Seinfeld: Reinforcing, Rejecting and Establishing Cultural Norms

Posted on January 31, 2012

2


By Melissa Hoon

Soon after its first episode aired in 1989, Seinfeld became arguably the most popular sitcom of all-time and remains so today.  The four main characters’ quirks and imperfections made them relatable to the show’s national audience, quickly catapulting the show to top spots on the Nielsen ratings.  Even more notable was the show’s revolutionary content that consisted of the characters completing daily tasks with a level of absurdity, providing entertainment and securing an even stronger tie that related to its audience.  By broadcasting and thus popularizing mundane daily activities, Seinfeld reinforced, rejected and established cultural norms in society.  By “establish,” I mean: how did the show create a cultural trend or make an ideal or institution acceptable in society where it was once not accepted?  And by “reinforce,” I mean: how did Seinfeld take an already-established ideal and reiterate its notion in society by popularizing it on national television?  I prove that Seinfeld reinforced, rejected and established cultural norms in society by showing how it related to viewers and challenged their intellectual sense, by evaluating how humor was used to negotiate social situations, and by providing analysis of specific examples of social norms that the show affirmed or created.

The methodology utilized to research and write this paper consists of the use of various books and articles that study Seinfeld sociologically, philosophically and culturally, in order to support my analysis of the show.  Additionally, to gain statistics and perspective on the reception of Seinfeld, I use ratings andI interviewed fifteen people regarding their feelings and beliefs toward the show.  Finally, I relied heavily on Jason Mittell’s theory on traditional genre analysis by following his steps that include the following approaches: definitional (where I identified the core elements of Seinfeld and used texts to define its formal elements), cultural (where I look beyond definition to see how Seinfeld operated and still operates within a larger cultural system), interpretation (where I interpreted textual meanings of the show to situate it within its cultural context) and historical (I only slightly utilized this approach, where I considered how changing cultural circumstances, industrial motivations, and audience practices worked to cause shifts in the changing sitcom genre with Seinfeld).[1]

Seinfeld’s Background: “A Show About Nothing”

“Jerry the American needs George around to remind him of his Jewishness, which, despite any difficulties it might present, is after all the secret engine of his professional success – the source of his humor.”[2] 

Seinfeld is an American sitcom that aired nine seasons from 1989 to 1998 on National Broadcasting Company (NBC).  The show has been running in syndication on multiple channels since the original airdate of its last episode.  The show’s popularity is largely credited to its originality in a lack of story arc (with a few exceptions, like Jerry’s and George’s sitcom pilot they pitch in the Seinfeld’s fourth season)and its content, referring to producers Jerry Seinfeld’s and Larry David’s claim that it is “a show about nothing.”  By “nothing,” they“meant that the plot of each show would not really matter. More important were the small daily activities that make up peoples’ days, the tiny frustrations, the mistakes and absurdities.”[3]Seinfeld’s “nothingness” was centered around the daily lives of four New Yorkers in their thirties, who lived on the Upper West Side.  Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian who made a decent income, played himself and seemed to be the glue that held his group of friends together, which supports philosopher Jennifer McMahon’s idea that friendship was a dominant premise of the show, as “neither Jerry, George, Kramer, nor Elaine could be neatly separated from the mix. They need each other to be who they are … Seinfeld serves to illustrate the fact that persona identity is established rationally.”[4]  Indeed, George Costanza, who was balding and was unemployed and lived with his parents for most of the series, foiled Jerry.  Based on Larry David, George and David shared “angst-ridden, insecure, stringy, emotionally ungenerous, difficult, even explosive” personalities.[5]

Even less conventional than George was Cosmo Kramer, Jerry’s neighbor across the apartment hall, who usually enjoyed some degree of success through odd jobs and schemes, such as the inventor of a coffee table book about coffee tables, a Calvin Klein model and a film actor alongside Woody Allen.  Also unconventional – as a traditional American woman, but perhaps accurate as a 1990s middle-class woman – is Elaine Benes, who worked for a publishing company, representing the “single-American working woman.”  Elaine supported McMahon’s theory of friendship as “an outwardly graceful but internally haggard New Yorker [who] enhances the suggestion of Jerry as the enlightened postfeminist American guy.”[6]

Some see the characters of Seinfeld as being “lost in their own world,”[7] while leading “aimless lives [as] self-absorbed, superficial, immature, upper west side New Yorkers.”[8]  However, many viewers were fans of the show because they felt they could relate to it because of its content that dealt with intricacies or even mundane events in daily life.  This is probably what led Seinfeld to be known as one of the most popular television shows of all-time, ranking in the top two spots on the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons, and landing the number one spot twice.  The show, which was typically comprised of a script that exceeded the average sitcom’s 50-page script by 20 pages, was entertaining because it portrayed farces of everyday life with“its obsession with the rules of social behavior as its only constant theme.”[9]

By filling their show with daily intricacies and difficulties, David and Seinfeld took a modernist approach with their show, meaning that they refuted previous models of the sitcom genre.  The use of this approach is supported by Jane Feuer’s theory on genre, wherein she argues that genre theory does not work well for television because television genres are always evolving (like we see with Seinfeld and the sitcom), and are either drawing from previous eras or become structured in response to a previous era.[10]  I argue that the modern approach gave the producers more freedom to establish and create social norms, opposed to having to rely on repeatedly and solely reinforcing or rejecting previously existing norms.  This is one of the ways Seinfeld became so popular – by revolutionizing their genre, David and Seinfeld gave themselves legitimacy as cultural producers (and their show as a cultural text) by creating a new model that many in the entertainment industry began to follow.  In revolutionizing the sitcom genre with original content with characteristics specific to the show, Seinfeld’s producers proved Feuer’s theory to be correct, in that one of the functions of genres is that they produce uniqueness.[11]This new model is seen in television shows today like The Office, where the setting of the show is in a typical white-collar office setting and the characters carry out daily mundane office tasks, such as making sales phone calls and filing paperwork, but with a level of absurdity similar to what is seen on Seinfeld.  With the freedom David and Seinfeld created for themselves as producers and writers, they established ideals around social etiquette and many catchphrases, which will be discussed in following sections.

Although Seinfeld was essentially about New York Jews, its liberal standing was never affirmed.  This tactic of having its audience assume, guess or “get,” established an allegiance in viewership, as audience members felt empowered, educated and intelligent for “getting” subtly implied jokes or connections.  According to visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff, this “presumed humor works only because audiences are so accustomed to the elaborate charades of mainstream comedies that gave Seinfeld something to react against.”[12]  Furthermore, Seinfeld challenged viewers’ intellectual sense, but not their visual sense, as the show’s camerawork never looked up or down on the circle of friends, making viewers feel they were part of the group, and by using film instead of videotape to give the most realistic feel possible.[13]  This is significant because it helped establish a relationship between the producer and the consumer so that the show was able to successfully relate to and influence its audience, which led to Seinfeld’s reinforcement and establishment of social norms.

How Seinfeld Related to Its Audience 

“As the digital boosters of the 1990s had it, television was our first experience of virtual reality.  By this they meant that we don’t simply watch television in the passive way designated by the term ‘couch potato’ but imagine ourselves in and as part of television.”[14]

In addition to intellectually stimulating its audience, Seinfeld related to its viewers by posing and oftentimes answering questions of social etiquette.  By establishing these questions, Seinfeld not only showed that confusing moments happen in life, but that it is normal for people to go through such problems.  However, by portraying these issues on a sitcom, they were viewed as less of a “problem” and more as a simple occurrence, or even a solution to a problem, because humor seemed to solve the issue at hand.  Some of these issues included dilemmas involving fat-free food and dry-clean-only clothes, which were introduced in the 1990s with anxieties.[15]  These anxieties dissolved or were debunked with humor in the same manner that Seinfeld solved problems with comedy.

Nearly everything about Seinfeld seemed to be realistic – from its unconventional characters who participated in mundane daily activities, to its small apartments versus much more sizably enhanced ones shown on other 1990s sitcoms, like Friends.  According to David,

All this education and conversation and parental guidance that you’ve had in your life does not prepare you for a huge number of things that come up. I think that what goes on in people’s lives is that most of their mind, most of their day, is occupied with tiny struggles. That’s what people’s lives are about.[16]

I argue that David and Seinfeld produced their show to not only prepare viewers for struggles by establishing social norms within the culture, but they also reinforced certain social norms by mirroring viewers’ lives on national television.  By mirroring viewers’ lives, they showed society what the majority (or subcultures, in some cases) of the nation was like in the 1990s.  For example, Seinfeld showed the decline of the 1980s yuppies with the varying degrees (and oftentimes minimal) success of Jerry’s group of friends, the weakening significance of familial stability and the promiscuity that seemed to permeate urban single-life.  The characters on the show represented the idea that not everyone is the same, nor does everyone conform to the same or similar ideals.  This is evident as the characters had been to college (all with the exception of possibly Kramer) and had tried careers and relationships, without ever settling down permanently, and remaining unsure about how their lives would turn out.

Although Seinfeld portrayed a common theme of uncertainty, it nevertheless accurately acknowledged that social and economic stability was not obsolete in American culture by the 1990s.  For example, Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine had connections to more successful friends, often enjoying “tickets to expensive sports games or the opera, visits to country houses and cabins, first-class travel.”[17]  However, they also often make fun of these more successful characters, but this usually seems to occur due to annoyance of pretentiousness, opposed to jealousy or envy, proving that the characters simply rejected bourgeois values, rather than resenting the fact that they themselves did not have such characteristics or values.

Another trait of the show that some of its viewers could and can still relate to is that characters on Seinfeld “know what they are not supposed to do more than what they should and are chronically uncertain about what, and indeed who, they actually want.”[18]  This speaks to the idea that while American values may have been declining, they were still deeply rooted in culture because members of society were fearful of going against the grain by doing what they knew they were not “supposed” to do.  However, I think this also shows that Seinfeld might have been attempting to establish a message that told America to do just that: to go against the grain, to break the rules, to de-stigmatize taboos.  This is interesting considering Seinfeld’s wide demographic of viewers: “…Seinfeld was invested in a generational divide between those who were either immigrants or the children of immigrants and those who thought of themselves as simply American.”[19]  But since Seinfeld’s timelessness and intertextuality appealed to nearly everyone, I argue that the show bridged generations more than divided them.

In addition to bridging gaps between generations due to its content’s timelessness, Seinfeld also brought classes, cultures and ethnicities together.  This is principally due to the fact that many of Seinfeld’s characters themselves transcended specific cultural categories:

[Seinfeld] is at first glance Jerry the American, one of TV’s “us,” a televisually acceptable, collegiately dressed SWM (single white male). But he has also identified himself as one of mytho-America’s “them,” a New York Jew, a sarcastic, wisecracking cynic with an overbite, living on the margin of the middle state.[20]

Jerry’s Jewishness is precisely what makes him relatable to so many Americans.  If he was not Jewish, and was of a more widely accepted religion in America, like Christianity, he would lose his “otherness” and would appeal only to who was considered to be mainstream in America.  On the other hand, if he did not possess so many conventional urban American qualities, such as having a relatively stable job with a decent income, he would lose his appeal to the masses.  Therefore, Jerry’s Jewishness and his conventional qualities establish the notion that traditional cultural, social and ethnic categories that were once prominent in America were no longer valid by the 1990s.

Seinfeld’sProducer-Consumer Relationship

“Let’s say right away that television is not the way to make major life choices. But it influences people in smaller ways, some of which we admit to, some of which we deny or repress.”[21]

Seinfeld’s target demographic was 18- to 34-year-olds, whom NBC advertised the sitcom to as Thursday night “Must-See-T.V.” so that these viewers would discuss the show amongst each other and with people who were not yet familiar with the show in order to establish what was “culturally of the moment, hip and with it.”[22]  I argue that Seinfeld and David assumed their targeted viewers to be more liberal, granting themselves leeway to establish and reinforce social norms on the show.  In other words, given Seinfeld’s liberal audience, viewers were more susceptible to accept the show’s ideals regarding social norms, rather than oppose them.  For example, post-Stonewall, gayness was a recurring theme on the show, as seen on the 1995 episode, “The Beard,” where Elaine tried to convert a gay man, and on the 1993 episode, “The Outing,” where Jerry and George were perceived to be a gay couple, wanting to deny their alleged relationship, but fearing to be taken as being anti-gay or homophobes.  Because of their openness discussing the gay community and their support of it (referring to being gay, “The Outing” broadcasted the famous Seinfeld quote: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”), these episodes may have influenced Seinfeld’s viewers to be more accepting of gay people and their lifestyles.

With the anxieties that accompanied new ideas and products of the 1990s, like the aforementioned fat-free food, new social situations arose that were in need of negotiation.  Seinfeld used humor as its prime means of negotiation, which seemed to be the perfect way to communicate new social norms to the show’s targeted audience, considering its high ratings.  Because Seinfeld’s humor tactic resonated well with its audience, the show spoke to its viewers in a clear and understandable manner regarding social situations, social etiquette and cultural issues of the 1990s.  Furthermore, its “concern for everyday life was born out of comedy and anxiety at once: what’s the right thing to do in a given social situation and who decides? What are the rules?”[23]  I argue that Seinfeld’s audience felt immediate devotion to seek out these answers on the show and in real-life society.

According to sociologist Tim Delaney, we learn from observing others.  This sharing of culture, or appropriately termed, “culture-sharing,” defines the group to which we belong.  Furthermore, the “study of human interaction must take into account the fact that people are influenced by their culture. The different societies of the world establish their own guidelines for what constitutes proper behavior.”[24]  I argue that these sociological parameters seem to outline the cycle of how Seinfeld influenced its audience and how society influenced the show.  The cycle begins with 1990s society; Seinfeld then mirrors society to its audience, highlighting social norms that the show either established or reinforced; the audience then digests this, accepting either new social norms that Seinfeld has established, or old social norms that it has reinforced (which will be discussed in following sections of this essay).  Seinfeld then continues to draw from society, which is also its audience, perpetuating the cycle.

We must keep in mind, however, that Seinfeld was designed for its audience to “get” the jokes, which made it seem less like the show was trying to establish or reinforce anything since the messages were rarely obvious.  This introduces a paradox in the relationship between the producer and consumer since the message is less subtle, but is nevertheless intentionally being stated, which I argue enhances the meaning of the message to be even more profound if or when the viewer “gets” it.  The power dynamics in this relationship are interesting because, by giving the consumer a sense of power in understanding the subtle joke or message, the message thus becomes more powerful, placing the power back in the hands of the consumer.  This idea is supported by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory that “since comedy reinforces power, power reinforces comedy.”[25]  In comedy, to gain any sense of power or relevance, the comedian must rely on the audience to get the joke.  By getting the joke, the audience has assumed the power, but I argue that, at this stage, both the comedian and audience hold power because each have advanced a level in authority by understanding the other (whether it was the audience understanding the comedian’s joke, or the comedian recognizing that the audience has understood the joke).

The hyper-awareness and power dynamics evident in this producer-consumer relationship are significant because they prove the power of meaning in Seinfeld’s themes and jokes.  However, after interviewing 15 people aged 29 to 50 – approximately the same age group that was part of Seinfeld’s targeted audience during its running years – it is apparent that not all viewers “got” messages portrayed on the show.  For example, Michael Stevens, a 30-year-old marketing director from Raliegh, North Carolina, said, “If anyone thinks [Seinfeld was controversial], they are looking too far into it. The show was made to make people laugh, and make money. Pretty simple.”  While Seinfeld’s messages about social norms may not have been obvious to people such as Stevens, they were nonetheless influenced by how the show mirrored society to its viewers.  For example, Stevens also said, “I didn’t realize how anti-gay society was at first.  Then in high school (during Seinfeld’s initial popularity), I noticed how judgmental society was.  But then I saw Seinfeld episodes about being gay where they said, ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that,’ and thought, ‘Yeah, there really isn’t anything wrong with that.’”

Messages on the show were more obvious to other people I interviewed, including Scott Cappelli, 29, a graduate student in the Radio-TV-Film Department at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF).  “When I saw [‘The Cigar Store Indian’], I felt bad that Jerry made fun of [the Indian woman], but realized we do similar things growing up in school, playing games or dressing up in plays as Native Americans,” Cappelli said, referring to the 1993 episode where Jerry is mistakenly perceived to be racist after a series of events he encounters with people of multiple ethnic backgrounds, including Native American and Asian.  Perhaps Lisa Dresback, 29, a CSUF research assistant offered the most precise analysis of Seinfeld’s provocative stereotypes best when she said, “The show makes use of controversial stereotypes to bring attention to the way they operate in the culture. It is for comedic purposes but also brings awareness.”  This statement alludes to the reinforcement of social norms, or the social consciousness Seinfeld brings to such social norms by popularizing them on national television, which will be discussed further in the next section.

Reinforcing and Rejecting Social Norms

“[Seinfeld’s characters’] routine failure to excel reassured their viewers either that it was OK for them to not yet be doing as well as they might like… At the same time, under the guise of comedy, it addressed the nameless and unnamable fear of the American middle-class that life amounts to nothing.”[26]

Seinfeld reinforced and rejected social norms by taking cultural expectations and reinforcing them in society as norms.  As a result, according to Delaney, “culture becomes the social determinant of behavior.”[27]  But how did Seinfeld use culture to determine social behavior?  What was the show reinforcing or rejecting through its display of specific social norms?  This section will provide analysis of examples of episodes that demonstrate how Seinfeld popularized or rejected certain social norms, thus reinforcing them.

One of the main social ideals that Seinfeld reinforced was that it is acceptable to have stagnant moments without constant success as an adult, given that the characters on the show were in a state of constant arrested development, where their careers and love lives never advanced to permanent success or stability.  Sometimes the characters showed interest in wanting something “more,” but they never actually changed their lifestyles.  For example, in “The Soul Mate,” Elaine originally did not want to have children, but when her boyfriend got a vasectomy, she thoughtshe might eventually want children, but changed her mind yet again when her partner reversed his vasectomy.  Also, in “The Bizzaro Jerry,” Elaine spent time with a new group of friends, who were “altruistic and intellectual, lovers of books and the arts, while Jerry and friends consume entertainment: television shows, movies, and sports events.”[28]  She had the choice to continue to spend time with only her new friends of seemingly high culture, but she chose to go back to arguablyunambitious George, Jerry and Kramer.  This demonstrates her contentment in remaining part of an arguably less successful group of adults, even after she had the option to climb the social class ladder.

America was built on the value of industry, expecting constant diligence and desire of nonstop success from its citizens.  However, America is also an individualistic society, so who better to establish desires and goals for oneself than the individual?  Seinfeld was produced during a time when marginalized groups, including women, homosexuals and people of color were granted more rights than ever before (although, not absolute freedom from oppression).  According to cultural studies professor Barbara Ching, “[Comedy’s and laughter’s] endlessly repeatable and ever pacifying pleasures keep us from imagining radical changes in the status quo.”[29]  Therefore, I argue that David and Seinfeld sometimes-subtle use of comedy was their way to introduce changes in social norms.  Many of these changes had already taken place in society, but were either not yet accepted or widely known, so by popularizing these ideals on national television, David and Seinfeld reinforced such ideals.

Social etiquette criticisms portrayed on Seinfeld as seemingly mundane daily occurrences might be of less social importance than more profound criticisms or reinforcements like making it acceptable to not constantly climb the social class ladder.  However, these criticisms make up the bulk of the show’s content, and are therefore the most obvious of the social norms being reinforced.  The desire to hear and the need to say “thank you” is one example of social etiquette being critiqued, evident in “The Big Salad” and “The Face Painter.”  In “The Big Salad,” George bought Elaine a big salad for lunch, but his girlfriend handed her the salad, which Elaine thanked her for instead of George, the salad purchaser.  In “The Face Painter,” Jerry received tickets to a sports game but did not thank the giver in time to be given tickets to the next game.  Both episodes reinforce the importance of saying “thank you” – in order to rightfully give credit where credit is due and to possibly be rewarded further for being polite.  This not only affirms that thanking is a cultural norm in America, but it sends a moral message to viewers that such etiquette is critical and valued in our culture.  Similarly, manners – such as not talking during a movie and limits to the number of seats one should be allowed to save in a theater for latecomers – are criticized and reinforced in episodes such as “The Movie” and “The Raincoats.”  Episodes like these show that people in America are both rule enforcers and rule breakers, as Elaine was criticized by movie patrons for saving seats, and other characters were reprimanded for talking during the movie.  Episodes that revolved around social etiquette, which was most or all episodes, raised questions to the audience, which made them active viewers, or even active citizens.  Some questions, according to Delaney, were similar to, “how many seats can you save?” and “how long can you save a seat before it belongs to someone else?”[30]  Other social etiquette criticisms revolved around dating and breaking-up, parking rules, cell and pay phones, tipping, road rage, and screening phone calls.

In addition to reinforcing social norms by critiquing social etiquette, Seinfeld also rejected American values.  Seinfeld’s rejection of the family home is supported by nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert’s theory that “being about nothing in an escape from the hollowness of the bourgeois world.”[31]  For example, the show refuted the idea of the family home, especially a happy family home, when a family cabin was burned down in “The Bubble Boy,” a baby was considered ugly in opposition to infants usually being considered cute in “The Hamptons,” and George’s childhood was repeatedly portrayed as askew, unhappy and unfulfilling.  Moreover, the characters consistently shared each other’s company at a diner or informally at Jerry’s apartment, rather than conventionally at a dinner table or family gathering.

Other traditional American values that Seinfeld rejected were ideas regarding spirituality and certain religions, and the idea that hope or the American Dream lay in the West.  Therefore, where television was once “fundamentally a comic medium not only in its reliance on the ancient dramatic structure that leads to a happy ending in the foundation and social reinforcement of the family but also in its quintessentially American optimism,”[32] it is now also the reality of secularism and misfortune.  For example, in “The Burning,” Elaine was dismayed when she confirmed that her boyfriend, David Puddy, was religious after she discovered that he had set Christian rock stations on the radio in his car.  This reinforced the idea that not everyone in American society is religious – some might be atheist or agnostic, like Elaine appears to possibly be.  Just like Seinfeld showed that facing stagnancy economically in one’s thirties is acceptable, it also showed that not being religious is socially acceptable in America.  In “The Trip,” Kramer was in Hollywood to become an actor, and Jerry and George went there for Jerry to appear on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno.  However, dreams of making it big in Los Angeles were crushed when Kramer was taken into custody after being mistaken for a serial killer who had been committing murders in the area, and Jerry and George were almost killed by the real serial killer.  This episode rejects the longstanding idea in America that all will prosper and make fortunes in the West.  Furthermore, Jerry broke traditional stereotypes of Jews by not being a “left-leaning do-gooder [or] a tough-minded businessman. He is a man committed to only one thing: detachment.”[33]

Like the characters on Seinfeld, David and Seinfeld wanted to break away from tradition.  According to Ching, disdain for embourgeoisement, or the idea of converting to or attaining bourgeois values, was the only thing that motivates Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine.  This is apparent in “The Soul Mate,” when Elaine claimed that her reason for not wanting children was because childbirth “has been done to death” – which was perhaps also why David and Seinfeld never had the characters become parents – because childbirth and parenthood had arguably been overdone on sitcoms.  In fact, according to Ching, David and Seinfeld thought that “chasing the sitcomic American dream would render them indistinct from the common heard.”[34]

The show certainly strayed from the common heard, flirting with crossing the line of controversy.  However, many people I interviewed felt that Seinfeld brought somewhat taboo topics, like masturbation, to light in a subtle and humorous manner.  For example, Cappelli said, “I don’t think [Seinfeld] was controversial in terms of shock value. For instance, [“The Contest”] was a real-life topic (masturbation).  They made an episode about something that people might think is controversial, but so that it was relatable/realistic and not outrageous.”  By portraying controversial subject matter to viewers in such a relatable fashion, I argue that viewers were probably more accepting of the debatable social norms that the show reinforced in society.

Establishing Social Norms

“[Television] comments on and creates the ‘rules’ of everyday life, providing a collective reference point for individual action in a new and confusing media-dominated society simply by being funny about it.”[35] 

Seinfeld also established and created social norms and phrases by broadcasting producers’ own ideas nationally on television.  With a Jewish comedian as the star of the show, one of the most profound ideals Seinfeld established was “a new form of Jewishness,”[36] as Jerry joked about anti-Semitism and circumcision but remained close to more traditional aspects of Jewish humor, like Yiddish theatre.  Through the establishment of this new form of Jewish comedy by joking about serious subjects like the Holocaust and Shindler’s List, Seinfeld brought a “hidden seriousness” to the show.[37]  However, although subjects were joked about on network television, I argue that it did not take away from the severity of these subjects’ nature.  Perhaps these subjects contained issues that needed to be brought to national attention, and being brought up comically was possibly the quickest and surest way to bring such matters to light and into peoples’ homes.  As we have discussed in class, because television was in single peoples’ and families’ homes, there was no way to ignore messages portrayed on network television, other than turning the television off.  Therefore, viewers adopted social norms that were established or created on Seinfeld largely because they were already part of viewers’ lives by being in their homes.

Similar to how serious subjects were acknowledged because they were joked about, taboo topics were accepted because they were subtly referenced.  Mirzoeff calls this “referential style” and it is used throughout Seinfeld, especially when referencing sex and sexuality.  For example, in “The Contest,” the premise of the entire episode was based on a deal agreed on amongst the characters to not masturbate, yet the word “masturbate” was never used.  This allows the “sexual subject matter so typical of what was then called alternative comedy to transfer to mainstream television, precisely because it was not directly named.”[38]

Furthermore, alternative viewpoints to certain rights and political views are established on the show.  In establishing and creating different views, Seinfeld is usually responding to some sort of social problem, which supports communications professor Thomas Schatz’s theory that genres are “systems of structure” and function as “problem-solving operations.”[39]  Examples of the establishment of alternate viewpoints can be seen when Jerry poked fun at Marxists, fascists and those who oppose abortion rights.  “…Posting no political beliefs of his own, and glad to take potshots at anyone who does, [Jerry] leaves the viewer with the impression that anyone stupid enough to be committed to believe in anything, as opposed to nothing, deserves ridicule.”[40]  By Jerry leaving viewers with this impression, he established the notion that it is acceptable to not have beliefs, or to believe in multiple ideals, opposed to believing in something definitively.

Moreover, Seinfeld also established the idea that not everyone needs to be white-collar executives to enjoy success.  For example, in “The Pitch,” George was nervous and was afraid of NBC executives when he and Jerry pitched a sitcom.  Jerry tried to calm George down and George responded by saying, “They’re men with jobs, Jerry.  They wear suits and ties. They’re married.  They have secretaries.”  Similar to how the show reinforces the idea that it is acceptable for people in their thirties to go through periods of stagnancy, this episode established the idea that contentment can be found beyond socio-economic success.  Establishing this idea also reiterated the notion that some people might prefer contentment over happiness.  If Jerry, George, Kramer or Elaine had found true happiness, they would have conformed to bourgeoisie values, which Ching argued the characters were against doing.  Therefore, Seinfeld established a new notion that conformity might lead to unhappiness, which suggests that finding contentment might be a new version of the American Dream, opposed to its old ideals concerning happiness.  This could also disprove the widespread belief that Americans are greedy because greed is not a factor in seeking or achieving mere contentment.

Finally, Seinfeld even established its own lexicon that became part of our nation’s cultural idiolect with words like “re-gifter,” “Festivus,” “close talker,” “Schmoopy” and “sentence finisher.”  Popular media like Regis and Kelly helped establish and further secure notions like “re-gifting,” as they discussed such ideas on national media.[41]  The fact that even simple words and phrases caught on at a national level proves the degree to which profoundly significant cultural establishments were made on Seinfeld and accepted nationwide.

Seinfeld and Syndication: The Greatest Sitcom Lives On

Still in syndication on several channels 23 years after its first episode aired, Seinfeld continues to create consciousness regarding social norms.  Viewers’ intellectual sense is still challenged even as they watch episodes they may have already seen, as they can relate the social norms and anxieties discussed on the show to today.  Timelessness and intertextuality are evident in the social norms that are reinforced, rejected and established on Seinfeld through the use of humor to negotiate social situations.  Furthermore, gaps between generations are still bridged, as today’s generation is connected to those who watched the show in the 1990s, since both generations can relate to the daily activities on the show.  Finally, messages regarding social norm remain subtle as ever through the use of humor and we still learn from observing others.  Seinfeld’s timelessness demonstrates that its modernist approach was successful in revolutionizing its genre, as it is the first show where nearly all themes (most notably, its theme of the difficulty and mundane nature of completing daily activities) are still relevant today, which proves the cultural significance in its reinforcement, rejection and establishment of social norms.

Bibliography

Ching, Barbara. “They Laughed Unhappily Ever After: Seinfeld and the Sitcom Encounter withNothingness.” In Seinfeld, Master of Its Doman: Revisiting Telvision’s Greatest Sitcom,edited by Sara Lewis Dunne and David Lavery, 58-69. New York: The ContinuumInternational Publishing Group, 2006.

Conard, Mark T. “Plato or Nietzsche?: Time, Essence, and Eternal Recurrence in Seinfeld.” InSeinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing, edited by WilliamIrwin, 71-89. Peru: Open Court Publishing, 2000.

Delaney, Tim. Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld. New York: Prometheus Books, 2006.
Epperson, Robert A. “Seinfeld and the Moral Life.” In Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book AboutEverything and Nothing, edited by William Irwin, 163-174. Peru: Open Court Publishing,2000.

Feuer, Jane. “Genre Study and Television.” In Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Televisionand Contemporary Criticism, edited by Robert C. Allen, 138-160. Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina, 1992.

Levine, Josh. Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good: Larry David and the Making of Seinfeld and CurbYour Enthusiasm. Toronto: ECW Press, 2010.
Marc, David. “Seinfeld: A Show (Almost) About Nothing.” In Seinfeld, Master of Its Doman:Revisiting Telvision’s Greatest Sitcom, edited by Sara Lewis Dunne and David Lavery,23-27.New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.

McMahon, Jennifer. “Seinfeld, Subjectivity, and Sartre.” In Seinfeld and Philosophy: A BookAbout Everything and Nothing, edited by William Irwin, 90-108. Peru: Open CourtPublishing, 2000.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Seinfeld. London: British Film Institute, 2007.
Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. NewYork: Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2004.


[1]Jason Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (NewYork: Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2004), 2-6.

[2]David Marc, “Seinfeld: A Show (Almost) About Nothing,” inSeinfeld, Master of Its Doman: Revisiting Telvision’s Greatest Sitcom, ed. Sara Lewis Dunne et al.(New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006),26.

[3]Josh Levine,Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good: Larry David and the Making of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm (Toronto: ECW Press, 2010), 32.

[4]Jennifer McMahon, “Seinfeld, Subjectivity, and Sartre,” inSeinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing, ed. William Irwin(Peru: Open Court Publishing, 2000), 90.

[5] Levine, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good, 33.

[6]Marc, “Seinfeld,” 26.

[7] Nicholas Mirzoeff, Seinfeld (London: British Film Institute, 2007), 7.

[8]Robert A. Epperson, “Seinfeld and the Moral Life,” in Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing, ed. William Irwin (Peru: Open Court Publishing, 2000) 164.

[9] Mirzoeff, Seinfeld, 17.

[10]Jane Feuer, “Genre Study and Television,” in Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C. Allen (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina, 1992) 138-160.

[11]Ibid., 142.

[12] Mirzoeff, Seinfeld, 23.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14]Ibid., 5.

[15]Ibid., 6.

[16]Levine, Pretty, Pretty, Pretty Good, 32.

[17]Mirzoeff, Seinfeld, 15.

[18]Ibid., 17.

[19]Ibid., 80.

[20]Marc, “Seinfeld,” 24.

[21]Mirzoeff, Seinfeld, 4.

[22]Ibid., 9.

[23]Ibid., 20.

[24] TimDelaney, Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld (New York: Prometheus Books, 2006), 29.

[25]BarbaraChing, “They Laughed Unhappily Ever After: Seinfeld and the Sitcom Encounter with Nothingness,” inSeinfeld, Master of Its Doman: Revisiting Telvision’s Greatest Sitcom, ed. Sara Lewis Dunne et al.(New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006),68-79.

[26] Mirzoeff, Seinfeld, 17.

[27] Delaney, Seinology, 29.

[28]Ching, “They Laughed Unhappily Ever After,” 65.

[29]Ibid.

[30] Delaney, Seinology, 33.

[31]Ching, “They Laughed Unhappily Ever After,” 60.

[32]Ibid., 61.

[33] Marc, “Seinfeld,” 26.

[34]Ching, “They Laughed Unhappily Ever After,” 61.

[35] Mirzoeff, Seinfeld, 5.

[36]Ibid., 17.

[37]Ibid., 19.

[38] Ibid. 7.

[39]Feuer, “Genre Study and Television,” 143.

[40] Marc, “Seinfeld,” 27.

[41] Delaney,Seinology, 48.

Photo featured on the homepage splash by rhodes.

Posted in: Awesome People, Essay