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Morality, or Lack Thereof, in “Seinfeld”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the final episode of Seinfeld, about how the whole gang gets imprisoned for watching Jon Pinette get his ass kicked, and despite the fact that I have grown to know and love these  characters as family, I’ve concluded that this dénouement in fact constitutes their proverbial Just Desserts; there was really no other alternative ending, karmically speaking.

(In this piece I shall refer to Seinfeld in the present tense, for although no new episodes are being produced, it continues to air multiple times a night all over the country.  So I very much consider it an artifact of continued relevance in our culture.)

Seinfeld parades and implicitly promotes a kind of idealized 90s cynical nihilism.  I don’t know about you, but their modes of thought, conversation, and work ethic I find to be HIGHLY attractive, despite the fact that most of the characters are suffering in some way most of the time.

George is the most obvious sufferer, bearing the weight of social awkwardness, physical disfigurement, familial psychosis, and professional swampism.  Elaine suffers similarly in her career (at times), but her character tends to bring romantic conflict to the table; in this she shares duty with Jerry. 

Now, Jerry could be argued to be the stable foci of these whirling conflicts, not suffering at all, just reacting humorously, but it would be a mistake to discount how his suffers because of his social circle, a deeper hurt because he must blame himself; we all choose our friends. 

The category of “social suffering” is shared with Kramer, who is an interesting case because left to his own devices and his own bizarre social circle outside of the Four,  I believe he would be almost perfectly happy.  Of all the characters, he seems to smile and laugh the most, and he seems to extract the most zest from life.  However, the result of his energies mixing with those of the Three result in harsh comparisons being drawn, and his status as an outsider is boldly underlined.  This is best captured in Jerry’s speech to him in “The Apartment”:

“Let me explain something to you. You see, you're not normal. You're a great guy, I love you, but you're a pod. I, on the other hand, am a human being. I sometimes feel awkward, uncomfortable, even inhibited in certain situations with the other human beings. You wouldn't understand.”

  I’m quite sure these kind of confrontations, which are not infrequent in the course of the series, disrupt the positive flow of his energy, granting him his unusual brand of suffering.

The reason that these characters come across as so emulatable despite their obvious flaws is that their lives are (for the most part) rich with color and action and human relationships.  They have large and relatively lush social circles, they usually have plans on any given night, and they are employed and very well-payed for the majority of the series, which implies a certain license given by society for their attitude and ethic.

Now, obviously all of these things could be said about almost any sitcom, or maybe any TV show at all, but the distinguishing mark of Seinfeld is that its creators put special effort into obscuring all obvious traces of story line and character arc that the audience expects from its experience with television, and rather made the events and relationships unfold “observationally”, that is, as the audience would expect from its experience with real life.

This encourages the audience to see these characters as “less fictional”, in the sense that their funniness is drawn less from how well their character design supports comedic language and context, and more from how well their character design would fit in with the real world.

Now, the problem with having created such a painfully realistic comedy show, and having woven into the fabric of that show some painfully immoral choices by the protagonists (three off the top of my head: marble rye, George’s attempts to get fired from the Yankees, viewing the hospital operation), the creators must make a moral choice of their own: do we give the audience an ending in keeping with the moral tone set so far, or do we make the point that if these characters in fact existed in our reality, they would eventually need to experience the consequences of their moral lifestyle.

The second choice, the one chosen, is the braver yet more cosmologically sound choice, since it establishes a moral balance to a show that proudly, stridently had none (the famous mantra by the show’s producers was “No hugging, no learning”). 

More typical sitcoms like Frasier, Friends, and 3rd Rock from the Sun accomplish this balance within each episode (to varying degrees), and the success (meaning “funniness”) of these other shows is completely determined by how they can make the audience not mind these moments, being by default a LOT less fun than the funny parts.

Seinfeld chose to accumulate nine years worth of immorality, nihilism, sloth, and rage, then expunge it all in one hour of justice and comeuppance.  If you’d have described it to me, I’d’ve said “No way, won’t be funny.”  But it was.

Coming up in a future post, I’ll explain my system for determining why something is funny, without stripping it dry with explanation.

Character (a poem)

The Bagpipes