I Finally Watched “Seinfeld”

Of all the pop-culture phenomena that I have managed to miss out on in my life—and there have been many—no lapse might be greater than having never watched a single episode of “Seinfeld.” In the final decade of the twentieth century, this was no small feat, and it was accomplished, in part, because I didn’t own a television set—only high art for me—but mostly because I harbored a long-simmering antagonism toward mainstream America, with the notable exception of professional sports. It would have been impossible, of course, for me to ever fully outrun the wide reach of the show, as it was being referred to by everyone everywhere, with catchphrases quoted, yada yada, etc., and scenes described, and jokes retold. Often, I would find myself on the periphery of a group of friends or co-workers, perennial outsider that I was, waiting for the laughter to subside, as they discussed what had been said or done the night before by Jerry or whomever; if I had been a bit more liberated, I perhaps could have admitted that the scenarios did seem somewhat funny in the recounting.

But, even when the show finally ended, there was no discernible abating of its cultural impact in syndication, and the years continued to pass with catchphrases still quoted, scenes still described, and me still standing on the sideline completely clueless. Until one day, two decades later, I decided that I would take matters into my own hands: I would watch the show once and for all, every episode of the show, from start to finish, one episode a day, and that meant, for the record, a hundred and eighty days of “Seinfeld.” This was pre-pandemic, when such an undertaking would have been seen, at least by me, as an indulgent waste of time, but I justified it as a form of self-improvement. It also conveniently gave me something to occupy myself with during my lunch break in the basement of the N.Y.U. library where I would go every day to write, sitting in a cubicle amid college students who had been born after “Seinfeld” but probably knew more about it than I did.

And so I began to watch, circa twelve o’clock on an October afternoon, nearly thirty years after the fact, Season 1, Episode 1, eating my sandwich, while Jerry, as his standup-comedic persona, opened the series with a set about the universal need that people have to “go out,” and then, once “out,” the need to “get back.” “Do you know what this is all about?” he asked of the delighted audience. “Why we’re here? To be out.” This was followed a few minutes later by a scene in a laundromat with Jerry trying to convince an increasingly frustrated George that there was a misconception about clothes being “overdry.” “You can’t ‘overdry,’ ” Jerry explains, “the same reason you can’t ‘overwet.’ ” This was the entire essence of the show in the first ten minutes: the wordplay, the observational humor, the low stakes—and, through the wonders of societal osmosis, much of it was already completely familiar, including the theme music.

It was slow going for me in the beginning. I was bored, perplexed, and mostly unamused—this is what all the fuss was about?—trying my best to find purchase among silly story lines and quirky characters. There was Kramer, pulling two slices of bread from his bathrobe pockets, asking Jerry, “You got any meat?” There was George, flustered again, inventing the figure of Art Vandelay, importer-exporter. By the end of the first week, I was finished with Season 1, all five episodes. Then came Season 2, more of the same and twice as long, with Kramer sitting on the couch shovelling cantaloupe into his mouth, George trying to break up with his girlfriend, and Jerry doing a set about the indignity of waiting rooms. It occurred to me, in my humorless state, that the extreme compression was working against my enjoyment, that the show would have been better with slower digestion, one episode per week as intended, followed the next day by recapping at the water cooler, and then summers off. Instead, I was alone and swallowing “Seinfeld” whole. It was also possible that I was trying, albeit unconsciously, to justify a decision I had made thirty years ago, and that each solitary laugh now threatened to cause a painful fissure in my world view. In other words, I was caught somewhere between comedy and regret. At the rate I was watching, it was going to take me six months to complete the entire DVD boxed set, thirty-three discs, heavy like a brick, which I had to return to the seventh floor of the library every seven days—taking the stairs for exercise—so that I could ask to check it out for yet one more week.

What I had not been able to anticipate was the very palpable sensation of being transported back to a younger version of myself, dropped straight into the nineteen-nineties, and then slowly moving forward in time, episode by episode, through an era exemplified by the show’s hair styles, the outfits, and, perhaps most of all, the enormous Mac computer in the background on Jerry’s desk. It was an era that was also exemplified by the first Gulf War, which had, incidentally, preëmpted the start of the second season by one week. I had been in my early twenties then, working as a short-order cook at a restaurant in Pittsburgh, making five dollars an hour, and spending my shift, when I wasn’t grilling hamburgers, sitting on an upturned milk crate as I sliced hundreds of pounds of potatoes for French fries. This was not my dream job—I wanted to be an actor—and I was unhappy and sullen and not the best short-order cook. And then the war began, and this only exacerbated my unhappiness, as well as my anger and isolation, surrounded as I was by co-workers, not to mention everyone else in the country, who seemed, without exception, to champion the war. A week or so after the U.S. invasion, I violated one of the central precepts of the workplace and got into an ill-advised political discussion with the chef. He was pro-war, and he was also my boss, and I recall that we both, at first, tried our best to be reasoned and measured, or at least to have the affect of being reasoned and measured, but that the exchange soon devolved into condescension, passive-aggressiveness, and, finally, voices raised. And, a few days after that, I came into the restaurant one morning to find that my name wasn’t listed on the following week’s schedule, which, in the hospitality business, is code for You’re fired. Why I had been fired, I didn’t know. Nor could anyone give me a good reason, including the chef. In lieu of a good reason, I came up with my own: I had been fired for being of Middle Eastern descent. This is what I mean when I say that I harbored a long-simmering antagonism toward mainstream America.

So I was undergoing a sort of parallel viewing experience, with one version of myself sitting in the N.Y.U. library watching the show in the present, and a second version—whether I wanted it to or not—reliving my distant past. As the actors aged, so did I, my youth passing along with the series at an accelerated rate. By the time I had reached Season 5, I was twenty-four years old, just like that, living in New York City while Jerry stood onstage ruminating on the invention of seedless watermelons (“I guess if they can get rid of the seeds, the rind is going next”) and Kramer burst through the front door, as per usual, carrying an air-conditioner (“Twelve thousand B.T.U.s of raw cooling power!”)—and I was renting an illegal sublet on the Upper East Side, filled with optimism about my acting career, sending my head shot out to hundreds of casting agents, and then waiting for the phone to ring. I was aware of a subtle but significant shift taking place in my psyche, in which the characters had become familiar to me, almost, dare I say, like friends, and I could begin to understand the internal logic of their behavior. If I wasn’t completely amused, I was, at least, affectionate.

It also happened to be around this time that I did the thing that everyone always did with “Seinfeld”: I made a connection between a real-world event and a specific episode of the show. Up to now, I’d always been the straight-faced bystander, of course, listening as someone explained, through their laughter, “That’s just like when Elaine did X. . . .” But, one afternoon, while a friend told me the story of a date gone wrong, I suddenly recalled, without any prompting, the remarkably applicable episode in which George, enamored with a woman, is invited up to her apartment to have coffee. “Oh, no, thanks,” he tells her, blithely unaware of the subtext of her overture. “I can’t drink coffee late at night. It keeps me up.” It’s only after she’s gone that he realizes his folly and that he has missed out on a clear opportunity for romance. I had scarcely begun describing the episode to my friend when he cut me off. “I can’t drink coffee late at night,” he said, quoting George to me. He knew the episode. He knew the episode better than I knew the episode. I’d seen it recently, but he’d seen it many times, every episode many times, often when they aired in prime time, and later in syndication, and they were burned into his brain. A moment later, he was pulling the scene up on YouTube, and sitting there beside him I could see the humor of the situation, the human condition of it, the constant travails of poor George, always striving, never achieving. We watched together, my friend and I, both of us chuckling along, but only he had the glow of nostalgia.

As for my memories of the past, I continued to recall, with emotional clarity, that slowly aging version of myself in New York City. How I had wanted to be an actor. How I had wanted fame and fortune and a better place to live than the illegal sublet with a bathtub in the living room. And how, every so often, like a miracle, I would receive a call from a casting director offering to send me out to audition for film or television. The auditions were always for small parts, one line here or there, but I had no complaints, because a single line might mean a thousand dollars, and, besides, everyone had to start somewhere. What I did have a complaint about, though, was that the roles were almost always for something stereotypically Middle Eastern or South Asian—as these were considered interchangeable—like cabdriver, deli owner, or a man named Jehu encamped in the desert, wearing a turban, playing a Nintendo snowboarding game while his camel rests in the sand behind him. It was dispiriting and humiliating to realize that the only defining thing about me was my ethnicity, and that this would never be ancillary in the eyes of the entertainment industry, but rather front and center. I kept these complaints to myself, of course, and I said yes to everything and I said no to nothing. I would sit patiently in a casting office with a dozen other actors, each of us with ancestral roots in the same part of the world, give or take a few thousand miles, while I waited for my chance to stare into a camera for thirty seconds and exclaim, with an overblown and imprecise Middle Eastern accent, “I warn you snowboarders: watch out for Jehu!” Long gone were ideals and principles. Long gone was rectitude. Long gone was the young man in the restaurant speaking out against the war in the Middle East, never mind the consequences. I was twenty-six years old now, acquiescent and co-opted, and more than happy to play those characters in film and on television who would have made me wince when I was a little boy.

Which brings me back to “Seinfeld,” and the occasional walk-on of the immigrant, usually associated with food—“You no order chicken cashew!”—and almost always played for laughs. If I had been watching the episodes when they had first aired, in the nineties, it would have taken a considerable amount of cognitive dissonance for me to have made it past Season 3, specifically the appearance of Babu Bhatt, Pakistani café owner, name comically alliterative, accent high-octane, grammar challenged, dressed in a turban, what else, while reprimanding a befuddled Jerry. “You very, very bad man!” Three decades later, I was not going to let foreign burlesque deter me from my mission of making it through every episode. I suppose that this was partly because I had become inured to ethnic insult—or maybe I was a beaten man—and partly because I was already fully prepared for the treatment of minorities on “Seinfeld,” not from the series itself but from the actor Danny Hoch, whose one-man show “Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop” I had seen at a downtown theatre in the late nineties.

I remember sitting in the back row of the packed house, thoroughly entertained, laughing hard despite my jealousy of an obviously talented actor who had the spotlight all to himself. Midway through the performance, Hoch had broken the fourth wall to address the audience directly, all jokes aside, about his experience on the set of “Seinfeld,” where he’d been cast in the role of the “pool guy” who worked at Jerry’s health club, and who happened to be named Ramon. Hoch had been paying his dues for years, as had I, and he’d been flown first class to L.A. on TWA, which only added to my envy. “Do you know how many actors would kill to be in this position?” he asked, rhetorically. Yes, I did know. But, once on the set of “Seinfeld,” he’d been instructed by the director to play the role using a “Spanish accent.” Understanding the implications of a “pool guy” speaking with a Spanish accent to comic effect, he had refused. But the director had insisted, and so had Jerry, and Michael Richards had intervened to offer a meta way out—“pretend you’re doing a guy who’s doing a Spanish accent”—but Hoch had stood his ground, and then the role was recast, and he flew back to New York City. As I sat in the back row of that downtown theatre, under the cloak of darkness, Hoch might as well have been looking right at me, nearing thirty, little to show for it, still holding out hope for success, furiously applauding a monologue that I agreed with, but only in theory. Had I been at the right audition at the right time, I would have accepted the role of Babu Bhatt, no questions asked, the pinnacle of my career, caricaturing my heritage for a four-figure payday preserved forever in the DVD boxed set.

Eight months after I had started, I was done, every episode watched once, never twice, on average five per week, while my youth, in condensed form, had unspooled at a troubling speed, beginning at the age of twenty in Pittsburgh and culminating at twenty-nine in New York City. All of the references that had once been such a mystery to me had now been revealed. Close talker, low talker, Art Vandelay, et al. Sitting in my cubicle in a nearly empty library in June, I was surprised at how bereft I felt at having to say goodbye to Jerry and his friends—his friends were my friends—never mind all of the complicated and contradictory feelings that came along with the show. Now I was in an accepting mood. I was in a forgiving mood. I was in a Pax Americana mood. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of cognitive dissonance. Besides, it would have taken a tremendous amount of energy—mental and spiritual—for me to dismiss characters with whom I had just spent a hundred and eighty episodes together. I had always been so good at writing off people, whatever the price, and I had paid for it with a certain self-perpetuating isolation.

There is one memory that has always stayed with me from the heyday of “Seinfeld,” when I had had my only direct experience with the show in real time. I had gone to a playwright’s home to rehearse her script for a staged reading that she was doing. She was hoping, as was I, as were the other half-dozen actors assembled in her living room, that this would be the thing that would finally launch our careers. I remember that her husband and son, who was probably no more than ten years old, had watched us rehearse for a while, but that at some point they had excused themselves because it was time for “Seinfeld.” Shortly afterward, I began to hear laughter emanating from the back bedroom, every minute or so the two of them laughing, and for some reason this had confused me, perhaps even troubled me, and it had taken me a while to understand that the laughter was in response to what they were watching. But we continued on with our rehearsal, the playwright and we actors, reading our lines aloud, while beneath us the soundtrack of the father and son’s laughter played on, genuine and completely in synch. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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