Of all the pop culture phenomena I’ve managed to miss in my lifetime — and there have been many — no mistake could be greater than never watching a single episode of “Seinfeld.” In the last decade of the twentieth century, this was no small feat, and it was accomplished, in part, because I didn’t own a television set – just high art for me – but mostly because I harbored a long-simmering antagonism towards mainstream America, with the notable exception of professional sports. It would have been impossible, of course, for me to fully overcome the broad scope of the show, as it was being billed by everyone everywhere, with catchphrases quoted, yada yada, etc., and scenes described and jokes told. I often found myself on the periphery of a group of friends or co-workers, perennial stranger that I was, waiting for the laughter to die down, as they discussed what had been said or done the night before by Jerry or anyone else; had I been a little more liberated, perhaps I could have admitted that the scenarios seemed somewhat amusing in the narrative.
But, even when the show finally ended, there was no visible decline in its cultural impact in syndication, and the years continued to pass with catchphrases still quoted, scenes still described, and me still standing on the sidelines completely at bay. ‘dark. Until one day, twenty years later, I decided I was going to take matters into my own hands: I was going to watch the show once and for all, every episode of the show, start to finish, one episode a day, and that meant, for the record, one hundred and eighty days of “Seinfeld.” This was before the pandemic, when such an undertaking would have been seen, at least by me, as an indulgent waste of time, but I have justified it as a form of self-improvement. It also conveniently gave me something to occupy myself with during my lunch break in the basement of the NYU library where I went to write each day, sitting in a cubicle among college students who were born after “Seinfeld” but probably knew more than myself.
And so I began to watch, about midnight on an October afternoon, almost thirty years after the fact, Season 1, Episode 1, while eating my sandwich, while Jerry, as his stand-up comedian character, opened the series with a set on the universal need people have to ‘get out’ and then, once ‘out’, the need to ‘go back’. “Do you know what this is about?” he asked the happy audience. “Why we are here? To be out.” This was followed a few minutes later by a scene in a laundromat with Jerry trying to convince an increasingly frustrated George that there was a misunderstanding that the clothes were “too dry”. “You can’t ‘overdry,’” explains Jerry, “same reason you can’t ‘overdry.’ This was the whole essence of the show in the first ten minutes: the pun, the observational humour, the low stakes, and through the wonders of social osmosis, much of it was already completely familiar, including the column sonorous.
It was slow for me at first. I was bored, puzzled and mostly not amused – was this what all the fuss was about? – trying my best to strike a balance between silly plots and wacky characters. There was Kramer, pulling two slices of bread from his bathrobe pockets, asking Jerry, “Do you have any meat?” There was George, flustered again, inventing the figure of Art Vandelay, importer-exporter. By the end of the first week, I was done with Season 1, all five episodes. Then came season two, about the same and twice as long, with Kramer sitting on the couch stuffing a melon in his mouth, George trying to break up with his girlfriend, and Jerry doing a set about humiliating the halls waiting. It occurred to me, in my humorless state, that the extreme compression was working against my enjoyment, that the show would be better with slower digestion, one episode a week as planned, followed on day next from a recap at the water cooler, and then summers out. Instead, I was alone and swallowed “Seinfeld” whole. It was also possible that I was trying, albeit subconsciously, to justify a decision I made thirty years ago, and that every single laugh now threatened to cause a painful fracture in my worldview. In other words, I was caught somewhere between comedy and regret. At the rate I was looking at, it would take me six months to complete the entire DVD box set, thirty-three discs, heavy as a brick, which I had to carry up to the seventh floor of the library every seven days, using the stairs for exercise, in so that I could ask to check it again for another week.
What I hadn’t been able to anticipate was the very palpable feeling of being transported back to a younger version of myself, plunged straight into the 1990s, and then slowly forward in time, episode by episode, through an era exemplified from the show’s hairstyles, outfits and, perhaps most importantly, the huge Mac computer in the background on Jerry’s desk. It was an era also exemplified by the first Gulf War, which, incidentally, had brought forward the start of season two by a week. I was in my early twenties then, working as a short-time cook at a Pittsburgh restaurant, making five dollars an hour, and spent my shift, when not grilling hamburgers, sitting on an upside-down milk crate as I sliced hundreds of pounds of potatoes for fries. This wasn’t my dream job – I wanted to be an actor – and I was miserable and grumpy and not the best short-lived cook. And then the war started, and that only exacerbated my unhappiness, as well as my anger and isolation, surrounded as I was by colleagues, not to mention everyone else in the country, who seemed, without exception, to support war. About a week after the US invasion, I violated one of the central precepts of the workplace and got into an ill-advised political argument with the chef. He was pro-war, and he was my boss, too, and I remember both of us doing our best in the beginning to be reasoned and measured, or at least to have the to influence to be reasoned and measured, but that the exchange soon turned into condescension, passive aggressiveness and, finally, raised voices. And, a few days later, I walked into the restaurant one morning to find that my name was not listed on the following week’s schedule, which, in the hospitality industry, is code for You’re fired. Why I had been fired, I did not know. Nor could anyone give me a good reason, including the chef. Instead of a good reason, I came up with my own: I’d been fired for being of Middle Eastern descent. This is what I mean when I say that I have harbored a long-simmering antagonism towards mainstream America.
So I was having a kind of parallel viewing experience, with one version of myself sitting in the NYU library watching the show in the present, and a second version — whether I wanted to or not — reliving my distant past. As the actors got older, so did I, my youth passing hand in hand with the series at an accelerated pace. By the time I hit Season 5, I was twenty-four, that’s right, living in New York City while Jerry was on stage mulling over the invention of seedless watermelons (“I guess if they can get rid of the seeds, the peel is going to go later “) and Kramer burst in the front door, as usual, carrying an air conditioner (“Twelve thousand BTUs of pure cooling power!”) – and I was renting an illegal sublease on the Upper East Side, full of optimism for my acting career, sending my head shot to hundreds of casting agents and then waiting for the phone to ring. I was aware of a subtle but significant shift taking place in my psyche, wherein the characters had become familiar to me, almost, dare I say it, like friends, and I could begin to understand the internal logic of their behavior. If I wasn’t completely amused, I was, at least, loving.
It also happened around this time that I did the thing that everyone has always done with “Seinfeld”: I made a connection between a real-world event and a specific episode of the show. Up until now, I’d always been the deadpan onlooker, of course, hearing someone explain, through their laughter, “It’s just like when Elaine did X. . . .” But, one afternoon, as a friend was telling me the story of a date gone wrong, I was suddenly reminded, without prompting, of the extraordinarily applicable episode in which George, in love with a woman, is invited to her apartment to take a coffee. “Oh, no, thanks,” he tells her, gleefully unaware of the subtext of her overture. “I can’t drink coffee late at night. It keeps me awake. It’s only after she’s gone that he realizes her folly and that he’s missed a clear opportunity for romance. I had just begun to describe the episode to my friend when she interrupted me. “I can’t drink coffee late at night,” she said, quoting George for me. He knew the episode. He knew the episode better than I knew the episode. I had seen it recently, but he had seen it many times, each episode many times, often when they aired in prime time, and later in syndication, and they stuck in his brain. A moment later, he was uploading the scene to YouTube, and sitting there next to him, I could see the humor of the situation, the human condition of it, poor George’s constant travails, always striving, never achieving. We watched together, my friend and I, both giggling, but only he had the glimmer of nostalgia.