Last night, NBC gave America exactly what it thought the country wanted: Jerry Seinfeld, the man who perfected the sitcom and ruined it in the process (like Raymond Carver and the short story). As a guest star on 30 Rock, he served us a moment of mass transference. As Tina Fey put it, “We could not be more excited to have Jerry Seinfeld on the show, because hopefully, then regular America might actually find out that we have a show and watch it maybe at least that one time.” Seinfeld’s presence was meant to tell us that Thursday nights are back. Must-See TV! Remember that?
The fictional head of NBC Entertainment, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) figures out a way to digitally insert Jerry Seinfeld into every one of NBC’s prime-time shows in order to boost their flagging ratings (sound familiar?)—without the permission of Mr. Seinfeld, of course. He calls it “Seinfeld Vision.” Seinfeld finds out about it and confronts Jack, only to capitulate when Jack offers to promote Seinfeld’s animated movie (the apparent reason the real-life Seinfeld deigned to appear on 30 Rock).
Sprinkled amongst his confrontations with Jack are all the constituent elements of the “Seinfeld” shtick: the kvetching, the gesticulating, the incredulousness. But all of it removed by one degree: the shtick was Seinfeld doing shtick. It had the stink of nostalgia; the comedy sadness of watered-down Larry David.
Despite his attempt to slip into the well-worn routine, his appearance was plagued by a dogged set of questions: Was he playing himself? Wasn’t he always playing himself on Seinfeld? Did that mean he was playing himself playing himself? Is the “real” Seinfeld supposed to be funny or not? This lead to one conclusion: the only difference between Seinfeld Seinfeld and 30 Rock Seinfeld—lets not even get into the real Seinfeld … who knows what he’s like?—is that the former obsessed over nothing, while the latter has an agenda.
It was a little bit comforting to see Mr. Seinfeld on a TV show again. And giving him a gag or two that had not been seared into your brain through syndication was satisfying. If only that were enough …
On the other hand, one had forgotten that Seinfeld can’t act. They compensated on his show with great writing and a superb supporting cast, and a script that gave him lines of Beckettian absurdity for which acting would be overkill. He needs the laugh-track, and a cast tailored to his non-acting style.
Not having it wasn’t just bad for Jerry. It stank up the whole joint. Halfway through the episode, a commercial for American Express featuring Tina Fey as herself, looking harried, smart—and funny!—while bouncing between managing a television show and entertaining her daughter, came on. The commercial has been on air for some time. But in this context, it became another layer in a half-hour of television already densely packed with enough irony to make Seth Cohen blush. How many times can you reiterate yourself and still maintain a bit of dignity? It was Tina Fey as Voldemort.
Is this how 30 Rock jumps the shark? Death by metashtick?
Only time will tell, but it is clear that the future of TV comedy has moved on without Mr. Seinfeld. (Arguably, it’s about to move on without Mr. David, too.)
Despite contributing to a rather poor 22 minutes of television (well, only his portion of it, the rest was pretty great), his presence—and all of its baggage—was a reminder of how good 30 Rock is. Part of what makes the show great—and conversely what I can only assume keeps most of country from catching on—is that it dispenses with the conventions that Seinfeld pilloried. And while Seinfeld, the apotheosis of sitcoms, shall live on forever in syndication, the same cannot be said of the real Mr. Seinfeld, whose appearance on 30 Rock only confirms that he is aging like the rest of us.