Seinfeld, sitcoms and simpler times

Zach J. Hoag

Gone are the days of Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine. It's been 25 years since the debut of Seinfeld, and the sitcom landscape has significantly changed.

Recently, Robert O’Connell wrote a compelling piece for The Atlantic about his favorite childhood sitcom, a mediocre series called Just Shoot Me. The show was full of clichéd, New York City plotlines and gags from the 1990s, and it plodded along as Seinfeld waned - a late entry in a genre that had already peaked and was fading away. There have been many sitcoms since, just as there are a slew of sitcoms now. But the sitcom is dead.

Or better, the simplicity that once defined the sitcom genre is dead. Things changed when reality television displaced the sitcom at the center of scheduled evening watching, just as the Internet and DVR have begun to displace scheduled watching entirely. Indeed, the serial attraction of sitcoms in their heyday has fallen victim to convenience and speed. If reality content is situational and comedic, it is also ubiquitous and seamless, bleeding from television to YouTube clip to viral Facebook share. And it is terribly superficial.

Current sitcoms are thus grasping for comedic sophistication to stem the superficial reality TV tide in a way that wasn’t necessary when Seinfeld debuted 25 years ago. Today’s prime time serial comedies are mainly influenced by the satire and snark of Saturday Night Live. Their strength is in creating niche-based followings, TV hipsters who start Tumblrs and share memes. No sitcom is widely known. No sitcom will ever draw 76 million viewers for its finale as Seinfeld did. No sitcom will ever bring so many people together. Gone are the days of must-see TV.

I wonder if this loss of simplicity is something happening in the culture at large, including the church as it swims in the cultural stream. The apostle Paul worried that the Corinthian church was being “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ,” awash as it was in the superficiality of sexual excess and the sophistication of Gnostic philosophy. Perhaps our pathological fragmentation and disunity are part and parcel of this loss: the Internet has fostered incessant doctrinal flame wars and the academy has pushed polarizing deconstructive progressivism. We are superficial and sophisticated and we are falling apart.

We are superficial and sophisticated and we are falling apart.

Alas, Jerry Seinfeld has adapted somewhat to the ways of new media and started a Web series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” On a recent episode, he interviewed his Seinfeld co-star Michael Richards, who played the scattered and hilariously eccentric Kramer. It’s a wonderful 17 minutes of reminiscing and randomness, with Richards thanking Seinfeld for giving him the role of his lifetime, and Seinfeld praising Richards for the intelligence and skill he brought to the character.

But the interview takes an interesting turn around the 14-minute mark when Richards recounts his controversial meltdown at a Los Angeles comedy club seven years ago. He confesses that he should have been a selfless performer and accepted the heckling graciously instead of lashing out. He reveals that he hasn’t performed in a club since then, because he “busted up” after that event. He thanks Jerry for sticking by him through it all. He admits the failure still kicks him around inside.

At this point Seinfeld interrupts him and says, simply, “Well, that’s up to you. It’s up to you to say, ‘I’ve been carrying this bag around long enough. I’m gonna put it down.’”

The death of the American sitcom is a byproduct of a culture corrupted away from simplicity and driven to fragmentation. Simplicity is not stupidity or naivete, but a commitment to values that are grounding and binding. Like the faithful friendship among a motley crew of 30-something singles in ’90s New York City. Like the faithful friendship between two TV co-stars through failure, adversity and the hope of redemption. Like the moment of togetherness fostered by a weekly viewing routine, shared with family, friends and people all over the world.

Yes, gone are the days of the situation comedy, in all its simplicity. But perhaps there’s still time to put the bag down and come together again.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure