Jennifer Armstrong

Seinfeld as Americana

Air Date: August 26, 2016

Jennifer Armstrong talks about her new book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

READ FULL TRANSCRIPT

HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Coming from the host of a show assertively about something, with a legacy of intellectual banter, and a longevity as the most enduring PBS program in the country, we indulge today in a phenomenon with a trailblazing life of its own: Seinfeld.

The television sitcom from a New York City cult to a national and religiously devoted audience. In its prime, and in syndication ever since, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, alongside their herd of writers, created 22 minutes of programming that has stood the test of time, and in her best-selling new book, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, critic Jennifer Keishin Armstrong deftly explores Seinfeld from bizarro-world to American classic, with arguably the most indelible influence on pop culture today.

Containing as much universal, if cynical, truth as any contemporary media form. I do endorse the New York Times review of Seinfeldia as a deep dive as if she, our author here today, Anderson, were a marine biologist, a reference you Seinfeld fans will get. But to begin our conversation, I want to ask Jennifer what is an obvious but basic question: how could the idea of nothing, the minutia of everyday life, as the show’s premise change so much?

ARMSTRONG: Well, I think that’s exactly what it is, is that this is our lives, right? You know, this isn’t some whacky, crazy made-up situation. It all starts with the irritations of everyday life that just drive us crazy, that feel big to us, even if it seems like nothing.

You know, someone might ask you what, what happened to you today? Nothing. Well, nothing except I fought with the rental car place or I couldn’t find a parking spot or any of those sorts of things, and they kind of blow them up into these epic tragedies that feel like that’s, that’s how it feels to us. You know, it feels like a big deal, and I think that’s why the, the nothing is actually something.

HEFFNER: Right, and genius, and of course award-winning and much-heralded today. But, and, and I do think that it is with an aura of modesty and maybe faux-modesty. [LAUGHS] That they recount their story at the diner, that is Jerry and Larry, uh, because they were onto something and it was about something vivid, something imaginative, uh, whether you want to say genius or not, but being inside the lives and exposing the lives of real people, maybe whacky people to some extent. Right?

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, it, that’s, that’s the genius. The thing is it’s, it’s, I don’t want to say easy. It’s easier to make a show where it’s like, what if this crazy thing happens and our characters have to deal with it, right? Um, it’s kind of more of the I Love Lucy model, which was great for its time. But they just went like, we’re gonna try to make regular stuff and that happens to be their genius, and they obviously knew that already, but yeah, it, it’s…

It is really something and the joke that they later made themselves, you know, that this is a show about nothing, it really, really stuck. [LAUGHS] Really stuck hard. I don’t think they counted on that. Um, you know, it, the, the nothing is something. There’s just no way… No other way to say it. It starts to sound very deep, when you… [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: When you put it that way.

HEFFNER: The idea of nothing or nothing-ism, um, because really in the case of our lives, free expression I think got a new lease on life in Seinfeld.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

HEFFNER: The…

ARMSTRONG: That’s true. That’s very true. I mean, it… I think, I mean, somebody like George especially, right? He’s saying all the things, all the things that we wish we could say. [LAUGHS] In these situations.

HEFFNER: Well, I want you to expound on that, because, um, the idea of minutia in people’s lives, um, blowing into proportion with a lot of plot twists, um, and sort of intersecting narratives over the years. This was a nine-season long endeavor, um, that really brought you up to the new millennium, and offered people an escape.

Now, you collect the narrative here and it is like a backseat pass. Really, you feel like you’re in the DVD extras section of the special collectors’ edition, which is a real thing.

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS] Yes.

HEFFNER: But even with more intimate, um, connection to the real-life characters who, um, Larry and Jerry invented. But to me, the most lasting idea in being a fan of Seinfeld—and we’re gonna assume a degree of familiarity here; this is a show that originated in New York, even though Seinfeld depicts New York, was made up in California.
ARMSTRONG: [OVERLAP] Right.

HEFFNER: Um, this seeming contradiction for people who derive meaning, and you are a television critic.

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: With a show that is not meaningless but has a great deal of ironic, even sort of sadistic…

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Uh, bent, and so how do you, how do you justify that meaning from which you derive a lot?

ARMSTRONG: I think they knew they had meaning, you know what I mean? And, and like you said, it was maybe false modesty, maybe even a little bit cunning. [LAUGHS] To be like, no, we’re not a … Like, don’t, don’t, no. We’re not about anything. Um, then you know, you sneak in anyway.

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: And I think, I think it’s, I think it’s pretty artful. I really, really do. I don’t think they set out knowing…

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: That, uh, yeah. I don’t think they had a vision originally. I really don’t, um, but it comes, it starts to come through, and there is a very sort of Beckett quality to a lot of it. It’s the sort of… The nothingness is…

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: Is part of it. Right? It’s this empty waiting. It’s like there’s a whole episode where they just wait for a table at a restaurant and then don’t get it. Um, there’s a lot of… There’s a lot of picking at the way we live today. Right? It’s like, why do I have to bring this bottle of wine to a party? Why is that necessary?

You know, why do we do the things we do? Why is it re… Why do I have to break up with this woman? Why can’t she just go away? Why do… You know, there’s a lot of like kind of trying to figure out he meaning behind what we do every day and questioning it instead of just doing it.

Um, and that’s, especially George. [LAUGHS] That’s George’s thing, and, you know it’s a h… That’s a huge part of what’s going on there, and it’s a very, I think of that time too. I mean, it helped define its times, the 90s. Um, but it, it’s when we kind of went ironic and cynical and, you know, we have Nirvana and grunge questioning things in a different way. I think all of that really does go together.

HEFFNER: Well, I think it, I think it does too and it resonates when you think of nothing as comic stream of consciousness, like you said, if your boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband asks you what happened, you say nothing.

Well, there’s something there that happened during the day and of course it’s exaggerated, but… [LAUGHS] When, when I talk to you about meaning, what struck me in the New York Times review of your book, as well as, um, in some of the coverage is the New Republic’s literary editor, who, you know, is rather austere but august to many, uh, literary mind of the 21st century, uh, who… [LAUGHS] Who said, “Seinfeld is the worst. The last gasp of Reaganite grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, uh, banal self-absorption.”

Um, um, so, how can, how can you counter that? Because I think there is a compelling counter-argument from, um, someone who may not be a Reaganite, may not be materialistic, that Seinfeld was giving voice to discontent?

ARMSTRONG: They are kind of awful people. A lot of the time. Um, it’s true, but you know, we’re all kind of awful sometimes, or, or have these thoughts inside, anyway, and you know, I don’t think that our heroes… Or I shouldn’t say heroes, but our main characters in TV shows and any pop culture need to be good, likeable people, necessarily.

I mean, and we’ve seen that now, in a lot of our television. We’ve … [LAUGHS] Gone the other way, and I think Seinfeld helped bring that in, but it, it allows them to like, say these things that, that we feel but we don’t wanna say, and I think there’s a value in that, you know? And they’re trying, they’re trying to figure out life. They’re trying to question it. They’re not just trying to go along with it and do what they’re told, and they’re kind of going like why are, what are we all doing and why are we here?

They’re, they’re pretty selfish, but I don’t… I don’t even see much materialism per se in this, and they’re just trying to… kinda go like, what are we doing here? You know, what’s going on with our lives? Why do certain things feel important to us, even when they’re not things that are normally depicted on television?

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm. Do you see, in, in the characters… I would dispute that they’re awful, but I, I…

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: I think that the finale of them being found guilty in a court of law in a prison, uh, vindicates you.

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: More than sort of the better angels of projecting them. But you’re right, the, the evolution of the television character has, has been more from hero to villain and visa-versa, and in that respect, do you think the Seinfeld era captures this broader discontent of society today? The Trump phenomenon? I mean, do you think a lot of Seinfeld, maybe not you and me…

ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But do you think a lot of Seinfeld viewers are Trump voters?

ARMSTRONG: I mean, they, they’re… Everyone was a Seinfeld viewer when it was on. You know what I mean? Like, so many people. I… Almost everyone watched, and a lot of people still do, so there has to be some overlap for sure.

I definitely think Trump is a Seinfeldian phenomenon. For sure. I keep trying to imagine, like, how they might tackle, you know, something like Trump. I can imagine them tackling something like Trump. He’s New York. He is kind of 90s. You know, he came up in the 90s, and he’s ridiculous, but he too is giving voice to something, right? Um, you know, but there’s also a difference between, I wanna watch George on television and I want George to be my president.

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: You know what I mean? [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Right, right, right. We’re, we’re running a country, not a TV show.

ARMSTRONG: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: And that might be lost on a huge amount of… [LAUGHS]

ARMSTRONG: Apparently so.

HEFFNER: Republican…

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Primary-goers, but, but in all earnestness, I, I do attribute that comment to a dimension of the personalities of the characters.

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: But not these characters wholly. In other words, I think there were, and you point out in the book, boundaries crossed when it came to social taboos, with respect to gay people, homosexuality, that, that, that were actually not necessarily regressive but progressive.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Even when they’re talking, you know, even if they’re kind of, like, having an attitude that we don’t admire about something, they’re pushing it. It, I would liken it a little bit to Archie Bunker on All in the Family.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

ARMSTRONG: I mean, that was an interesting case as well, because he was giving, he was giving voice to a certain segment of the population. His creator, Norman Lear, meant him as sort of a buffoon or like, you know, he was trying to send up this character a little, and then what happened is the show became immensely popular, partly because people went “yeah! I like that Archie Bunker. He speaks his mind and says what he’s thinking.” Very Trumpian.

Um, and I think, I think George especially has, has some similar qualities to that, but less inflammatory.

HEFFNER: And for our viewers who may not be familiar with Seinfeld, the, the episode “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With Being Gay” is the one in question, in which, um, homosexuality may morph for a viewer into something is remote and disconnected into … your father could be gay.

ARMSTRONG: Right.

HEFFNER: My father is gay. Right? That’s what George says on the show…

ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Even though…

ARMSTRONG: If…

HEFFNER: His father is probably not gay.

ARMSTRONG: He isn’t.

HEFFNER: Right? [LAUGHS]

ARMSTRONG: He, he, he’s getting more and more… Like, part of that is that, you know, they keep trying to like get out of this weird liberal guilt they’re feeling. Right? They’re in a bind. That’s what’s so interesting about that.

HEFFNER: Although, the experiment with the Manzier may put in question… I mean, I think it…

ARMSTRONG: It’s a good point.

HEFFNER: Validates some of the question around…
ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

HEFFNER: George’s father’s sexuality.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah, it’s a good point, and they were very progressive on a number of issues. You know, um, George later is engaged to… Poor Susan, which that’s another… [LAUGHS] Her ending is another issue.

But before that, he, when he gets back together with her, he finds out that she’s been with a woman, um, and it’s not, like, I mean, he’s sort of enamored of that, but it’s not treated as this crazy thing that she could have fluid sexuality. It’s treated as extremely normal, which is, especially in the 90s, that’s really, really progressive.

So, they’re dealing with a lot of, not just these taboos, but like the ways we interact with those taboos. So, “Not That There’s Anything Wrong That,” you know, is them being like, well, we don’t want people to think we’re gay, but we also don’t want people to think we think that’s bad. That’s, that’s what’s going on there, and yeah, then it kind of builds on itself and suddenly they’re, he’s claiming his father’s gay and all kinds of crazy things.

HEFFNER: In the special collectors’ edition, Larry David talks about beating the censors, and that is in this case NBC, but also the government censors in, uh, being able to talk about The Contest … um, you know, sexual identity and life in, in a way that is not egregious, is not explicit and is fair game.

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: How did Larry David beat the censors so much that HBO is alive and thriving and he, as I said to you off-camera, you know, I confess I am a converted Seinfeld fan from absorbing Curb, which is Curb Your Enthusiasm, a much more explicit, direct examination of those social faux pas. Um, so how did Larry, from the outset, beat, beat the censors? Because he won.

ARMSTRONG: Oh, absolutely and I, I’ve heard from people before that, you know, that was, it was kind of almost always a game. If you had like a cool show that wanted to push boundaries at all it was almost like, what can we get away with every week? Um, you know, and still get on the air.

But The Contest is the best example, for sure. Um, where they’re in a masturbation contest, but they never say the word. The entire episode, they never use that word, and I think it’s only funny because they never use the word. I don’t think it’d be funny for them to walk around talking about masturbation with the word.

The joke is that they keep saying “master of my domain”; “king of the castle”; “lord of the manor.” Um, you know, and they keep adding to it. So, it’s another one of these things where they gave us a way to talk about something that you might want to talk about in polite company otherwise, and they showed it without showing it. You know, they showed it without being dirty or vulgar or anything, and it’s not just the phrase, it’s also that they do this cute thing where like, whenever someone drops out of “the contest” they are shown sleeping soundly, while the others are shown fitfully, you know, thrashing around at night.

HEFFNER: Which is a physiological reality.

ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Yeah. That’s genius. I, and it’s so funny, and then the bonus of the fact that Elaine participates and does not win is, is also super progressive as like, we’re not just talking about masturbation on television, we’re talking about a woman masturbating on television, so… It’s, it was, it was pretty daring, and they had no notes on that one. No problems at NBC with that one, because they didn’t say the word.

HEFFNER: The rub, of course, is while maybe expanding our definitions of sexuality and our openness, uh, and understanding and, um, even sympathy maybe for the plight of people dissimilar from ourselves, Larry, in his guilty conscience, on Curb Your Enthusiasm¸ is very clear that there was not, uh, a proportional representation of minorities on the show whatsoever, so much so that, in Curb Your Enthusiasm, a woman approaches him in an episode, um, saying there are a plethora of black people, African Americans, in New York, and Elaine couldn’t have one black friend? Uh, and so, I think Larry came to take ownership.

ARMSTRONG: It was a different time. I mean, I do think that’s part of it. You know, if you look at Friends, Friends makes Seinfeld look incredibly diverse. [LAUGHS] You know, if you, even the background people. Like, at least on Seinfeld, the background people look like New Yorkers a lot of the time, and a lot of those, the minor characters who come on like once or twice, you know, they did have some people of color.

But, yeah. It was not something they were actively, you know, working on, either, and they, they caught some flak for it then, but I think it was more just that, you know, African American audiences just didn’t watch. You know, some did. But most didn’t. It was actually a point made on the, uh, recent O.J. Simpson miniseries, where during the jury episode, where they’re, they, they fight about what they’re gonna watch on television.

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: And the, the black people want to watch Martin, the white people watch, want to watch Seinfeld.
HEFFNER: That is Martin Lawrence?

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

HEFFNER: Okay, but, but that is a chicken and egg question.

ARMSTRONG: Right.

HEFFNER: In the sense that, if they had depicted minority characters outside of special characters for particular shows…

ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Then their artistic representation might’ve been more diverse, therefore courting…

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: A more diverse audience.

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Even outside of the 30 million…

ARMSTRONG: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Weekly viewers. Uh, do you regret that? In, in writing this, this book, um, Seinfeldia, and looking at Seinfeld, because it does have so much value to us, and to its proprietors too, despite what they may say.

ARMSTRONG: Right.

HEFFNER: Um, or do… Are you satisfied with the m… social milieu enough to, to really think that it is a diverse enough representation of the American experience that it is worthy of, what you say in the conclusion, a kind of life of its own beyond syndication, in the encyclopedia that, whatever it is, Wikipedia.

ARMSTRONG: Right, right. I mean, this is kind of almost always a problem when you’re writing about stuff from the past, because we j… Like, people just didn’t… It’s not right, but they didn’t do, they didn’t worry about it then. So, you can’t ignore everything that happened, you know, before, on television, even though it was unbelievably white.

You know, it’s like, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, I wrote a book about that, it also had this problem, um, even at a time when a lot of, there were predominantly black shows on mainstream television. Um, you know, you can’t ignore everything that happened just because they weren’t diverse enough, um…

And like I said, you know, it’s, it’s horrible, but it’s a comparison game and it’s like, well, they were a little better than some others, um, but I think that they were so successful at that time, NBC wasn’t about to push them on that.

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: And they were maybe not really honestly paying attention to it.

HEFFNER: Right, and, and to the extent that Jerry Seinfeld can say today that there are PC police, on college campuses in particular…

ARMSTRONG: [OVERLAP] Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: They, they were not inspecting…

ARMSTRONG: No.

HEFFNER: NBC at that time, and they, they may be today, but probably not with any kind of litmus test or, um, quota system that…

ARMSTRONG: Right.

HEFFNER: But in, in the, in the final analysis, Jennifer, um, why do you love Seinfeld?

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: I mean, so much to write an entire history of it.

ARMSTRONG: I mean, it’s, it’s partly that… The same reasons that everybody loves it. Right? You can watch it over and over and over again and just still keep finding stuff there. It’s incredible. Um, but…

HEFFNER: It’s like the Kennedy assassination, right?

ARMSTRONG: It is.

HEFFNER: There is an episode for…

ARMSTRONG: [OVERLAP] There is an episode about that too. Um, you can always find more things. There’s lots of future famous people. You know, you can always find a new one on every re-watch. Oh, there’s so and so now. Um, so there’s that, and there’s the nostalgia, but I think it’s, it’s more than that.

It feels relevant even to our lives now, and it’s had an incredible influence on culture. Um, so as a TV, kind of geek too, it, it’s meaningful in that way.

HEFFNER: But that, that influence hasn’t been entirely horrible. I asked you… [LAUGHS] About the correlation between that influence and the Trump phenomenon, but tell… Please tell us that influence as fans, the two of us, hasn’t just been a, a very, very bad, very, very bad show, very, very bad influence, right?

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Tell us… That is also a quote from Seinfeld.

ARMSTRONG: Yes.

HEFFNER: Google.

ARMSTRONG: Yes. Um, no I think, I think that’s it… First of all, it brought us Curb, right? So, that’s great.

HEFFNER: Well… [LAUGHS]

ARMSTRONG: Um, someone, someone, I’m stealing this from someone…

HEFFNER: And J. B. Smoove.

ARMSTRONG: Right. I’m stealing this from someone, but…

HEFFNER: A guest of the show. Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: Someone once, once said something along the lines of, um, Curb Your Enthusiasm is like Seinfeld on crack.

HEFFNER: Right.

ARMSTRONG: I feel like that’s totally true, and there’s no way anyone would’ve thought that someone wanted to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, if Seinfeld didn’t, uh, come before it, um, but we’ve seen a lot more… You know, there’s the obvious stuff, like if you watch a 30 Rock or an Office, or any of those shows, the, the much less conventional kind of ways of shooting a sitcom and having action and crazy things happen that are, that feel like… What? But they work within the context of the show, the kind of world building.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

ARMSTRONG: That they did is amazing. The intertwining plots. Um, the quick, quick cuts and quick dialogue. The catchphrases upon catchphrases. Um, there are so, so many things. They also gave us, you know, as we were discussing, the, the antihero.

Um, I think, you know, they helped pave the way for Tony Soprano and Mad Men and all of those shows that we love now. And they also just elevated the art form. You know, they elevated the form of the sitcom and showed it could be smart.

HEFFNER: More, more… Right, and more sophistication.

ARMSTRONG: Right.

HEFFNER: The language superior, that then brought us The West Wing. Those are heroes, but…

ARMSTRONG: That’s true.

HEFFNER: The West Wing, Sopranos.

ARMSTRONG: That’s very true. The talkie, the talkie-ness, too. You know, I think they had a very… Both of those guys have a musical ear for comedy, and you can hear it.

HEFFNER: And robust vocabularies.

ARMSTRONG: Yes. Yes. You can hear it.

HEFFNER: And so that, that’s a pro.

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm. I mean, Larry David, in particular, he, he kind of loves to like repeat phrases. He finds a phrase and he says it over and over. Um, one story that I got for the book was that he had a friend named Joe Davola, whose name he used for Crazy Joe Davola, and the first time he realized he was gonna do it, he saw Joe Davola at something and he just came up to him and said, “Joe Davola, Joe Davola, Joe Davola.”

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

ARMSTRONG: Um, and you could… That’s, he was working it. He goes like, “You’ve got a great name. Can I use it?” You know, um, he… I, I think you can hear all of that, and it wasn’t just like a dumb, churned out script. It was really crafted.

HEFFNER: It also brought us Bernie Sanders.

ARMSTRONG: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: On, on Saturday Night Live, and I think there is something cathartic about that, because of course, Larry David famously quit SNL.

ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: In a huff and a puff and then showed up to work as if he hadn’t quit.

ARMSTRONG: [LAUGHS] Yes.

HEFFNER: A la George Costanza, right?

ARMSTRONG: Yes. One of my favorite stories. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Jennifer. Really fun being with you today.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas, even nothing-ism. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.