So Jerry’s in Jail. Should Jokers Be Locked Up?

I agree with Ron Rosenbaum that the last Seinfeld show was an abomination. If you’d held your breath between laughs, you wouldn’t be here today. I admit I had never been hooked. Every time I watched the show, I found the jokes strained, the farce forced and the lovable four either too cute or too far from life (bizarre or banal). Something in each show was hilarious, and I did laugh hard, but there were long months, even years, when I didn’t watch at all. But the last hour and a half was actually interesting because of its plot. No, I haven’t lost my mind yet. No, it was not a cliffhanger, but the narrative frame on which the jokes were tied took us straight into the heart of comedy: stand-up, sit-down, run-around and other.

As by now everybody in America must know, Jerry and George and Elaine and Kramer find themselves in a small town in New England and they videotape a car stickup and make jokes at the expense of the “ha, ha” fat guy who is the victim of the theft. They are arrested under a good Samaritan law, for not helping the schmuck out. They are put on trial. Characters from earlier episodes are brought up as witnesses for the prosecution.

Jerry Seinfeld and his writers laughed and mocked and made fun of the Soup Nazi, old ladies, Pakistanis, etc. And with the testimony of each witness, we begin to see that they are indeed guilty of harm, of really hurting people as they joke their way through life. For the purposes of the TV finale, we are expected to stay on their side; humor wins. But our response is complicated. We’re forced to see how we were complicit, agents provocateurs in the nastiness. The show ends with them in jail for a year. We, too, don’t feel entirely clean. All this is not so funny.

You are not meant to take the plot seriously. Comedy always triumphs over the bad guys and it always wounds along the way. This story is intended to amuse and nothing more. But look at what the writers have told us. They feel guilty as hell about the hostility in their jokes. They know that humor has a real bite that leaves tooth marks on the victims’ hides, sometimes deserved and sometimes not. The story line of the last Seinfeld show reveals the comedian’s guilt, and no real defense on his behalf is made. A stirring counterargument could have been mounted. Without jokes, our sanity goes. Our Groucho Marxes, Jack Bennys, Lenny Bruces mock us, but in doing so they keep the pretension-hypocrisy count down. Without them, it would rise to socially unacceptable levels.

This show set up the comedians to sit in the dock and take it on the chin. Now of course it was a joke, but Freud tells us that there is no such thing as a joke without a real mean thought behind it. Isn’t Bugs Bunny the nastiest bunny around? The comedians, writers and performers here are not just able to take the money and run. They have won the grand prize of fame and fortune, but uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Is it their guilt that lands their characters in jail? Do they really deserve such a fate? Are they good people at bottom, or callous cads? This was the subject of the last show.

Here are a group of writers and actors who desperately want to be loved and who know that they are being loved for being bad. If we understood how like mad dogs they are, would we still love them? Is this all right, they wonder, and so they create a show that cuts close to their bone. Now that’s interesting.

What we saw was a public display of guilt, the guilt of throwing your pie in someone’s face and getting to eat it, too. The reason the show was not totally funny was because the conscience of the creators was too naked, and in good comedy the emotional core is invisible.

You’re not supposed to see into the soul of the creators of comedy. That’s why Woody Allen these days can make us uncomfortable as easily as he used to make us laugh. As with drag queens, you should not move in too close or, rather, the closeness should be just another illusion, not an intrusion into someone’s therapy session. If you really are a popular kid in the class and you come from the right side of the tracks, you don’t have to put tacks on the teacher’s chair in order to win a place among your peers. But the Jews, it seems, are still at it. Thank God, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Jewish comedians, Jewish writers, seem to have a gift for clowning fueled by a need for attention and fired by an outsider status that seems to have lasted well into the 90’s. Jewish humor (the big snap of the powerless) seems to have a half-life of at least three generations past its prime. If anti-Semitism is held at bay for another century, there will be no more Jewish comedians, they’ll all be members of the Maidstone Club. Except for Jackie Mason, who, like the heart of a frog that goes on beating after the dissection, doesn’t know that his era has ended and who, like a disembodied talking head from beyond the grave, will go on and on until the Messiah comes and rescues us.

The writers and producers and comedians in Seinfeld clearly suffered from guilt over getting away with so much money. Many writers believe that they are not paid enough to live on and they are not worth what they get. The economics of writing easily gets infused with the nuttiness that swirls in the bewildered brain. In addition, most writers suspect that they belong in jail. Writers know that you can’t write a novel or a column or probably even a cookbook without wounding an innocent or not so innocent bystander. If it bothers you too much, if you can’t take the guilt, then develop writer’s block.

I’ve known all my working life that I’ve behaved like a ruthless monster when it comes to the crimes I commit on the page. I wounded the feelings of my aunt and uncle, of my father and brother. I exposed and I ridiculed. I would do it again in a blink of an eye. So have far better writers than I. That’s the nature of the beast. “Whatever will Aunt Bessie think when she reads this?” That is a thought that rises only after the presses are printing. Then comes guilt, but it’s a chronic low-grade guilt that can be lived with for a very long time. Alcohol aids some writers. Chocolate ice cream does the trick for others. A house far away from those who now hate you helps, as does a shrink you may one day lampoon in a public place. Also good libel lawyers are on call at all publishing houses. They are the heroes of E.R. law.

The Free Seinfeld movement is planning a $500-a-head fund raiser in the Hamptons this summer. Me, I’m going to stay home and let American justice triumph.

So Jerry’s in Jail. Should Jokers Be Locked Up?