Seinfeld still funny, but is it still fresh?

  • JTASeinfeld
(JTA) A lot happened in 1989. The Berlin Wall fell, the Iron Curtain crumbled, and a young political theorist named Francis Fukuyama announced that with Western liberal democracy’s triumph, we had reached “the end of history”.
by DANIEL TREIMAN | Sep 26, 2019

Also that year, the pilot for what was then called The Seinfeld Chronicles aired on NBC.

While NBC was tentative initially about the show’s prospects, Seinfeld would become not just an unlikely hit for the network, but the most popular sitcom of the 1990s. To put it in perspective, 76 million viewers tuned in for the sitcom’s 1998 series finale – that’s nearly four times the number who watched the last episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

What more propitious time for a “show about nothing” than the end of history?

Now, 30 years after the debut of Seinfeld, Netflix is betting big on the timeless appeal of the TV show that “yada, yada, yada’d” its way into America’s hearts, buying its exclusive streaming rights starting in 2021.

Seinfeld is the television comedy that all television comedy is measured against,” Netflix’s chief content officer said. “It’s as fresh and funny as ever.”

The enduring charms of Seinfeld in the streaming era, however, should not obscure the fact that the show is also very much a product of its time.

One aspect of the Seinfeld story that seems like a relic from a distant past is NBC’s initial concern that the show was “too New York, too Jewish” to be a hit, as the network’s entertainment president, Brandon Tartikoff (a New York Jew himself), memorably worried.

“Who will want to see Jews wandering around New York acting neurotic?” he asked.

Amid such shpilkes (anxiety), the Jews behind Seinfeld masked the Jewishness of the show’s characters. True, the show’s four main characters seemed like over-the-top caricatures of Jewish New Yorkers (some were even based on real-life Jews, with George Costanza as a stand-in for series co-creator Larry David, and Cosmo Kramer inspired by David’s former neighbour, Kenny Kramer). But aside from Jerry Seinfeld’s eponymous character, none of the main characters were identified by the show as Jews.

No matter how Jewish Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) seemed, Seinfeld viewers learned that she was, in fact, a magnet for Jewish men due to her “shiksappeal”. Meanwhile, the fact that George, played very Jewishly by Jewish actor Jason Alexander, had an Italian last name, was cause for considerable confusion, including for Jewish actors Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris who played his parents.

“It was never really clear if the Costanzas were Jewish or Italian, or what they were,” Stiller later recounted. “Jason, Estelle and I were given the name Costanza, which sounds Italian, but there were episodes where I cooked Jewish food and ate knishes and kasha varnishkes in bed. When people asked me about this, I would simply say it was because we were a Jewish family in the witness protection programme.”

Amid the plenitude of Jewish-themed comedy on Seinfeld, the fact that the show’s characters could not be openly Jewish seemed like a joke itself.

Perhaps thanks in part to the success of Seinfeld, Jewish TV characters no longer need a witness protection programme.

Now, you can have an entire series about the mishegas (craziness) of two young Jewesses wandering around New York, moaning about fasting on Yom Kippur and yearning to host a Passover seder (Broad City); a show whose protagonist engages her childhood archnemesis from Scarsdale in a “JAP rap battle”, replete with obscure-to-gentiles rhymes about Birthright Israel and the Jewish fraternity AEPi (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend); another show that spends a whole season on a family trip to Israel (Transparent); or a show in which a character might make wisecracks about how wearing a yarmulke in a Palestinian chicken restaurant is akin to the raid on Entebbe (Larry David’s own Curb Your Enthusiasm). And that’s not even to mention the Emmy-conquering The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Seinfeld, though, was a different animal to any of these. It was the top show on network television before cable and streaming fragmented the American TV-watching audience.

Above all, Seinfeld is a product of a more innocent time. At the end of history, with America at peace, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer could run around preoccupied with.

Netflix is certainly right that Seinfeld is still funny. Like the original ratings-topping sitcom I Love Lucy, Seinfeld is comedy for the ages. If you stream it, people will watch and laugh.

But is it still “fresh”?

  • The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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