By Ron Rosenbaum
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on August 21, 2006.]
I’m sorry, I just can’t resist. Vindication this sweet, this complete, is just so rare and beautiful, I’m going to have to savor it at length. I’m going to postpone the second part of my exploration of David Berlinski’s heretical vision of the origins of man and the universe I promised in last week’s column to take one final, absolutely irresistible I-told-you-so shot at Seinfeld.
Because the ludicrously humorless, pathetically strained and witless final episode was confirmation beyond my wildest dreams of just how insanely overrated the show has always been. It was more than the most titanic flop in comedy history–although it certainly was that. It was the culmination of one of the greatest episodes of mass-media-induced mass hysteria in recent American history. One that the sycophants, perpetrators and promoters of the hype should all feel thoroughly ashamed of, in the awful light of the morning after one of the worst hours of television since the cathode-ray tube was invented.
What could they have been thinking? Remember all of the oh-so-privileged TV scribes relaying their breathlessly self-congratulatory accounts of being among the blessed few to attend the live taping of the final episode? Remember how they were all so pleased with themselves at being sworn to secrecy about the sacred spectacle they, the chosen Seinfeldacolyte-sycophants, were so fortunate to witness? No wonder they were sworn to secrecy, no wonder they didn’t want to tell: There hasn’t been a bigger bomb made in secret since the Manhattan Project. Revealing just how dreadful, just how dimwitted it was would have broken the spell that deluded them and their credulous readers into thinking they were so special.
And remember the other subtext of the hype over the final episode, the reverent, hushed-toned encomiums to that greatest of all behind-the-scenes comic geniuses, Larry David? How he’d come back from retirement (and, from strenuously self-promoting accounts of the show, that made it seem he and only he had the secret formula, and that it all went downhill after his departure) to bring his unique, unparalleled sensibility, his extremely deep understanding of the show’s magic, to pen the ne plus ultra Final Episode? The Master Returneth! Bow down before the great and powerful Oz.
And remember all those ridiculously overblown tributes to the show, comparing it with the great comic creations of Western culture ranging from Aristophanes to Jane Austen, from Molière to the Marx Brothers? How humiliating it must have been for those writers to watch the final episode, with its interminable, brain-dead floundering for laughs stretched out over a full 75 minutes of unbroken comic sterility.
I must admit that my chief emotion, at least at first, was not Schadenfreude over the plight of those who would have to live forever after with their defense of this fraud, but profound relief. The unanimity of worshipful sentiment had built to such a point that by the time of the Final Episode even I, America’s first and foremost Seinfeld Dissenter, was feeling a little rattled. Could I be that far off? Perhaps that was why I resisted doing the full monty of TV and radio bookings I was offered. After agreeing to brief appearances on The Today Show, CNN and NPR, I could have filled the whole week with other media requests as the Lone Dissenter, but decided to turn down CNBC, MSNBC, Headline News and others. I was feeling a bit lonely out there on the negative side of the question, despite the support I got from the readers and letter writers and people I’d run into who were grateful that someone was willing to say the Emperor of Sitcoms had no clothes. (I particularly love the idea that criticizing Seinfeld has become “fashionable.” It’s always a cheap way for someone expressing conventional wisdom to pose as the daring speaker of dangerous truths by characterizing those who dissent as “fashionable.”)
But at last the moment arrived, and from the very first seconds the final episode lived up to my wildest dreams of catastrophic failure, a failure that was not in any way a fall from some imagined Golden Age, but a failure that reflected in every facet of its awfulness all that had been wrong with the show all along. I know most of the Seinfeld media groupies have tried to tiptoe away from the reality of this fiasco, have raced off without a backward glance at the car wreck this episode represented, preferring that the true horror of its triteness and mediocrity be forgotten in the aftermath of the farewell parties, the endless magazine cover stories and the now deeply embarrassing hype. But I will not let them forget. I think it is my responsibility to remind them, to remind everyone, of just how bad it was. To analyze one of the most titanic flops in show-biz history in painstaking detail in the hopes it will help spare us such tidal waves of tripe in the future.
Let’s begin with Jerry’s stand-up opening. Remember, this is the last episode, he had months and months to select, define and hone that brief 60-second showcase for his alleged stand-up talent. Months to come up with something that would define forever in the minds of an enraptured nation the art he supposedly reveres most.
Well, it did in a way. It may just have solidified–signed, sealed and delivered–his title as Worst Stand-Up Comic in the History of Western Civilization. Remember it, or did you block it out? In the spirit of his relentlessly trite “observational humor,” Jerry hones in on something us ordinary non-geniuses might have overlooked: “When people say they want to meet with you, they always say, ‘Do you want to sit down?’”
Jerry then goes into a really inspired riff about this remarkable observation, imitating those who say it: “I would really like to sit down with you. I mean, we need to sit down and talk. Why don’t you come in and we’ll sit down.”
God, that’s so weird the way people say that and nobody but Jerry had the genius to notice!
But he doesn’t stop with that, he just piles on one extremely brilliant comic variation after another upon this super-hilarious observation. “But sometimes sitting down doesn’t work. People get mad and say, ‘You know, we’ve been sitting here for I don’t know how long …. How much longer are we just going to sit here?’”
Amazing! What a genius to mine comedy gold from this concept. But again, he doesn’t stop there. He takes things to a new level: “I’ll tell you what I think we should do. I think we should all sleep on it. Maybe we’re not getting down low enough. Maybe if we all lie down, then our brains will work.”
It’s hard to say what’s more tragically pitiful here: Jerry, Jerry’s material, the people on the soundtrack laughing at it–or the privileged TV reporters who actually witnessed this witless display and wrote about the Final Episode as if it were the Last Supper.
And believe me, I didn’t leave anything out. That was it, that was the whole thing, that was what Jerry chose to display as his very best stand-up riff for the last episode. One shudders to think of what he rejected.
But that’s just the opener. The flops just keep on coming after that, one hopeless failure at humor after another.
Let’s review some of the high points.
(1) George asks to borrow ketchup from the next table and is turned down by a surly couple. When they finally give him the ketchup bottle, he slaps the bottom and nothing comes out! Where do they think these things up? Talk about reinventing the sitcom!
(2) George gets a big laugh from the studio audience (please tell me it’s a laugh track, I can’t believe real humans are feebleminded enough to laugh at material this inept) when he ends a rant by saying “I’m sick of health.” Get it? Sick of health.
(3) George tells Elaine that calling a friend with a sick father on a cell phone is “a big, hefty, stinking faux pas.” Note the trademark deft use of language (including foreign terms) characteristic of only the most sophisticated comedy. Noel Coward, eat your heart out!
But it’s topped by Elaine’s response to all this cell-phone abuse. “Here’s a thought: bye-bye.” What a line, sure to be incorporated into the language. How does that guy Larry David do it?
Let’s rapidly run down some of subsequent comic highlights:
(4) Jerry protests George urinating in his bathroom with the door open, fears it will turn his place into a “pee party.”
(5) George and Jerry meet with an NBC exec about their proposed pilot, Jerry. The exec suggests a change and George demurs, but when the exec says he might not do the show at all, George caves in!
(6) George’s mother gets a big laugh-track laugh when she responds to his observation that the show is about “nothing” by saying, “The whole thing sounds pretty stupid to me.” Nowthat’s writing.
(7) In another instance of the always inventive physical comedy he’s famous for, Kramer smacks his ear and hops on his foot to get seawater out. So Chaplinesque!
(8) Kramer warns Jerry about Los Angeles: “It’s L.A.–nobody leaves.” (Big guffaws from brainwashed audience.) “She’s a siren, she’s a seductress, she’s a virgin, she’s a whore.” Very cutting-edge anti-L.A. observations there.
(9) The gang tries to decide where to go on the NBC private jet. Elaine wants to go to Russia, but Jerry says it’s “too bleak.” Elaine says it can’t be bleak in spring. George brings down the house by saying, “When you’re bleak, you’re bleak.” For repartee, it just doesn’t get better than that!
(10) On the plane, Elaine accuses George of sitting in an “effeminate” way. How is it effeminate, George asks. “I don’t know, it just is,” she says. No wonder they needed 75 minutes instead of 30 or 60 with a script so packed with top-notch laugh-riot material like that!
(11) The carjacking incident and the arrest for “criminal indifference” allow the show to bring back its obnoxiously racial caricature of a Johnnie Cochran–like lawyer who talks like Amos ’n’ Andy. A truly bold challenge to political correctness in keeping with the Seinfeldtradition of dimwit ethnic humor.
(12) As the parade of bad character witnesses proceeds during the trial, this exchange between Jerry and the Johnnie Cochran lawyer stands out for finely honed comedic craftsmanship:
Jerry: It’s the bubble boy.
Johnnie Cochran: Who’s the bubble boy?
Jerry: He’s the boy who lives in a bubble! (Big laugh from appreciative audience, which shows the degree of mass delusion involved here.)
(13) The hilarious defective wheelchair footage.
(14) Another use of the surefire laugh line “pee party.” When you coin a phrase as witty as that, who can blame you for repeating it?
(15) Much merriment over Jerry getting a Pakistani deported.
(16) Elaine brings down the house when she says she hopes prison uniforms aren’t orange. “Because I cannot wear orange.” What a character!
(17) In a final masterstroke of laughter, the Johnnie Cochran caricature speaks of the breasts of the woman Jerry had wondered about in a previous episode. (Were they real or silicone?) The lawyer’s just slept with her, the scoundrel, and as Jerry’s led off to jail, he says, “By the way, they’re real and they’re spectacular.”
That’s it, these are the highlights. We can surely understand why America is going to miss such wildly inventive, groundbreaking humor from now on.