Writer's Guild, David describes his life pre-Seinfeld life in New York, after he decided to become a comedian, scouting out potential spots where he could sleep outside one day should it come to that. A back up plan essentially. He thanks Seinfeld, "of course," in the gracious finale of the speech, saying "without whom I'd probably be sitting on that steam vent on 44th Street, screaming obscenities at passersby. Everything I wrote he improved." And the cast of show saying, "It's unbelievable. When I did these things in real life I was scorned, mocked, and shunned. They did it on the show people laughed and loved them."

Seinfeld himself of course was also struggling to make a career, and started off his 30s without a secure place in show business, his own tv show, nor the cozy ability to justify his life choices to anyone who questioned his adulthood. However, David has already lived several lives, trying on a variety of white-collar careers, writing and starring in a Friday night failed challenge to SNL, writing for one of the notoriously worst seasons of SNL, with only one of his skits reaching the air. The version of that life we see in Seinfeld is via George Costanza, played by a not-yet-30 Jason Alexander, in effect the age of David in 1977 when he was in between working as a historian and selling brassieres. We see George reenact David's fabled, first, quitting from Saturday Night Live, and, second, returning to work the next day pretending like nothing happened. We see George attempt to sell bras. We see George fantasize about being a history buff, an architect, some respectable career that seems just out of grasp. In the later seasons of the show this failure is explained by laziness, but it begins simply because he is Larry David, and it's hard to commit yourself to a career if you're already working full time trying to make it as a creator of comedic material you consider to be art.

And so Larry is Jerry is George is Jason. They exist on a spectrum of success that is not centered on a single timeline. Jason Alexander found success a decade younger than Larry David did by acting out the hysterical failures of Larry. He did it so well that the public could only perceive Alexander as this lovable fuck up. Success is by no means an incremental line upwards through time. Alexander has been so typecast by this role that one might wonder if he would have chosen not to have done it. This regret is sublimely expressed in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which Alexander (playing himself) complains to Larry (playing himself) that he is forever associated with "the jackass role," eating eclairs out of a trashcan, to which Larry angrily proclaims "I ate an eclair out of the trashcan!"

Larry David, a man who was unable to market himself, whose work was not readily marketable to begin with, has staged a decades-long coup and placed himself at the top of culture by convincing everyone that he is an uncompromising artist--just look at how consistently he quit or failed or in general chose to make another joke as opposed to selling the last one.

I find myself on that same end of the spectrum. I'm terrible at marketing my own work, demanding a readership, or otherwise choosing not to continue to read, write, and create as I'm inclined to do on a day-to-day basis. This book was always going to be a failure because it was supposed to mimic a show that was ultimately not picked up by the network. The story needs to be real. And maybe, like Prognosis Negative, the script David wrote in the '80s that was ... not ... picked up, this will become myth that is retold in a timeless and marketable masterpiece of intersectional identities. We'll watch ourselves watching ourselves watch ourselves and it might suddenly become clear.

I've described this process as a refutation of logocentrism as Derrida describes it. The show does not romanticize an origin or privilege prior moments as more original or of greater priority. Instead it consistently takes to task the genre and tradition that are working in, undermining the very idea that a situation comedy can be of any worth at all. One could argue that Seinfeld then aims instead toward a telos instead of emerging from a logos. Does the show not intend to destroy the genre of the sitcom, to reduce it to nothing? Is this not an ultimate goal that every element of the show amounts to?

However, its deconstruction of logocentrism doubles as a critique of teleological thinking, or viewing reality and existence to amount to an ultimate and knowable purpose. This is the last thing the show could be described to attempt. The sitcom is a contradiction of purpose, both the ultimate goal and an imperfect means. A stand-up comedian in the moment they land a sitcom has both reached an apex in their career, and sold out everything that once made them interesting. They cease to be a real comedian and instead become a fleshy cog in a money-making machine. For this reason Seinfeld aggressively fights the assumption that the ultimate goal of its protagonist is to have a show on television.

John Steinbeck developed with his friend, mentor, and co-author Ed Ricketts the idea of non-teleological thinking, counter to the purpose-driven Christian mainstream thinking that dominates western thought. "Non-teleological thinking concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually 'is'--attempting at most to answer the already sufficiently difficult questions what or how, instead of why." Instead of telling a story trying to justify why they have made they show, the creators of Seinfeld describe what it is to make a sitcom, how one goes about, without judgements, instead descriptions.

It is not a singular timeline that begins in obscure toil and amounts to wealthy success, but rather a series of different timelines, Larry David's 30s spent fucking up and failing in the New York comedy world, Jerry Seinfeld's 30s spent in a meteoric rise to the height of stand-up and then televisual comedy, Jerry the character's 30s spent in a surreal soundstaged world in which he tries to catch a break but fucks up and fails in ways that mirror David's life the previous decade, and George Costanza's 30s in which he finds himself unemployed, living at his parents' house, and generally fucking up and failing again like David. None of these situations is prioritized. There is no ultimate choice. There is just life and a series of observations about it. The reason for going to the mall is not important for the whole episode takes place in the parking garage. The reason for going to the Chinese restaurant doesn't matter because the whole episode is spent waiting for a table. These were the episodes that they were not initially allowed to make, but the ones that made the more generic episodes worth doing.

They wanted neither to destroy the genre nor sell out by embracing it. They wanted to tell jokes and cut out the bullshit--whether that bullshit is the tedium and struggle of working as a stand-up, or the creative concessions required in submitting to the genres of mainstream network television--and I wanted to tell you that, and now I have and we can all move on with our lives.

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