Regarded as one of the most culturally relevant sitcoms, Seinfeld embodies many conceptions held in the modern day about the true New Yorker. This comedic sitcom capitalizes on a dry, satirical humor running through the daily situations that four, narcissistic friends – Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander), and Kramer (Michael Richards) – who get thrown into, situations that mirror the everyday struggles that some individuals constantly overdramatize. It is ironic, however, for this particular show to be held in such high esteem with a plot based on the premise that it would be a “show about nothing.” Yet, the unfortunate events of life that the characters continuously suffer transcend the quotidian (as Al Auster eloquently argues) to bring significance to its viewers.
Seinfeld is relevant, interesting, and not incidentally hilarious in this regard; its claim to nothingness is actually a conceit because it addresses difficult social issues through subtle, yet effective, satirical humor. Seinfeld is about much more than nothing; the use of humor to temper controversy while casting progressive ideology as relatable and amusing discreetly exposes the viewers such topics, leading them to think and proves valuable for engaging with others in the real world. The situations the characters are placed in possess a strategic presence of social issues, but it is in their responses to confronting topics such as homosexuality, abortion, and racism that resonates with the way many Americans feel.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
In the episode “The Outing,” Elaine, in an act of consciously misleading a woman eavesdropping on her, infers as a joke that Jerry and George are a homosexual couple. Although a stranger to Elaine, the eavesdropper is actually a reporter who writes for the college newspaper at New York University and will publically expose them for this rumor. Throughout the episode, there is a lack of acceptance for homosexuality and a presence of homophobia; while nothing is said outright, it is in the anxiousness of Jerry and George that the episode attempts to connect to its viewer on the matter. This is a tactic to uncover and make the viewer think about the stigma in society that there is something not acceptable or abnormal about homosexuality. Jerry is found scrambling to carefully defend his interactions with George and the things they do for each other, such as him getting Jerry tickets to the musical “Guys and Dolls” for his birthday. In order to prevent offending anyone (in the context of the show), Jerry would say repeatedly, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Although this appears for the purpose of comedic entertainment, it is also an attempt to convey to viewers that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality while also empathizing with some individual viewers that they are not alone in feeling uneasy with this topic.
In the chapter “Male Anxiety and the Buddy System on Seinfeld,” Joanna Di Mattia thoroughly explores the context of shifting social frames in society and how the concept of homosexuality is purposefully implemented to satirize the traditional masculinity of the white male. Even though homosexuality is explicitly the focus in this episode, the show as a whole possesses a homoerotic element among the male characters to give viewers enough context to recognize the similarities between the homosocial interactions of men and homosexual relationships (Di Mattia 95). Lingering issues with homosexuality are addressed here through George and Jerry’s need to prove their heterosexuality. As Di Mattia notes, “Jerry and George realize that to be a man, one must play at being a man and must be perceived by other men to possess an unquestionable manhood… homosociality becomes an unstable dramatization of masculinity, performed over and over again” (97). It is here that Jerry and George’s issue, as New York men, is clear; they cannot have other people under the assumption that they are homosexual because that will tarnish their manhood with regard to how they are viewed by society. Di Mattia’s analysis coincides perfectly with the purpose of Seinfeld making an episode like this: as the two feel their manhood threatened due to people thinking they are a gay couple, the sitcom’s subtle progressive ideology becomes apparent.
Seinfeld shows viewers two straight characters whom they are familiar with; therefore, even if perceived as gay, it does not change them and should not matter outside of the realm of television in the real world either. According to Albert Auster in his chapter, “Seinfeld: The Transcendence of the Quotidian,” the show poses questions to the viewer that “we are meant to actually ponder” (190). It is no longer just another episode of a sitcom that comes and goes on television, but it is a challenge to the audience at that time to think about homosexuality as normal and for audiences in the modern society to continue to push for normalized narratives involving homosexuality.
When Does it Become Pizza?
The conflicting scenarios among the group persist as other issues are addressed in plain sight to invoke personal reflection by the viewers. Abortion is a difficult topic of discussion due to the clear divide in America between pro-life and pro-choice perspectives. Often, people on one side of the ideological split disdain people on the other side. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, it was not commonplace as a storyline of a television episode during the era of its original broadcast. Yet, it is the clear focus of the episode “The Couch.”
Elaine asks her boyfriend his opinion on abortion, and his response results in her inability to date the man whom she previously told Jerry was “perfect” if he could have just been pro-choice. This situation Elaine finds herself in, although masked with humor, provokes viewers to contemplate their own position on abortion and to critique her response to her boyfriend’s perspective. The audience, in pondering Elaine’s decision, gives insight on the matter and plays a role in developing one’s own stance, changing how viewers will handle themselves in regard to the topic of abortion in the real world. “The irony of Seinfeld purportedly being about nothing is the latitude to be about anything it wanted to address” (196). This claim by Auster in his chapter exemplifies the significance of episodes such as this, continuing that the influence of religion and gender on the characters is how “It even raises political issues. In fact, being about nothing is an advantage for the series, since it raises no political and social expectations, and the series could go wherever the imagination of its creators decided to take it” (196). This freedom of the creators further supports the value of Seinfeld to its audience in being about important issues that promote progressive ideology for its viewers to contemplate.
The issue also has an impact on Kramer and Poppie (Reni Santoni), who are starting a new make-it-yourself Pizza restaurant. The concept of making your own pizza is relevant to the humor of the show amid an in-restaurant argument about whether or not a pizza is or is not one before it goes into the oven. This simple analogy on pizza explores the complexity of the argument in society about the morality and legality of abortion. Seinfeld’s way of challenging the viewer to think about highly debated topics through the sitcom’s carefree humor is revealed in this sense. Seinfeld does not concern itself with whether the analogy is offensive because it is an argument over pizza on the surface. To the viewer, however, it can be read as a clear discussion about when the fetus inside a pregnant woman is considered a life. This relates to the difference between men and women on the topic and also to the stereotypical political affiliation of people from New York as a liberal city/state where they would all be expected to agree on a pro-choice stance. The complexity of characters in terms of location, origin, family background, and general ability to care about a serious subject further connects to viewers, who presumably have friends and the same sets of identity markers as the characters.
“Ya know, I don’t get it.”
As with abortion, racism is a very sensitive topic in our modern society, a subject that can result in the average person being backed into an uncomfortable, defensive position if the wrong thing is said. In “The Cigar Store Indian,” Jerry attempts to make amends with Elaine by buying her a full-sized, Native-American statue from a cigar store and is then deemed a racist for the purchase. In addition to this, Jerry is simultaneously interested in dating a Native-American woman, but because of being called a racist after his purchase, he consistently finds himself making the most politically incorrect statements on the matter.
It is in this episode that the sitcom reveals its ability to address serious and widely discussed issues during the 1990s, issues that still cause controversy in society today. Although a source of controversy, it is seen through the lack of understanding by Jerry that the sentiment many Americans hold about racism and being politically correct in regard to addressing race is personified. Al Auster addresses this in his chapter, highlighting an example from this episode about how “George is embarrassed to ask an Asian letter carrier for directions to the nearest Chinese restaurant, and Jerry scoffs that he never gets embarrassed when anyone asks him directions to Israel” (195). Auster clarifies Jerry’s lack of understanding on the topic of race and what is acceptable, as Jerry claims in the episode, “Ya know, I don’t get it.” Many Americans feel this way about the topic of racism, however, and the sitcom’s ability to present the disgruntled side, as well as the confused/defensive perspective of Jerry, connects the viewer in some way to the issue. This is where the audience can think about ways they can change their behavior in society not to be offensive or take action in helping others over what is wrong about a statement or word said. Very applicable to the time period of Seinfeld’s original broadcast, it still serves a purpose in modern society in terms of how individuals can work together to abolish racism, rather than further polarize people due to the fear of saying something wrong, as Jerry does in this episode.
Shane Gunster does not believe the series paves the way for social change, but there is some value in bringing some important topics into consideration. “The characters constantly invent new possibilities for social action, conjuring the need for decisions or analysis in situations that are conventionally viewed as unworthy of a second thought. Neither we nor they are under any illusion as to the larger significance of such praxis – it has none – but this ironic cover does not alter the feeling that actions have, nevertheless, been taken and choices have been made” (Gunster 213). Jerry has no intention of being racist when buying the Native-American statue, but there are consequences of his action nonetheless. Seinfeld creates a way for the characters to act as if the social issues present in the situations they find themselves in do not matter in the grand scheme of life, but this approach results in a deeper analysis of their actions by the audience. Although the series purports to be a show about nothing, it is the meanings behind the misfortunes of the characters that reveal the attempts to make viewers comfortable in discussing social issues in our society.
“Yada Yada Yada…”
Seinfeld is a real-life sitcom that reveals many social issues through episodes in a humorous, satirical manner, making it enjoyable rather than uncomfortable for viewers to watch. To this day, the series is still thought provoking in regard to questioning the issues pertaining to society, and it will forever be a presence in comedy, sitcom television, and life. From taking on the hard-to-discuss topics of the time period and injecting it into the daily lives of four New Yorkers in uncommon ways that would make their lives unnecessarily harder, this is why the cultural significance of the show is lasting.
Seinfeld’s significance ranges far beyond the fact that it is funny and entertaining, a contradiction of the idea that the series is about nothing. On the contrary, the specific agenda found in the multiple plots of episodes make the show the series cultural significant. It was never about nothing but about everything that made average people struggle on a daily basis, question their beliefs, and work to build real relationships. Disregarding one’s individual opinion on the sitcom itself, as Albert Auster beautifully claims, “We are all Seinfeld characters…” (196). When there are so many instances that arise in our own lives that correlate almost identically to a situation or event in Seinfeld, how could one refute this claim? If you have ever been frustrated, confused, or curious about the minutest action of another person, statement, or something you see, then you cannot. You are George if you see a guard at a clothing store and wonder why he does not have a chair, Elaine if you are infuriated by a woman not wearing a bra, or Jerry if you cannot stand running into a relative outside of a family gathering, like his Uncle Leo. with regard to Kramer, I think everyone can agree they have at least a little bit of his strangeness/wackiness in them that reveals itself every once in a while. Although all these situations result in misfortune through the characters taking action, Seinfeld connects to society in this way. Through watching episodes, viewers learn more about themselves and think critically about the ridiculous scenarios of the four best friends whose hidden progressive ideology offers valuable lessons that can be applied in the real world.
Anthony Duran is a junior at Wake Forest University from Bayonne, NJ. He is a double major in Economics and in Politics and International Affairs.
Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. SEINFELDIA: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything. SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2017. Print.
Auster, Albert. “Seinfeld: The Transcendence of the Quotidian.” The Sitcom Reader: America Re-viewed, Still Skewed. Albany: State U of New York, 2016. 189-96. Print.
Di Mattia, Joanna L. “Male Anxiety and the Buddy System on Seinfeld.” Seinfeld, Master of Its Domain: Revisiting Television’s Greatest Sitcom. By David Lavery and Sara Lewis. Dunne. New York: Continuum International Pub. Group, 2011. 91-107. Google Books. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 15 June 2010. Web. 26 June 2017.
Gunster, Shane. “All About Nothing: Difference, Affect, and Seinfeld.” Television and New Media 6.2 (2005): 200-223. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 19 June 2017.
Seinfeld. Prod. Jerry Seinfeld. Perf. Jerry Seinfeld. NBC, 1993. “The Outing” (Season 4, Episode 17, 1993)
Seinfeld. Prod. Jerry Seinfeld. Perf. Jerry Seinfeld. 1993. “The Cigar Store Indian” (Season 5, Episode 10, 1993)
Seinfeld. Prod. Jerry Seinfeld. Perf. Jerry Seinfeld. 1993. “The Couch” (Season 6, Episode 5, 1994)