Of all the pop culture phenomena I’ve managed to miss in my lifetime — and there have been many — no gap could be greater than never having watched a single episode of “Seinfeld.” In the last decade of the 20th century, that was no small feat, and it was accomplished, in part, because I didn’t own a television – just great art for me – but mostly because I nurtured a long-standing antagonism to mainstream America, with the notable exception of professional sports. It would have been impossible for me, of course, to go completely beyond the wide scope of the series, because everyone referred to it everywhere, with quoted slogans, yada yada, etc., scenes described and jokes told. Often I would find myself on the periphery of a group of friends or colleagues, eternal stranger that I was, waiting for the laughter to die down, as they discussed what had been said or done the night before by Jerry. or whoever; if I had been a little more liberated, I might have been able to admit that the scenarios seemed a little funny in the narrative.
But, even when the show finally ended, there was no noticeable decrease in its cultural impact in syndication, and the years continued to pass with catchphrases still quoted, scenes still described, and me , still on the sidelines, completely distraught. Until the day when, two decades later, I decided to take matters into my own hands: I would watch the show once and for all, all episode of the show, start to finish, one episode a day, and that meant, for the record, one hundred and eighty days of “Seinfeld.” This was before the pandemic, when such an undertaking would have been considered, at least by me, an indulgent waste of time, but I justified it as a form of self-improvement. It also gave me something to do during my lunch break in the basement of the NYU library where I went to write every day, sitting in a cubicle among students born after “Seinfeld” but who probably knew more about it than me.
And so I started watching, around noon on an October afternoon, almost thirty years after the fact, season 1, episode 1, eating my sandwich, while Jerry, as a humorous character , opened the series with a set on people’s universal need to “get out”, then, once “out”, the need to “come back”. “Do you know what this is about? he asked the delighted audience. “Why are we here? Be out.” This was followed a few minutes later by a scene in a laundromat with Jerry trying to convince an increasingly frustrated George that there was a misconception that the clothes were “too dry”. “You can’t ‘overdry’, Jerry explains, ‘for the same reason you can’t ‘overwet’. “It was the essence of the show in the first ten minutes: the pun, the observational humor, the low stakes – and, through the wonders of societal osmosis, much of it was already completely familiar, including the theme music.
It was slow for me at first. I was bored, puzzled and mostly not amused – was that what it was all about? – doing my best to find a buy among silly stories and quirky characters. There was Kramer, pulling two slices of bread out of his bathrobe pockets, asking Jerry, “Do you have any meat?” There was George, again irritated, inventing the figure of Art Vandelay, importer-exporter. By the end of the first week, I had finished Season 1, all five episodes. Then came Season 2, more or less the same and twice as long, with Kramer sitting on the couch shoveling cantaloupe into his mouth, George trying to break up with his girlfriend, and Jerry doing a series about indignity. waiting rooms. It occurred to me in my humorless state that the extreme compression was working against my enjoyment, that the show would have been better with slower digestion, one episode a week as planned, followed the next day by a recuperation at the water cooler, and then summers off. Instead, I was on my own and swallowed “Seinfeld” whole. It was also possible that I was trying, albeit subconsciously, to justify a decision I had made thirty years ago, and that each lonely laugh now threatened to cause a painful crack in my worldview. In other words, I was caught somewhere between comedy and regret. At the rate I was watching, it was going to take me six months to complete the entire DVD set, thirty-three discs, heavy as a brick, which I had to return to the seventh floor of the library every seven days – taking the stairs to exercise, so I can ask to check it for another week.
What I hadn’t been able to anticipate was the very palpable feeling of being taken back to a younger version of myself, falling straight into the 1990s, then slowly moving forward in time, episode by episode. , through an era exemplified by the show’s hairstyles, outfits, and, perhaps most importantly, the huge Mac computer in the background on Jerry’s desk. It was a time that was also exemplified by the first Gulf War, which had, by the way, anticipated the start of the second season by a week. I was then in my early twenties, working as a short-lived cook at a restaurant in Pittsburgh, making five bucks an hour and spending my shift, when I wasn’t grilling burgers, sitting on a crate at spilled milk while I was cutting hundreds of pounds of potatoes for fries. It wasn’t my dream job – I wanted to be an actor – and I was miserable and brooding and not the best short-lived cook. And then the war started, and that only exacerbated my unhappiness, as well as my anger and my isolation, surrounded as I was by colleagues, not to mention everyone else in the country, who seemed, without exception , become the champions of war. About a week after the American invasion, I violated one of the central tenets of the workplace and got into a misguided political discussion with the boss. He was pro-war, and he was also my boss, and I remember we both, at first, tried our best to be reasoned and measured, or at least to have the affect to be reasoned and measured, but that the exchange quickly turned into condescension, passive aggression and, finally, raising of voice. And, a few days later, I walked into the restaurant one morning to find that my name was not on the schedule for the following week, which in the hospitality industry is the code for You are fired. Why I was fired, I didn’t know. No one could give me a good reason either, including the chef. Instead of a good reason, I found my own: I had been fired because I was of Middle Eastern origin. This is what I mean when I say that I harbored a long-standing antagonism towards mainstream America.
So I was undergoing a kind of side-viewing experience, with one version of myself sitting in the NYU library watching the show in the present, and a second version – whether I like it or not – reliving my distant past. As the cast got older, so did I, my youth passing with the show at an accelerated pace. By the time I reached Season 5, I was twenty-four, just like that, living in New York City while Jerry stood on stage brooding over the invention of seedless watermelons (“I guess that if they can get rid of the seeds, the rind will go next”) and Kramer burst through the front door, as usual, carrying an air conditioner (“Twelve thousand BTUs of raw cooling power!”) – and I was renting an illegal sublet on the Upper East Side, filled with optimism about my acting career, sending my bullet through the head to hundreds of casting agents, then waiting for the phone to ring. I was aware of a subtle but significant shift taking place in my psyche, in which the characters had become familiar to me, almost, dare I say, like friends, and I could begin to understand the inner logic of their behavior. If I wasn’t completely amused, I was, at least, affectionate.
It was also during this time that I did what everyone has always done with “Seinfeld”: I made a connection between a real-world event and a specific episode of the series. Until now, I had always been the emotionless spectator, of course, listening to someone explain, through their laughter: “It’s like when Elaine did X. . . .” But one afternoon, as a friend was telling me the story of a date gone wrong, I suddenly remembered, unprompted, the remarkably relevant episode in which George, in love with a woman, is invited to her apartment for a coffee. “Oh, no, thank you,” he told her, oblivious to the subtext of her opening. “I can’t drink coffee late at night. It keeps me awake. It’s only after she’s gone that he realizes his folly and has missed an obvious opportunity for romance. I had barely started describing the episode to my friend when he interrupted me. “I can’t drink coffee late at night,” he said, quoting George to me. He knew the episode. He knew the episode better than I knew the episode. I had seen it recently, but he had seen it multiple times, each episode multiple times, often when they aired in prime time, and later in syndication, and they were seared into his brain. A moment later he was taking the stage on YouTube, and sitting next to him I could see the humor of the situation, the human condition of this, the constant labors of poor George, always striving, never succeeding. We watched together, my friend and I, both laughing, but only he had the glow of longing.