An Essay About Nothing: Seinfeld As Filtered By Christianity
Elaine: Well I guess a certain someone changed their mind about whether a certain someone is qualified to babysit.
Jerry: Is this about me?
Jerry: Well then I’ve pretty much lost interest.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY? NO SUCH THING.”
Today the Seinfeld series finale is old enough to vote! 18 years ago on May 14th the New York Four stood on trial for not being good Samaritans and, in the words of the judge, for “callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent” in society. So what better way to celebrate than talking about that callous indifference! To be upfront, this is not an essay about how great a show Seinfeld is or how it impacted my life or why it is my favorite show ever. If you are interested in that, you can go here or here.
Instead, I want to dissect it in a way that I am certain Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David never envisioned and probably would rather I not. But I’m doing it. While probably unintentional, Seinfeld was very philosophical. You cannot truly have a ‘show about nothing.’ In trying to make a show about the most inane parts of life1 you are essentially saying that “life is about nothing.” Intentional or not, that is philosophy. Even if it is guised heavily by the funniest dialogue and greatest character development in TV sitcom history.
When I watched Seinfeld during its original run (and it’s still surreal to me that I can remember the commercial previews for episodes like when Kramer’s first name is revealed–when they were brand new) I watched it because it was funny. And I’m sure millions still see it as a funny show. Nothing more, nothing less. But as I moved on to Bible College the semester after the show went off the air, I began to notice that a lot of what I studied–from Nietzsche to Ecclesiastes–reminded me of Seinfeld.
“AND YOU AND I KILLED HIM”
I do not think I’m reading too much into the show to say that to the characters, God was dead. At least in the sense that they lived like He had nothing to do with their lives and especially their morality. God was irrelevant. At times, he was a punchline2. As a result, an anti-Christian worldview was implicit and explicit in the show. The characters were completely selfish, completely self-consumed. Nothing mattered other than getting what they wanted. It was utterly perpendicular to loving your neighbor as yourself. Like Paul wrote, citing Isaiah, if the resurrection isn’t true then ‘let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’3. Seinfeld was the quintessential “eat and drink for tomorrow we die” show. It’s like the characters listened to Paul, just that they went the opposite way that Paul desired.
Believe it or not, this makes me appreciate the show on a different level. The reason is because it took that philosophy to its logical end. While it portrayed an anti-Christian worldview, it did not glorify it. It certainly didn’t preach. You had four main characters, mostly unattractive4, mostly with moderate amounts of success at their careers. They all lose relationships because they are selfish. They all lose jobs or gigs because they are selfish. SPOILER: They all go to jail in the finale for being selfish5. There was no cheesy music and lesson learned at the end of each episode. It blew up the TGIF sitcom formula and changed TV in ways that is still producing fruit in 20166.
“A DEEP, DARK CHASM…”
Beyond how much their selfishness messed up their lives, I now appreciate the honesty in how they confess their lives are unfulfilled as a result:
“We’re all unhappy, do we have to be fat, too?”Elaine, complaining about too many cake celebrations at work
“My world suddenly has meaning!”Kramer, finding out Pam liked him
“So you began to ask yourself if maybe there is more to life? Let me tell you something: There isn’t.”Kramer, explaining to Jerry why marriage is a bad idea
“Something’s missin’. There’s a void, Jerry, there’s a void.”George, on not finding a woman
As a Christian I think this is how it should be. That is the message of Ecclesiastes. But the huge difference between Seinfeld and Solomon is that Seinfeld, because it is fiction, aims to make it funny instead of depressing. Make no mistake, this is all played for laughs. Unlike a show like “Friends,” there are no serious moments, especially in romantic relationships. No sappy break ups or wedding proposals, no Emmy votes for “best kiss,” no audience cheering because she ‘got off the plane.’ Only Jerry going out with a woman several times without remembering her name, Kramer getting thrown in the Hudson river (in a sack!) at the end of a date, and George dating his cousin because his parents (whom he dislikes) are ignoring him.
“EVERYTHING WITH YOU HAS TO BE SO JOKEY.” “I’M A COMEDIAN.”
And of course, this extended to all areas. Everything was funny: racism, cancer, Hell. Nothing was off limits. This is what happens when God is dead and becomes an irrelevant punchline. But what fascinates me is how this contrasts to and intersects with real life. Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, Michael Richards (Kramer) became the center of an ugly controversy when he hurled ethnic slurs at two guys heckling him at a comedy club in LA. It was a terrible news story. A few days after this happened, Jerry was on David Letterman and he asked Dave if he could beam Richards into the show via satellite so that Richards could apologize. It was too soon after the event in my opinion. And it did not go over well. Mainly for one reason that I will remember til the day I die: When Richards appeared on the big screen with the saddest look on his face and began to try to explain how sorry he was, the studio audience began to laugh. Why? I’m not positive, but maybe because this was ‘Kramer’ they were seeing. They could not look at him and not find him funny. He wasn’t a real man with a real problem; he was entertainment.
That wasn’t all. When the audience laughed, Jerry commented “It isn’t funny.” That struck me like a lightening bolt. Here was a man who for nine years, over 180 episodes of sitcom gold, gave us permission to laugh. At everything. And now in real life, the laughter didn’t stop.
THE BAD BOYS OF POSTMODERN TV (DR. HOLLEY WOULD BE PROUD)
Other shows like the Simpsons, Family Guy and Southpark, took the “God is irrelevant and therefore a joke and so everything is funny” to new levels. And I have to wonder if that doesn’t effect culture in a potent way. I remember working with a group of middle schoolers in inner city Chicago a few years ago and they often talked about these shows as their favorites. One time we took the kids to see a play about Anne Frank. In the play they very appropriately but still very realistically tried to portray what happened to her. And one of the students in our group, as Anne Frank was about to be abused, shouted out a vulgarity and many of the students in our group started laughing. The teachers I was with were horrified. Sometimes I wonder if this didn’t happen because they were reacting as if it were an episode of Family Guy. I’m sure apologists for Seinfeld or any of these shows would say, “It’s just TV.” But the examples of both Richards and these middle school students proves that life not only imitates art, the lines are easily blurred when philosophy is involved.
As far as Seinfeld, this doesn’t make me want to quit watching the show. It just makes me want to filter it correctly. Several years ago I was watching an episode where George says he thought his life was worse because his parents stayed together. And of course the audience laughs. And a friend of mine whose parents did divorce was sitting right there and said, “You have no idea how not funny that is.” That’s kind of the takeaway I’ve come to on this topic. I still would go crazy if I ever met Jerry or Jason Alexander or JLD or Michael Richards. My wife and I will still go through the whole series this summer (3rd time for her, too many to count for me). But there will be about four episodes we don’t watch because they are too crass. And we won’t find all of it funny. We will read and study the Bible daily and live God’s will (imperfectly) when not watching TV so that it serves a good purpose.
I realize this has been heavier than a typical Seinfeld article, so I vow that the next one will be on something like the greatness of George Costanza and a lot funnier. But this does matter to me. I want to laugh at Jerry’s “If this isn’t about me, I’ve pretty much lost interest” because it’s so absurdly honest. But I don’t want to live it. Life is very much about something. Something important and bigger than myself. Jesus is alive and God is relevant. And so I live in an opposite way as the New York Four. And as a result I have kept jobs, have a good, non-prison marriage and it’s very unlikely I’ll ever be going to trial for breaking any laws based on the Bible. 🙂
- “the excruciating minutia of every single daily event,” like the look a teller may give you at the bank drive thru ↩
- When George thinks he is going to die after getting on with NBC, he tells his therapist “I knew God would never let me be successful.” She says, “I thought you didn’t believe in God” and George replies “I do when it comes to the bad stuff. ↩
- 1 Corinthians 15:32; Isaiah 22:13 ↩
- I suppose Julia Louis-Dreyfus can be considered attractive but not like Jennifer Aniston or Courtney Cox, in my opinion. ↩
- This isn’t the place to defend the finale but I know it gets bashed a lot and maybe one day I will defend it. But sending them to jail was genius. It was perfect. It was absolutely the best way to end it to me. And in light of what I’m writing right now, the fact it was “The Good Samaritan Law” that got them in trouble in the first place, is the cherry on the sundae. ↩
- One of which is having antiheroes as sitcom leads. Some of the most popular sitcoms of this century (The Office, Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, etc.) feature central characters that are not people of integrity, at least most of the time. Michael Scott is a far cry from Michael Seaver. ↩
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14 thoughts on “An Essay About Nothing: Seinfeld As Filtered By Christianity”
Good job. Totally agree. While I am still disappointed by the last episode, it’s the logical conclusion.
The finale is certainly up for debate. It wasn’t as funny as most episodes to me and I wouldn’t want anyone to judge the show based on it. But I did love how they basically told the audience “We don’t care about anyone…even you!” and made it the least happy ending.
Excellent analysis, Gowdy. I never watched the show much, but I do remember seeing the last episode.
Thank you Steve. While targeted at Christians and Seinfeld lovers, I think just about anyone can enjoy some parts of this. The show really was unique and culture changing (or culture reflecting, or both).
Good analysis. I heard a reviewer observe that there was a sort of “anti-providence” at work through much of the series — an if-it’s-just-you-against-the-universe, guess-who-loses kind of thing. I’ve sometimes wondered if the final episode was perhaps the producers’ verdict on the audience: “You think you’re all so funny. You belong in the prison of your own selfishness.”
Of course, everything is funny and nothing is beyond the pale, or so the popular thinking would have us believe — until we actually hit the areas that are unspokenly off limits, as with Michael Richards. But how can people fight a war against things which are immoral or unethical or simply unbecoming of a human being if they have already unilaterally disarmed themselves for such combat?
OK, so if in the absence of God EVERYTHING is funny, I believe that there is also another godless response possible, which would be: in the absence of God, NOTHING is funny and everything is serious. That is where society has gone, with trigger warnings, social outrage, and microaggressions everywhere one goes. Was it not Seinfeld who recently talked about not performing on college campuses anymore because he could no longer use humor, because someone would always take offense? It seems that what began as “we can offend anything and everything with our humor,” has become “it is not funny, and we are permanently offended by anything and everything!”
But is that not just like the devil, promising fun and then killing all enjoyment?
Yes, I would definitely say that the different between “funny” and “depressing” is whether it is our reality. For those Letterman audience member and for the 7th graders at Ames Middle school, they perceived what they saw as entertainment. You’d have to be legitimately psycho to laugh when those things actually happen to you. And much like entertainment, I think people who are hurting are prone to cover it with humor. But I’m not much of an expert on that.
The contrast of “everything is funny” and “everything is offensive” an interesting one and I”m glad you bring it up because it is a contrast for sure. The Seinfeld/Simpsons/FG/Southpark people are clearly in the first camp. Family Guy had episodes where Jesus hits on women and God kills people accidentally and where Peter makes noise eating potato chips so that the Nazis could find those who where hiding. If you can find that entertainment, you will laugh at just about anything. But I do see the other side in our culture – and know there are throngs of people would not dare laugh at the episode where Elaine is dating the guy and she doesn’t know what race he. It’s so offensive. The extremes in our culture of all kinds are dangerous.
I’m re-watching the series and I find that just about half of the episodes would be politically incorrect in 2016. Sure, the ones about orgasms and masturbation would still air, but making light of alcoholism or the the “bubble boy.” That would have to go.
II think it will be a long time before we ever get offended by even the crassest sexual things. Cheers opened that door and Seinfeld knocked it down. (There may have been other contributors but at least those two were the most popular I’d guess). But the other stuff is interesting. Family Guy makes fun of just about everything but they got knocked off the air once and get static all the time from the public. I suppose it begin a cartoon helps them get away with more since it’s even “Further” from reality. You may be right that a human show can’t make fun of the things Seinfeld makes fun of any more.
By the way, I am rewatching too and noticed they made a joke about suicide in the first season. They were who they were from the beginning, so to speak.
The characters in Seinfeld need to attend a diversity training led by Michael Scott in an outdoor arena in Pawnee with the entire P and R department.
YES. That would be great. As Phill wrote for our Top 10 Sitcom post, P&R pretty much proved you don’t have to be like Seinfeld to be funny. You can be kind and loving. I’m seriously thinking of writing a 5 on how Leslie convicts me for not being a good friend and servant.
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Great essay. Here are my favorite Kramer memes
Yes I have known many Christians who live exactly like the characters in the show. They read about Jesus everyday, but their life is still without meaning as they fail to love the neighbors or even their own family. Maybe what they are trying to say in the show isn’t that God is “dead”, but perhaps that if you are an 8 year old child dying on stage cancer, God may seem dead. He is great and powerful, he just chooses no to use that energy on dying children or orphans.
The show wasn’t bent to 8-year old with cancer at all. In fact the one episode with a sick kid everything was still funny. “You just have to do one thing for me Bobby.” “I know, you want me to walk again.” “No, I really just need that card.”
Imagine how great and powerful you have to be to overcome death and Hell and heal every child who has ever lived and suffered and be in relationship with them for all eternity. Nothing funny about that. I stand in awe of it.