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Wednesday, December 17, 2014
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Published: Friday, 7/11/2014

CULTURE SHOCK

The column about the show about nothing

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Perhaps you missed the birthday brouhaha, but Seinfeld turned 25 on Saturday.

That’s right, the NBC sitcom that defined the ’90s and made water cooler conversations mildly entertaining is now old enough to have its car insurance rate reduced.

And yes, we all feel a little older.

I was late to the Must-See TV party by several seasons. It was a few friends who got me hooked on Seinfeld after they insisted I borrow a VHS tape with several recently aired episodes, including “The Contest,” from Season Four.

Any prime-time network sitcom brave and clever enough to feature an entire show devoted to masturbation — without ever mentioning the word — was at least worthy of a half-hour of my time. As it happened, after watching that episode I was hooked on the show and made it a point never to miss a new episode — a difficult feat in the prehistoric days before TiVo and the DVR.

Decades later, I still find myself watching Seinfeld on cable, as I did July 4 with the Keith Hernandez two-part episode “The Boyfriend,” in which Jerry meets the Mets’ former first baseman and they strike up a friendship — until Keith spends more time with Jerry’s ex, Elaine, and then breaks etiquette and asks Jerry to help him move. The horror!

The episode also features a humorous take on the JFK assassination conspiracy — a “magic loogie” from an unseen spitter that hit Kramer and then ricocheted onto Newman — taboo subject matter for a sitcom at the time, as were other Seinfeld jokes involving “Indian givers,” sponge contraceptives, oral sex, “a million to one shot,” well-endowed waitresses, and bras (bros) for men. With Seinfeld, nothing was sacred in its righteous cause of laughs. There had never been anything like it in network prime time.

That’s still the case. As great as the sitcom was/is, it has no tangible legacy. At least, in terms of true lineage.

Curb Your Enthusiasm doesn’t count since it’s the product of Seinfeld co-creater Larry David, who plays a version of himself on the HBO series as a louder, angrier, and more profane George.

Past hit sitcoms like Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond as well as newer successes such as Two and Half Men and The Big Bang Theory are far too conventional and formulaic — straight line, straight line, followed by punch line — to be considered descendant of Seinfeld.

Even Modern Family, which rebukes genre norms, is more closely aligned with the single-camera faux documentary format, ala Arrested Development and the original British and U.S. versions of The Office, than the multicamera Seinfeld and its blueprint story structure of circling back at the end of an episode to a joke or theme from that show.

Seinfeld also expanded our language (yada yada yada) and popular culture (“No soup for you!”). Most important, it was consistently smart and funny.

And maybe that’s why 25 years later we haven’t seen anything else like it on network TV.

Typically, great sitcoms are carbon copied until there’s a viewer revolt. How many earnest sitcoms did All in the Family spin-off?

The Simpsons, which also debuted in 1989 — albeit it five months after Seinfeld — has several heirs in prime-time and cable network animation not meant for kids. South Park. Family Guy. Beavis and Butt-head.

But there’s never been anything like Seinfeld since Seinfeld.

And thus the great irony: A show about nothing has left us with … well, nothing.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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