September 28, 2008

A Show About Nothing

Dear Friends,

As I mentioned a while back, I'm the "columnista internacional" for a quarterly cultural journal in Mexico. Theme of next issue is humor. Below, my contribution (English version). Enjoy!--mb

One of the most successful sitcoms in the history of American television was the show Seinfeld, which debuted in 1989 and ran continuously through 1998. The principal scriptwriters, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, originally pitched it to NBC as “a show about nothing,” because their idea was that the individual episodes would have no plot and instead focus on the trivia of everyday life. For the most part, they stuck to the plan, and the show proved to be hysterically funny. It was also, I’m proud to say, very much a case of Jewish humor, which some might argue is humor at its best. As Freud pointed out in his famous book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, a joke is never just a joke; it masks a subtext, an intention that is typically very different from what is being overtly expressed. And in the case of Jewish humor, that subtext is almost always sad, depressing, or even tragic. The function of the joke is to ease the pain.

My maternal grandfather, who virtually raised me, told lots of jokes of this sort. He even compiled a book of aphorisms, based on the east European oral tradition, ones that had this kind of twist to them. (It was published in Wilno, Poland, in Yiddish in 1930.) One of his favorite jokes–it may have even been a true story, for all I know–was about a man who went to his doctor for his annual checkup. The doctor examined him, took blood, etc., but was unable to collect a urine specimen because the man did not have the urge to go at that particular moment. “Drop it off tomorrow,” the doctor told him. The man went home, got up the next morning, peed in a jar, and then had a bright idea: the family was too poor for everyone to have a medical exam; why not have them all pee in the same jar, so that unbeknownst to the doctor, the entire family could get analyzed at the same time? So the wife and children were added to the mix, and as the man was leaving his house to go to the doctor’s he decided he might as well throw in a sample from the family horse, which was tethered to a tree in the front yard. He then brought the jar to the doctor’s office. “Come back next week,” the doctor said, “and I’ll give you the results.” The man left and returned in seven days. “Everything seems to be fine,” said the doctor; “the only thing I would recommend is that you cut down on your intake of oats.”

Funny, yes? But the humor masks a situation that was daily fare for the Jews of eastern Europe: extreme poverty. In fact, my grandfather told me that at one point the family managed to survive by eating the plaster off the door jambs of the house they were living in. Nothing funny about that.

In the case of the Seinfeld scripts, Jerry provided the upbeat, overt aspect of the show’s humor, while Larry David supplied the subtext. Larry’s vision, especially about America, was quite dark. As a result, there is an undercurrent in the episodes, one which says that the United States is a country in which friendship is pretty much a sham and community nonexistent; a society where nobody gives a damn about anybody else. This is true not only in the way that the four central characters–Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer–relate to those outside their little circle, but also in the way they relate to each other. They often talk simultaneously, “through” each other, as though the other person weren’t even present. All four of them appear to have only one motive: advancement of their own personal and immediate goals. In a word, the show is actually about the callousness, the almost autistic indifference, of daily life in America; and this is revealed in episode after episode. Just off the top of my head, the following vignettes come to mind:

-Elaine and Jerry are sitting in a coffee shop when they are approached by a man who explains that his son is a big fan of Jerry’s, and loves watching him when he appears on TV. It turns out that the boy has some rare immune-deficiency disease that requires him to live in a hermetically sealed plastic bubble. As he talks about his little “bubble boy,” the man begins to weep. Elaine, also crying, reaches for the napkin holder and hands napkins to the man and Jerry. She and the man wipe their eyes; Jerry, who is calmly munching on a sandwich, matter-of-factly wipes his mouth.

-George and his girlfriend Susan drive north from New York City for a holiday weekend at her grandfather’s cabin. George gives Susan money to pay the tolls en route. It turns out that Kramer visited the cabin a bit earlier and accidentally left a lit cigar behind–one that Susan’s father had given to George, who in turn had given to Kramer. By the time George and Susan arrive at the cabin, the place is engulfed in flames. Susan screams, “Oh my God, the cabin ” George turns to her and says, “I just remembered: I don’t think you gave me the change from the money I gave you for the tolls.”

-A scene at a funeral, being held for an acquaintance of Jerry’s and Elaine’s who was killed in an auto accident. They are sitting in church (or synagogue), waiting for the service to begin. In the background, we hear the periodic sobbing of the family members. Elaine turns to Jerry and says, “I really have to get some new clothes. I’m bored with everything I have.” Pause; more sobbing, which is now much louder. “Really,” she continues, “I have absolutely nothing to wear.”

-Another funeral, this time for one of Jerry’s relatives. Elaine is hell-bent on getting the deceased’s rent-controlled apartment. As she moves forward in the receiving line to express her condolences, she finally shakes the hand of an elderly relative of the deceased, who happens to be hard of hearing, and yells in his ear, “So what about the apartment?”

-George is attending the birthday party of his current girlfriend’s little boy. At some point, someone burns a hamburger in the kitchen, and smoke starts pouring out the kitchen door. “Fire ” yells George, “Fire ”, as he makes for the front door of the house, knocking over old women and little children in his path.

-As if to deliberately mock the notion of community (or lack thereof), there is an episode in which Kramer takes photos of everyone in the building and posts them, along with the corresponding name of each person, on the wall of the foyer, just inside the entrance. The idea is that the residents will now be able to greet each other by name. The whole thing is too phony to be believed, especially when the tenants begin kissing one another when they meet–a common practice in Mexico and other countries, but totally inappropriate in the United States. Jerry, who can’t stand the bullshit involved, opts out, refusing to kiss and hug, and thereby becomes the target of much public hostility.

All of this reaches a kind of climax in the very last episode of the show, in which the Larry David and Jerry make their opinion of the nature of American social life quite clear. In this ninety-minute finale, the Fab Four are arrested in Massachusetts for ignoring a (nonexistent, in real life) “Good Samaritan Law,” whereby one is supposedly required to come to the aid of other people in distress. They are put on trial, and practically everyone from the show’s nine years of episodes flies into this small New England town to watch the proceedings or actually take the witness stand and describe to the judge and jury how abusively they had been treated by the gang. It is at this point that the Seinfeld episodes are revealed for what they were: all of these jokes had something very ugly underneath them. Other people were merely pawns in (or obstacles to) Jerry’s, Elaine’s, George’s, or Kramer’s personal agenda. Humor aside, the scriptwriters leave no doubt that their vision of American life is quite bleak. When Jerry phones his lawyer, “Jackie Chiles” (a Johnnie Cochran look-alike), to explain that they were arrested for not coming to someone’s aid, Jackie explodes with indignation: “Why, that’s ridiculous!” he barks. “You don’t have to help anybody. That’s what this country is all about!” As the popular American expression has it, He got that one right.

The trial over, the judge sentences our heroes to a year in jail, commenting that “your callous disregard for other human beings threatens to rock the very foundations of society.” But which society? Larry and Jerry make it quite clear that in their view, callous disregard for other human beings is the foundation of society–American society, that is. And so the subtext finally breaks through in no uncertain terms: Seinfeld was A Show About Something, after all.


Blogger BG said...

I can't claim to be an avid Seinfeld watcher, but I've seen a large share of the episodes, and I see a large slice of truth here, Dr. Berman.

I honestly could never understand the popularity of Seinfeld, though I found it sometimes amusing, and perhaps these overt acts of selfishness common in the show caused me to like it less.

Far worse, in terms of exemplifying selfishness and indifference to other people's needs, were the reasonably popular series Married: With Children and Roseanne. I find them painful to watch.

5:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear MB,
Great insight on this post. I always enjoyed the show and it may have been one of the smartest shows on tv for years (I know that may not be sayin' much).

El Juero

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand you may not post this in the thread, but I do feel compelled to revisit your wonderful quote earlier in the year of Gore Vidal - "Stupidity excites me."

We have one of the most unpopular Presidents in American history appearing in harmony today with three leaders of the "opposition" party. Calls against the bailout are running roughly 100 to 1 against the bailout.

The Democrats (the people's party!) have decided that the best way to win back the White House is to ignore the 100:1 call against the bailout and side with a minority group of uber wealthy bankers. I imagine, Republicans only need sit on the side and laugh at this point.

Our government leaders insist that it's "irresponsible" to fail in bailing out a $700 billion banking ponzi scheme that emerged as an "emergency" almost overnight.

Sarah Palin "debates" Thursday night.

Does it get any more exciting than this?

El Juero

11:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your first commenter seems to have missed the point. Although sitcoms are largely forgettable, Roseanne and Married With Children were examples of what life probably should be like and for some of us, who don't live the US, for example, actually is. Intact families dealing with hardships and engaged in the community around them. Both the Conners and the Bundys interacted with their neighbours and stuck together when it really counted. And they did have real problems; low income, health issues, sub-standard public education, dreary mass culture, etc. etc.

I *got* Seinfeld right from the beginning. The discussions my friends and colleagues always had about the show was that, even though you loved watching the characters, you didn't really like them...gratifying almost that you didn't have to, in fact.

I hope the current economic orthodoxy that produced the current social conditions in the US is allowed to fail. The rest of the World along with the US, need to address the fact that this type of economy brings humanity absolutely nowhere.

11:52 PM  
Blogger BG said...

I don't believe I missed the point. Or, if I did, I still do.

One thing that's true is that our opinions of these shows differ. I agree I don't like the Seinfeld characters, but I don't love watching them, either. What these three shows have in common, no matter how many times the characters support each other "when it counts", is the rudeness and disregard the characters exhibit on a daily basis.

One could view the shows simply as entertainment, in which case I must assume the audience has an element of sadism, or, what I believe is a main point of the post, that at least Seinfeld is a commentary on these types of situations. This may put a little distance between the show's writers and the social indifference depicted, but it doesn't change the fact they they brought us years of rude people on T.V.

So, although I believe I see the point that Seinfeld is "funny" because the subliminal punchline to every joke is "this sort of thing actually happens in our society" (of course a theme of Dark Ages America), I don't find it funny (most of the time) for precisely the same reason.

And as for the other two series: I have no pity for people with "real" problems when they are so willingly dysfunctional at home with their family and friends, aand in a lot of ways contribute to a socially-inept society at large. And I don't want to watch a TV show about it.

As for the economy, what surprises me is that Warren Buffet is on board with the bailout. He's traditionally a very long-term guy, and the best in the business. He says something needs to be done, which makes me think twice about whether the U.S. can "walk it off", or if it needs a big Band-aid. It's extremely difficult to predict.

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Berman, again you open our eyes (collectively) to the nuances of American life. Just like Archie Bunker before, Jerry and his buddies showed us what we didn't like about ourselves.

Unfortunately, the morals are rarely taken to heart by the viewing public.

As for the comments here, I should like to point out fbg's stance....he has no pity for families with 'real' problems etc. etc. And if you can find me a family that is 'willingly' dysfunctional (as if it is a product you can choose off the shelf), then my dear young man, you will won a disciple and I will praise your name above all other prophets and tyrants etc. etc.

Are you aware fbg, that your position is parallel to that of those rich bums that we are bailing out? Are you further aware of what brought us to this point? A collective dysphoria brought on by none other than evolution.

First, there was the agrarian societies that searched for a better way to grow foods.

Then, there were the industrialists who searched for a better way to build things.

Now, there are people trying to figure out a better way to unify all humanity with a common knowledge.

All these episodes of evolution require(d) a complex interaction amongst world leaders, world economies, and, world cultures.

The abuse has always been there. And, most recently, we have had a concentration of a few families shaping global economy: for their benefit first. And then ours.

This economic debacle is not some 'accident' - it is a carefully orchestrated dance.

Now for your lack of pity towards families that suffer from the chaff that is swept away by these financial geniuses - you are shortchanging yourself. Learn first to pity the fools. Then look in the mirror and see if a fool is staring back at you.

Why would you not feel pity for those who do not have the mental acumen that you enjoy? They certainly did not willingly join the ranks of the 'dysfunctional' family tree. It just happened through a variety of circumstances and a myriad of decisions.

Look again at the mirror and find the humility within your self. Then go out and see if you can encourage some of those less fortunate ones.


5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Berman I was just wondering will you be voting this election this election and if so whom will you be voting for? I am a African American man who will not be voting for Barack Obama but for John McCain. I figure like this, this country never did a damn thing for me nor people like me and could care less about me and I owe it nothing so let it fall. I know Obama is a black man but he is only an elitest who wants to sit in the big chair and keep massa happy while he sleep and dine in the big house and could care less about me or the average ordinary black man on the street out here everyday getting his but kicked. He had the nerve to say that we should just accept the racist jury decision in the Sean Bell trial and has not said anything nor spotlighted the poor people in New Orlean who are suffering horrendously but he found time to go to Iowa when they had the floods up there although that was a public affairs move and he cares nothing about the averavge white man either and middle and poor class whites who think that Obama are going to take them to the promise land are in for a big surprise. Personnaly I do not think that Obama stands a chance. Do not believe the so called polls because on Nov 4th the Bradley effect will come full force. When white people go into the voting booth and close those curtains they will be chosing between a white man and a n _ _ _ _ in their minds and they will opt for the white man and cut their own throats as they just love doing. If they do not listen to a man like Dr. King who had the hand of God upon him then they sure aint going to let Obama go and change things around. A democratic victory would only prolong the inevitable and with a republican victory it will be full speed ahead to a total collapse and I choose the latter which would be better for the world.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

At the risk of sounding naive, I have a feeling Obama is going to pull it off. And I think you are right, that this will just prolong the agony. My favorite scenario is one in which McCain wins and then croaks on Jan. 21, leaving Sarah at the helm. She'll talk all folksy, while driving the ship of state onto the nearest reef. We're getting perilously near to that movie, "Idiocracy"; might as well go whole hog, as you say, and be done with it.

As an ex-pat, I believe I can vote in the place of my last residence, ie Washington DC. Hence, no pt, because it's hardly a swing state, being 85% black. But in any case, I'd need a real candidate to vote for, such as Dennis Kucinich, and I don't think that's going to happen in my lifetime.

Thanks for writing. You wouldn't be Harry Belafonte, by any chance, would you?


2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Kramer is the most interesting character to analyze - he is of course the least conventional of the four main characters and is hardly indifferent to others (wanting to save the pigman, avoid distracting Latvian orthodox sisters etc etc). But he certainly has plenty of ego-drive in him, in fact he is a pure example of someone who shows compassion for others because it fulfils some strong impulsive desire in himself.

What I find refreshing about the other characters is their honesty concerning their selfish desires and thoughts. I reckon there are plenty of people who would love to hang out in a group with that sort of dynamic, because in the end I think they are pretty genuinely supportive friends.

Maybe the little dispute a few years ago about future royalties between the billionaire real-life Jerry and the three co-stars says even more about cultural distortions than the show itself!

I really enjoyed Reenchantment and Coming to our Senses years ago. Haven't read your more recent works. I think my views probably only intersect with yours a certain amount but it's great to have people like you to really pull people intellectually in certain directions!

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I watch Sarah Palin I have to think she is the living, breathing, walking and (unfortunately)talking embodiment of everything that's gone wrong with America in the last 40 years. Vulgar, self-promoting, arrogant, poorly educated, contrived and smug in her absolute, rock bottom belief that God agrees with every word she says. I would guess comedians are stunned by their good fortune having someone this ridiculous dropped in their laps.

I liked your post on humor and, in particular, Jewish humor. Woody Allen's early movies have always been some of my favorites and, I think, are just as good as the Seinfeld series.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Yeah, Sarah's a bad joke, but millions are taken in by that folksy style--as if 8 years of it prevented the man in office from sadism, genocide, and making the rich richer and poor poorer. I doubt she'll be the VP on Jan. 20, but given the huge # of patsies in the US, with religious delusions and deep anti-intellectual biases, I suspect she's going to become a force in GOP politics for years to come. It's amazing to me that while millions look at her and see a warm, courageous soccer mom, you and I see a horror show. Be assured, there are many more of them than there are of us.


4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris,

It is kind of amazing that someone as intelligent as Obama has even gotten as far as he has. Palin exemplifies who Americans really are, no matter how much it disgusts us. I even hear Obama trying to slow himself down like Gore did to get his message across. I am finding myself becoming much more of an elitist. I even agree with my mother's family now, which I didn't used to. They only send their kids to the elite boarding schools out East, and look down on public schooling as something for the filthy masses (not those exact words). Maybe they were right...I used to argue for the masses, but now I just don't want to be around them. I don't want to be around loud, ignorant people anymore. If I could I would move to a more civilized country, but even there it is about class isn't it? It is better to be wealthy here than drive a taxi in Germany. I think what we are talking about is the collapse of the middle class, which is shocking, but not too unusual from a historical perspective. There has always been the rich and poor, the uneducated and the educated. So the middle class drops into the poor category. I envision a 5-10% ruling, educated, elite and a 90% masses. This can still be maintained, can't it? This is working in Brazil, right? It may not be paradise, but...I don't see any other possibility in our globalized world. The very wealthy elite are still doing fine, believe me. America will continue to chug along, even if the majority of people are misreable, won't it? It happens all over the globe.

10:26 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

Well, Brazil isn't the model for me, really. You've got a tiny, rich class living in gated communities and getting around in helicopters, with the rest of the population struggling to survive. I mean, I remain an elitist in terms of quality--education, for example, is not a matter of democracy or majority vote--but economic systems that crush 90% of the population into the ground are not ones I can admire. Besides, there are probably some very bright and decent people out there in those masses, if only they could get a break.

Also, I do think the country where one lives matters. In England, ride the tube and you'll hear businessmen discussing the nominees for the Man Booker Prize, in detail (i.e., they've read them!). The same could never happen in the US; the economic elite is, for the most part, preoccupied with money, not literature. Or talk to taxi drivers in the US as compared to Mexico: I've had this happen on a number of occasions. US taxi drivers can't tell you what half-century the Civil War occurred in. In Mexico, they give you a rundown of the basic outlines of Mexican history; or their views on the Middle East; or on black holes (not kidding); etc. One driver in Mexico City, hearing where I was from in Mexico, began reciting, by heart, the poetry of my town's most famous poet. That'll happen in Chicago when hell freezes over.

In short, you may need to broaden your outlook a bit. Wealth does not necessarily equate to intelligence, quality, or decency. And the larger culture in which one is immersed can make a big difference. Even poor Mexicans know who Octavio Paz is, for example. How many rich Americans have so much as heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald, do you think?

Thanks for writing-

11:06 PM  
Blogger Phil Blank said...

I don't think this callousness is the result of simple mean spiritedness- I'm wondering if its a specific reaction to our experience of ethnicity in a mass democracy. To manage the public sphere, we "became white" and threw out all the ethnic codes of behavioir and instituted a mass norm of behavior which borrows heavily from our ideas of "liberty."
Ironically, this puts ethnicity and traditional life, often regressive, against modernity. And so in this culture we have very mixed feelings about tradition, which often get resolved with overly firm fundamentalisms or clannishness.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My favorite scenario is one in which McCain wins and then croaks on Jan. 21, leaving Sarah at the helm."

I, for one, am planning on getting the hell out of Dodge regardless of the winner, but an Obama win would give me more time to defect. I hope I have enough time before the U.S. completely melts down.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

There will come a time, not too far off, when a $700B bailout will be regarded as loose change. "Doggone it!", Pres. Palin will say.

Time to split, amigo-


6:13 PM  
Blogger BG said...

Even though it looks like many of you have moved on to a slightly different topic, I would like to briefly defend my positon. Mainly addressing Eric G. Hoff's post:

I believe I was misunderstood. Perhaps I shouldn't have written that I "have no pity" and used the word "dysfunctional" because they are such sensitive phrases. What I should have said instead of "dysfunctional" is "selfish and mean to each other", but the "have no pity" part is more difficult to explain.

First of all, pity is not necessarily a good thing, even towards a disadvantaged person. I never want to be pitied. Helped, yes, but pitied, no. Pity is one of the worst insults one can receive.

Of course I want to help people with "real" problems, and I sympathize with them. But on one hand we talk about the bad, selfish people with all the money and the good, poor citizens of the U.S., like there can't be some good people on top and bad people at the bottom. I judge good and bad by the character of a person, and not positively or negatively by the money in their pocket.

Back to the original topic: when I watch any of these three shows, I see people who, no matter how many problems they have, continue to treat one another badly. This is a sign to me that, if the tables were turned, and they were running the country, they would continue the berry-gathering tradition of "one for the basket, two for the belly," of which the U.S. is proud. Give me someone with a little honest compassion, please.

Thus, all in all, I don't think our opinions don't really differ too much, except maybe I'm a little more wary of the existence of some selfish disadvantaged people (if I may be permitted to summarize them in such a manner). With that in mind, let's do everything we can to help those in need.

On a more recent topic in these comments: do any of you honestly want to see the U.S. "fall" as a country? It's hard to imagine that the fall will be easier for the poor than for the rich.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


“On a more recent topic in these comments: do any of you honestly want to see the U.S. ‘fall’ as a country? It's hard to imagine that the fall will be easier for the poor than for the rich.”

It’s an interesting question and one I’ve gone over in my head on more than a few occasions. I think you’re correct on one level, that this will only make it worse on those on the bottom. I’ve got friends and family who are probably going to suffer on some level due to the course of the country. As a working person of very modest means, I’m likely to take my shots in the coming years as well.

In some other way, however, I know I can’t simply wish away the results that may carry within them a saner direction. In the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time in or visit Haiti, Dominican Republic, Northern Mexico border areas, Nicaragua, Costa Rica (more issues there than is reported) and my favorite third world city Baltimore. People are eating dirt sandwiches in Haiti and children shoot each other for meaningless “turf” in Baltimore. It’s at the bottom already with no sign of any possible “trickle down” effect from capitalism.

Why not at least dispense with the rues that the US system is the answer for people (other than CEO’s which the US citizenry just got signed up to bail out)? If it takes a free-falling US to free up other more humane possibilities, to re-write the narrative, then let the falling begin.

It’s more and more difficult to see how the current political theatre in the US is going to alter much of anything at this point. As of this evening, we are pumping historic levels of “money” into a failing economic system. It looks like it’s not putting a dent in the problem.

I’m more excited about efforts at abandoning the country or at the very least the narrative of America. As an ex-pat, to the degree I can pull it off, I’m seeing that other people live more vibrantly and generously with a tenth of our possessions. I’m excited to listen to those friends in Latin America who, despite working long and difficult hours on farms, see the inequity of the economic system. I’m excited to see the turn to the left of more and more Latin American countries as they are freer to make decisions that benefit their people while we are increasingly bound by our mistakes abroad and at home.

As Dr. Berman says, learn another language, explore another culture. Follow something interesting outside of the American circus.

El Juero

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a more recent topic in these comments: do any of you honestly want to see the U.S. "fall" as a country? It's hard to imagine that the fall will be easier for the poor than for the rich.

I'm convinced people the World over are going to end up paying for the unjustified opulence the Americans have enjoyed over the last 30 years.

So, do I want the US to fall? You bet. The rest of us simply can't you afford you anymore.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seinfeld was never a show about nothing and Seinfeld has said as much in interviews.

The original premise of the show was to showcase everyday life from which Jerry and Larry (who was rewritten as George) drew their respective observational humor (they decided to give George/Larry another line of work because they felt the audience would want to see George's routines and that would take up too much additional show time). As such it wouldn't serve the original premise to have the typical "hilarity ensued" over-the-top plots of typical sitcoms.

The shows were not plotless; they just had mundane plots initially (like waiting for a table in a restaurant) which facilitated the premise of showing how Jerry got and synthesized his material. The show interspersed showing him performing observational comedy with showing the mundane events that inspired them.

The show early on also had a lot of warmth and caring displayed. The characters did activities together; they helped each other; they tried to sort out life together - they were friends and fairly normal. (Jerry and Elaine even ended one season reunited as a couple.)

However, Jerry and Larry very much wanted, as they said, a show with "no hugs, no learning." That is, they wanted to focus on pure comedy instead of introducing contrived resolutions to neatly wrap up each episode or to turn them into morality plays. They also stumbled upon the "absurd ending," which put an exclamation point at the end of the episode. There is an episode in which they spend the whole time looking for their car in a parking garage. At the end of the episode they find it, get into it, and, as written in the script, drive off. However, when shooting the scene, when Michael Richards goes to turn the ignition, the car doesn't start. The actors can be seen suppressing laughter inside the car because this wasn't scripted but, they instinctively realized, was the perfect absurd ending. From then on, they often looked for ways to have this kind of ending.

(According to Seinfeld, another important episode -- George passing himself off as a marine biologist and Kramer in another storyline practicing golf on the beach -- the ball ends in the blowhole of a whale he's peer-pressured into saving -- started the trend of crazily tying the separate story lines together at the end.)

The trouble with "no hugs, no learning" is that it introduced meaninglessness into their sitcom world - pure absurdity, because there was no resolution -- Camus probably would have loved it. Soon you have absurdity for absurdity sake, which is the direction the show morphed into. (The absurdity is also what fleshed out the narcissism.)

The problem is that most satisfying comedies dip into absurdity but they don't stay there; they resolve. In fact there is a phrase that I vaguely remember that, with a quick Internet check, shows the following attribution:

All tragedies are finished by a death,
All comedies are ended by a marriage.
George Noël Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan , III, 1821

That's why most people felt the finale episode to be totally unsatisfying. It was a decent script but it left them in perpetual absurdity thereby retrospectively making the trajectory of every episode that led up to it equally meaningless. Larry David arrogantly thought he could break a rule as old as the form of the comedy itself -- in the end, Elaine and Jerry should have married. Absurdity with resolution is comedy; absurdity without it is tragedy. The final episode thereby turned the entire series into a tragedy. (And if you're familiar with the final episode of Cheers -- Dianne and Sam break up for good and Sam is left literally alone in the final scene with "his one true love," the bar -- I would argue the same thing for that series.)

Seinfeld became No Exit (I almost expected him to end up saying in the last scene in jail, "Well, let's get on with it ...") but this trajectory was mostly born out of the conventions they adopted over time ("no hugs, no learning") to distill the art form into what they thought was a purer form, not because they were channeling the Zeitgeist. Heck, The Importance of Being Earnest is about people adopting false selves to escape social obligations -- its use in Seinfeld is merely an exaggerated comic trope, not a comment particular to the times.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The final episode thereby turned the entire series into a tragedy. (And if you're familiar with the final episode of Cheers -- Dianne and Sam break up for good and Sam is left literally alone in the final scene with "his one true love," the bar -- I would argue the same thing for that series.)"

I believe that was one of the least discussed yet darkest moments in tv endings. Sam, alone, walking toward an unknown knock on the door in the darkened bar.

El Juero

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In answer to fbg (if he's reading this blog periodically)no, I don't want to see America fall as it would be even harder on those already poor and many teetering in the middle class would soon join them. Not everyone is an amoral investment banker or aspires to be one; however, we as a nation, rich and poor, have brought this on ourselves. We have resolutely ignored the numbers-----we're 5% of the world's population but consume 25% of the resources with all the attendant waste that goes with consumption. If everyone consumed as much as you and I do, as US citizens, the earth would have to support the equivalent of 20 billion people (according the an article by Jared Diamond). So, like it or not, here we are and I have no idea what will happen next. Maybe something good will come of our soon-to-be-reality bankrupcy and it will bring out the best in all of us. But I don't honestly have a tremendous amount of faith in that---adversity can bring out the worst, too, and Americans could have a lot of trouble recognizing we're just one nation among many and no longer a superpower. Feelings of powerlessness, or even a reduction in power, tend to fuel rage rather than acceptance and cooperation.

8:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

I don't think education or the lack of it has much to do with the financial success or failure of America. Many successful people I know don't know the capitals of European countries, etc. I was asked the capital of Delaware the other day, and I didn't know it. It is just a random fact that I learned in the second grade. Our graduate schools are full of hard working "foreign" students who use our excellent facilities to hone their craft while the native born students spend them time throwing up after partying four days a week. There are actually few native born Americans in top level engineering/science graduate programs. This has been going on since Einstein, and Wernherr von Braun with NASA. As long as we pay the money, our corporations will continue to get the best brains while our students work in sales/advertising or other b.s. areas of the corporate world. In other words, we don't need to grow our own intellectuals, we just have to be able to buy them. Ironically, the low level education that most Americans have lead them to work more hours, take less vacation (low interest in the outside world), than their counterparts in Europe who are much more educated. A good education would lead many Americans to question their jobs, lives, etc. No one in power wants these kinds of complications, believe me. I know this sounds counter intuitive, but I believe it to be true. If an American wants to be in sales or human resources he doesn't need to be an intellectual, he just needs people skills. I am starting to see true educaton as a fancy extra, mostly for the elite to understand the big picture. You only need a few Einsteins or Mozarts to keep society moving along and inspired. Also, surrounded by so many dumb people, the intellectual would probably feel isolated and lonely, certainly not able to relate to the masses to whom he or she would be trying to sell. This goes for presidents as well. Americans have consistently voted against the intellectual type of candidate. It is all about whom you know and not what you know. I know that you don't believe in any kind of fix for America. Haven't most Americans always been pretty dumb? They might have read the bible by candlelight, or even learned some Greek, but the majority weren't intellectuals at any time, or by any stretch of the imagination? or were they? One man I met in Indiana told me that it was educated Europeans working mundane jobs that made America great. These intellectual Europeans forced to work menial jobs thought up more efficient ways to improve their jobs, etc.

John in Chicagoland

10:24 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear John,

I don't have many of the references at hand, but intellectually speaking, this was a very different country prewar as opposed to postwar. De Tocqueville (ca. 1840) talks about discovering that farmers in the Midwest typically had literature on their bookshelves; Neil Gabler, in one of his books, documents a town in Mississippi in 1816 that produced something like 20 Shakespeare plays in that one year. This is material I researched when I was doing the Twilight book, but I don't have all that data at hand anymore. But there was lots of it: a large fraction of the population was smart, educated or self-educated, and curious about the world at large. Even studies of best-seller lists, comparing 1965 to 2000 (as done by Todd Gitlin, e.g.), show that readers just 40 years ago were not drowning in Harry Potter and mindless management books.


1:23 AM  
Blogger Ruslan said...

I know I might take a lot of flak for this, but I have read Dark Ages America and after reading this I have noticed a pattern of attacking America for behaviors that are common nearly everywhere these days.

In this article, Berman points out how kissing people when greeting them is common in Mexico, but totally inappropriate in America. Well that is true, but then again, shaking hands is inappropriate in Japan. In South and East Asia, it is more appropriate to bow, in different manners depending on the country or region.

Oh and what's this about everybody being only out for their self-interest? It's called capitalism, Marx identified that in 1848. If you think it is unique to America or that it is something new, I suggest you compare the America of the 1930s to America today.

Or better yet; I live in Russia, and I can tell you that Russian social standards are so low, you would think modern America is some kind of socialist paradise. Russians walk by passed-out bodies on the street(sometimes dead, yes that's right, DEAD) without a glance. Women see marriage as a means to an economic men, and men see women as a product for either entertainment or domestic servitude.

What I noticed about Dark Ages America is that America is often criticized in comparison with Western Europe. Well of course Western Europe beats the US hands down in terms of workers' rights and social benefits, but Europe culturally has many of the same problems, if not more in some cases. Sex slavery is rampant in Western Europe, and it is perfectly normal for guys to visit the brothel, sometimes legally, never considering that the girl they pay for may have been kidnapped in Moldovia or somewhere else in Eastern Europe.

Europe also has an ongoing tradition of fanatical violence in the name of teams of guys who kick a ball around a field. Sure, since the 90s there has been a rash of riots following certain championships in the US. But why do these things shock us? Because they are rare for us, even when they seem to happen consecutively. Yet in Europe, it is not out of the ordinary for someone to have their head smashed in because they wore the wrong colors or scarf. You think this is a joke? Look up the meaning of the term "Glasgow smile", or find out what it means to "stripe" someone.

I have to say that to me, many of Berman's criticisms seem like personal dislike of certain aspects of American culture, rather than a true materialist analysis of the problems of modern capitalism. If it were the latter, we would expect to see more accurate comparisons that wouldn't miss many of capitalism's stains in other parts of the world, Europe in particular.

It is not particularly alarming that Mr. Berman would personally reject many aspects of American culture; truly I did to some extent which is why I chose to live abroad. However, I would not venture as to posit my dislikes about American culture as being proofs of some uniquely American problem. That is, the problems with America are not simply what I don't like about it, and moreover many of the things that are objectively problems are not uniquely American but rather products of the system of capitalism.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Ruslan said...

I would like to also respond to an anonymous comment, or rather pontification, on the question of are Americans in general, "dumb".

I was always the intellectual type, so naturally I felt this way growing up. Yet after almost three years of living in Europe, I am convinced that Europeans are not noticably smarter. Sure, their academic standards might be higher, but in terms of practical knowledge, they can be just as ignorant. It is often the stereotype that the average American male is concerned only with getting laid and football. Well the average European man is the same- only the type of football changes.

As a teacher, I have met many "successful" middle-aged students who are economists, accountants, and office managers. I am often shocked to find they can't identify the flag of Spain, France, Poland, or China.

5:30 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Ruslan,

Thank you for writing.

With regard to habits of greeting: yes, they certainly differ from place to place, but the real issue is the nature of the society. That American life is cold and distant, as the Seinfeld series kept telling us, is just the reality of the situation, although it is hardly unique. (Chilean society, which was largely destroyed by Pinochet and the neoliberalism of Milton Friedman, behaves the same way, for example.)

2nd, I never suggested that America was any different in 1930 or whatever than it is today. In fact, if you read DAA, I have a whole section (following historian Joyce Appleby) of how the definition of 'virtue' changed during the 1790s, so that by the election of Jefferson, a full-blown competitive society had become the American Way. Other capitalist societies behave out of self-interest as well, of course, but the US is the purest form of this behavior; there are many nations that are not so one-dimensional in this regard.

What you say about Russia may be true, but I suspect only in the wake of the cowboy capitalism that took over in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. A vacuum was created that turned the place into a dog-eat-dog society (as many have noted; cf. Naomi Klein, "The Shock Doctrine"). Not that I ever regarded the Soviet Union as some type of socialist paradise, or a place where I would have wanted to live.

Violence in Europe: true, but the stats still show the US leading in homicide rates, capital punishment, and attitudes that violence is all right in the pursuit of your goals--and I'm not talking about football goals.

If you read DAA carefully, you'll see that my discussion of American problems is finally not personal or anecdotal (though these play a role). The book is rich in statistical evidence--these are not things I simply made up, or that emerged from personal attitudes. Again, if capitalism has certain characteristics, it is also the case that there are various types of capitalism: the developmental capitalism of the 'Southern Cone' in South America prior to US intervention; the consensus model of Asian capitalism; the mixed capitalist-socialist model of Scandanavia; the fundamentalist capitalism of the US; the cowboy capitalism of Russia--etc. Your own analysis fails to make these distinctions; it is a blanket analysis, and ignores the fact that these various societies are quite different in many respects.

Finally, regarding the intellectual level of Americans: yes, again, there are studies showing that lots of German students think Hitler lived in the Middle Ages--that type of thing. But the overall stats of level of education and understanding show a degree of ignorance of basic facts among the American population that beggar the imagination, and a fundamental inability to reason, to think logically. This level has dropped precipitously in the last 40 years, as numerous studies have shown. Again, this is not anecdotal evidence, and European scholastic levels are far above those of American ones. Some years ago, Motorola needed semi-skilled workers for certain jobs, ones which required decent reading and math (elementary algebra) abiities. In order to hire 150 workers, they wound up having to interview 57,000 people! This type of thing should give us moment to pause, eh?


11:09 AM  
Blogger Ruslan said...

Again, I would point out that if an observer to look at American culture vs. Japanese culture for example, the latter would probably be seen as cold and distant. There are many places throughout Eastern Europe where it is common to shake someone's hand more frequently(like for example, any time you meet them even after the first meeting), but other than that nobody kisses or embraces.

Moreover, it is true that Russia's far more radical lack of social values is due to what you called "cowboy capitalism", but that just goes to prove my point that the problem in America has more to do with capitalism rather than anything specifically American. The more the private sector is held in check in favor of social welfare, the better sense of community there is.

I am quite certain that as the EU continues to push neo-liberal policies, we will see the same supposedly "American" values manifest more and more in the EU.

Now again, you may cite statistics on violence in the US which I would not dispute; but the point I was making is that Europe has its own violence culture that is often worse in nature- either based on age-old ethnic rivalries or something as frivolous as football rivalry. You see, my whole beef with DAA was not so much that it criticized American society, but that it criticized it in such a way that it made Europe seem so much better in comparison. The fact is that it does not deserve such credit.

Lastly, on the subject of schools, I might point out that sometime around the late 90s, Russian schools were rated as tied amongst some of the best in the world(with Germany and Slovenia I believe. Now there have been a number of negative educational reforms, but the fact is that Russian schoolchildren can still do a number of mathematical operations that I could not even begin to tackle. The problem is, however, that they don't have any critical thinking skills. We see the same problem in Europe as well; the schools may be good, but they don't teach critical thinking, and thus the end product isn't really that much different from the American graduates.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


The problem I have with all your communications is that you use personal observations to argue against a book that is filled with large amounts of data. While I use anecdotal evidence as well, it is not all I use.

The Japanese case, for example: How they greet each other is not as crucial as how they actually regard and treat each other. This is a culture in which family networks play a major role--something that is no longer true in the US (again, this has a large statistical base behind it). The Japanese ideology is not that other people are there to exploit; it is rather one of society being a harmonious whole (which brings its own problems with it, but that is another discussion). For the data base on lack of trust, lack of interest in others etc., see Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," which I cite in DAA.

As for America and capitalism: I am not arguing with you! As Walter McDougall shows in "Freedom Right Around the Corner," the hustler mentality (his words) was present on the American continent as early as the late 16C, when traders were present. And as I wrote before, it got enshrined by the time of the election of Jefferson, and the basic character of a bourgeois, competitive society never really changed. You seem to be agreeing with me, in short.

As for the EU, I suspect you are right. Under pressure of the Milton Friedman world view coming from the US, they are being forced to give up many features of the welfare state. One can only hope that this will be reversed, esp. in the wake of the crash of last October and the discrediting of the laissez-faire market economy.

Europe *is* much better in terms of violence vis-a-vis the US. You can cite football games all you want, but the stats of attitudes and daily behavior, of homicide and capital punishment, refute your position. (Furthermore, like the Brits, I don't regard the UK as part of Europe, but that is perhaps a different argument.)
The same is true with comparative educational stats.

You have accused me of personal bias in my analysis, but I'm getting the impression that this is a charge better laid at your door. Your anecdotal evidence is interesting, to be sure--but it can hardly substitute for real research.


12:12 PM  
Blogger charles hayes said...

Dear Morris Berman: 1st,
let me say: your book
(Reenchantment) had me
tossing and turning
and sleepless...when I first read it, while working for Cornell! I
was a writer (for them),
quit to go and find and interview old Indians on the topic of "visions." Came back to Itahca, worked
as a museum guard - to have
more time to write -- and
sneak pages of your book,
when no one was looking!

Anyway, your book (and Thoreau) put me into a line
of thinking that came up
with a "formula" that seems to explain alot of what is happening to us
(socially, psychologically,
even politically, by implication). The conjecture was published by a small Irish quarterly
six years ago. I came to it
while writng a book, a novel, about a woman who arrives from outer space in 2060 (she has a Ph.D. in "human studies,"by the way!) and finds more
or less what you and, say,
Bill McCibben, foresee (hell via a technologized
mind-set). The formula I'd
like your feedback on, is
what I call the "Time-Technology-Money" worldview. It was highly
influenced by Reenchantment by the Thoreau (as when he looks
at the people waiting for the trains and notices nerouvs behavior, not seen
when they waited for the
stage coaches).
"T-T-M" simply states this: that
as we make money with the
existing ("fast") technology, we reinvest
money into the technology
to produce a faster technology, which reduces the time needed to...produce
more money by way of producing more products
per time-unit (hour, minute, second). Within this process lies the "time
savings" that is also
a "money savings" (in general). This point is so well argued in your 1981 book, Time = Money. And, as
we "save time," such
"saved time" is almost
alaways never "used" to go
home and feed the ducks with our children. But,
rather, it is "invested"
in more technology that
saves us even "more time." This becomes a rather absurd --and sorry-- state of affairs. It has led, I believe, to the inevitable: "multi-tasking skiils a must" (as
seen in many job descriptions, more than

Also, re: humor, when I read your comments re:
Jewish humor, I also wondered if much the same
cannot be said for Irish
humor, though they are
two different forms. Am very interested
in your reply... And hope
life is well (as can be).
C Hayes (NY)

6:45 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Charles,

Thank you for writing. I was an undergraduate at Cornell, and my mind often wanders back to Collegetown and the Arts Quad...

On the TTM idea, suggest you check out 1st 2 chs. of 'Dark Ages America,' which (I believe) cover this topic in detail. Discussion of the work of Bauman and Borgmann would be particularly relevant for your thesis.

As for Irish humor: yes, I agree.

With kind regards,

11:50 AM  

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