Seinfeld, sitcoms and simpler times

Zach J. Hoag

Zach J. Hoag
August 6, 2014

25 years after the debut of Seinfeld, sitcoms have traded simplicity for snarky sophistication. What have we lost in the process?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
August 6, 2014

Hi Zach,

I wonder if this is primarily a content issue or a content delivery issue for you. It seems to me that those who grew up on, say, The Brady Bunch might have accused Seinfeld of being at once superficial and sophisticated. And that those who grew up on Leave it to Beaver may have said the same thing of The Brady Bunch when it arrived. Content-wise, sitcoms of the current era are always going to be jarring to those who grew up with the sitcoms of the previous one.

Where things really have changed, I think, is in the delivery and consumption of sitcoms - as you note - and I also think that's where the parallel to the church becomes interesting. Entertainment consumption is becoming increasingly solitary - I frequently hear about people watching something on their phone in bed next to their sleeping spouse. As such, it's even further from the sort of relational community to which Christians are called. Might that be an opportunity for the church, which still offers a shared, communal experience at least once each week?

August 6, 2014

"We are superficial and sophisticated and we are falling apart."

I dunno. This reminds of my thoughts on social media. It allows to get involved without being invested. Like whatever popular cause or movement that is happening we feel if we acknowledge it or like or tweet about it or comment about it on social media like twitter or facebook we're somehow invested in it. And the scary thing is, is that social has so much power. That seems to me, at least, to be a large reason why we're falling apart. Few people truly invest or get involved with things anymore. Sorry if that completely misses the mark of your article here. It's what it made me think of. I'm a sitcom kid of the 70's and 80's by the way. Seinfeld and others are long after my time of regular tv watching.

Zach Hoag
August 6, 2014

Oh man, I'm such a fuddy-duddy! I think my reaction is less "offense" to the content (I laugh hard at The Mindy Project & love SNL), in a generational sense, and more an observation about how the trend away from simplicity in the culture affects this genre in both form and content. And yes, totally agree about the individualism/solitary aspect!

August 6, 2014

On comedies, one thing that gives me hope for the sitcom is that The Big Bang Theory is pulling the highest ratings and it is about as traditional in format and delivery as you can get. it's even a three camera show!

On your underlying premise, though, I think there have been different takes on what viewers will view in every generation and not just regarding comedies. TV used to have variety shows, and they followed a format and delivery system. They were all at least an hour long, and the variety included comedy sketches, music, and guest stars. Carol Burnet is the master of all, but Dean Martin, Jack Benny and others did a fine job as well. In the variety show's waning years we saw people like Tommy and Dick Smothers give it a go, but their efforts took the genre into political venues it never entered before with such overt efforts and the public (or at least the powers that be) weren't buying it.

Zach Hoag
August 6, 2014

@Phoenix I don't think you're missing the point at all - that's right on!

Zach Hoag
August 6, 2014

Good points about Big Bang Theory, Tim - though I might still argue that it's more of a "transitional form" in our pop culture evolution rather than proof of life for the sitcom.

August 7, 2014

Interesting that Big Bang Theory has come up in here. In spite of its incessant preoccupation with awkward sexuality, it's one of the few "modern" sitcoms I'll actually still watch with my wife. The nerd humor is just too familiar for me.

But, as one who was watched all nine seasons of Seinfeld and embarrassingly too many times and never gets enough, I've often observed that in many ways I think the appeal of Big Bang Theory actually a return to a sort of simplicity. Each episode--with a few story arch exceptions--stands alone. Each has several equally bizarre episodic twists. And the whole show essentially centers on the lives of a handful of people who are friends with very specific personality quirks who, for all of their occasional bickering and romantic intrigues, essentially all just "get along" in a way that seems unworldly at the end of the day.

Personally, I'd argue that Big Bang is the closest we have to a resurrection of the 90s sitcom today.

(Oh, and just for fun...think about all the parallels between Seinfeld characters and those on Big Bang. Though not perfect by any means, there's nevertheless a lot in common between, say, Penny and Elaine; Leonard and Jerry; Sheldon and Kramer; Mark and Raj and George. The ensemble dynamics are just so very similar, I think. But it's just an observation.)

Karen Swallow Prior
August 7, 2014

Great post about a great show! It's a truism that comedy resides in deviation from the rule or expectation. The more agreed upon norms and rules there are in a culture or time period, the more comedy thrives. We live in a time with less generally agreed upon norms (alas, poor Seinfeld!) but subgroups have their own, which explains the smaller niche audiences you describe here. (Think of The Office -- people either love or hate that show depending on whether they "get" the norms being violated or not.)

OK, it's easy for me to geek out about these things (I teach a good bit of satire), so I'll stop now and just say thanks for this great discussion.

Zach Hoag
August 9, 2014

Karen, totally agree about the niche appeal of more recent sitcoms. I wonder too if the general phenomenon of "speed" in the Information Age has brought on the fragmentation in pop culture. IOW, we are all too "informed" to agree with everyone else. We need our own niche norms to feed our narcissism.

Ok, I'm definitely a fuddy-duddy ;).

August 20, 2014

Could this be an example of nostalgia that almost every generation experiences? Could it be the simplicity we long for is a simplicity we experienced at time in our lives when things weren't so hectic and crazy? No mortgages, demanding bosses, kids, complicated relationships, etc? Are there any positives that come from a more fragmented culture?


It seems to me that fragmenting our culture could actually simplify it for each individual. If you like a certain type of music, you can choose to only listen to radio stations that play that type of music-- no more tolerating stuff you don't particularly like. If you only like a certain type of television show, you have whole networks that cater to your interests. You can even customize the type of information and news you receive from Yahoo and Facebook.

Is there the possibility that customizing our culture DOES simplify things? 'Niche norms' is a great term. But to put a positive spin on it, maybe these 'niche norms' allow us to embrace our God-given uniqueness.

Remember for every 'Seinfeld' or 'All in the Family' we enjoyed, we had to put up with a LOT of mediocre sitcoms, and we had less options. Now with the convenience and speed of the entertainment delivery systems (YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, Twitter, etc), we can truly find only the things we like and spend our free time enjoying them. What could be simpler than that!

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