LOS ANGELES — "There's nothing to talk about."
"Ah, what's there to talk about."
"Well, at least you and I are talking about how there's nothing to talk about."
"Why don't you talk with her about how there's nothing to talk about?"
"She knows there's nothing to talk about."
"At least she'll be talking."
- George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld in the episode entitled "The Stand-In."
If this tongue trip to nowhere tickles your funny bone, you may be one of the 30 million viewers or so who have turned Jerry Seinfeld's New York apartment building into the cornerstone of NBC's Thursday "must-see TV" night, making it one of the Top 5 shows for the past five years.
Since December when its creator, stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, announced that nine years was enough, the show has been dubbed the "zeitgeist comedy." It has also been called a "generational snapshot," "reflection of the ironic, and "self-referential spirit" of the '90s.
As Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer prepare to close the door on the Seinfeld apartment one last time on May 14, critics and supporters of the show are squaring off over its ultimate place in American TV, viewers' hearts, and as a reflection of what, if anything, the weekly antics say about the health of American culture as it ends a millennium.
Has "Seinfeld" hit some basic defining chord in the national consciousness?
Has it helped create a new kind of TV reality through its aggressive indifference to good taste or conventions of any sort? Does the media avalanche say more about who we are in the '90s than the show itself?
Conversations with fans and critics across the country show the answers depend on your perspective (or your demographic), and the things we find funny tell us a lot about who we are.
For Daniel J. Czitrom, this typical Seinfeld repartee is indicative of a growing sense that the '90s hipster "knows everything ... it's all hype and now, we're all the sophisticated, inside dopester," says Mr. Czitrom, a Mount Holyoke College (South Hadley, Mass.) history professor and author of "Media & the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan."
Czitrom, a native New Yorker, points to what he calls the self-absorbed city-dweller attitude of the show. He sees it in this comment from a model named Tia, spoken to Jerry in an episode called, "The Airport": "I never met a man who knew so much about nothing," says Tia. The show is all about American attitudes toward pop culture, Czitrom says, adding that "we all love to feel like the outsider who's really in the know."
A marketing machine
While acknowledging the show's great appeal, Czitrom also maintains that the massive marketing both of the show itself and its end is part of what he calls "a crisis in journalism."
He says magazines, such as People, that elevate celebrities and devalue genuine political discourse are largely responsible for starting a trend that has accelerated greatly over the past decade. "Journalism today is becoming a branch of [large, corporate] public-relations machines." (In fact, as his first post-"Seinfeld" move, the stand-up comic reportedly is considering plans to open an advertising agency.)
African-American writer Amy Alexander agrees wholeheartedly with Czitrom's assessment. While confessing to what she calls "the guilty pleasure" of watching "Seinfeld" ("I snicker at their nastiness and then I feel bad about snickering"), Ms. Alexander says that the resulting reverential coverage produced by this hype-inflation prevents a real dialogue about the genuine issues raised within a pop-culture phenomenon.
"NBC has built its Thursday-night comedy enterprise around Seinfeld and created an environment that is virtually minority-free," Alexander observes, pointing to the largely all-white worlds of "Seinfeld"-influenced "Friends" and Tuesday night's "Frasier." She believes it is a reflection of the country's lack of resolution, and therefore unease, about racial relations. "It's almost a willful extraction of blacks and Latinos from the world around us."
At a time when affirmative action is being rolled back across the country, Alexander says it would be nice if the No. 1 show in the country would depict a minority in some significant role. "I just feel that the show missed a valuable opportunity," she sighs.
Wrapped in self-absorption
Author and cultural critic Martha Bayles points out that "the humor is from the Jewish tradition of the outsider critiquing the dominant culture" and that it's important not to miss the satirical underside of the show. "They are surly and unpleasant people, but we laugh at them so we see them for what they are," which is ultimately healthy, she adds.
The show's co-creator, Larry David, defends the choices made on "Seinfeld," saying that they thought about making a character black, "but the show's about conflict and we didn't want to turn the conflicts into a racial thing."
But beyond that, and more important, Mr. David underlines that this is comedy, whose job it is to deflate the status quo, explaining, "it's not comedy's place to please." He adds, "There's a thousand groups that want to be included, but we never set out to speak for anyone, blacks, a generation, whomever. All we ever wanted to do was to please ourselves."
It is this very self-absorption that both amuses fans and angers foes.
"These are boy-men, stuck between child and adulthood," muses social scientist Kay Hymovitz. "They are completely narcissistic babies, with very few visible means of support, very self-conscious, utterly self-absorbed. And I might add, very funny."
Are they a sign of our times? "I would say so. 30 million people is an awfully high number on a consistent basis," notes Ms. Hymovitz. "They must see something they can relate to."
More like a sign of the marketplace, says Venise Berry, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. The show is a huge success with an 18-to-49-year-old, upscale, urban audience, whose excess disposable income makes it the most desirable demographic group from an advertiser's standpoint.
Indeed, advertisers are paying record fees to reach this group - a 30-second spot during the final season of "Seinfeld" went for $550,000, and ad rates for the finale are rumored to have skyrocketed to $2 million.
Nowadays, explains Ms. Berry, if a show finds a successful niche, given the competition for viewers' time, "networks have no choice but to hype it for all it's worth, to bring those eyeballs to the set. All this moves even the so-called serious media closer and closer to the black hole of popular culture."
Syracuse University Prof. Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular TV in New York notes that the paradox of "Seinfeld" is that it is happening in a period when the network era is over. In this situation, the "hype inflation" is being driven by nostalgia on the part of the networks and the media. "This may be the last major show to act like a network show used to act," he laughs.
Nodding to the prediction of 80 million expected viewers for the "Seinfeld" finale, he notes that short of a presidential election, the networks may never see numbers like that for a sitcom again.
An influential classic
While the moralists and the analysts debate social and economic meaning of the show, Vince Waldron, a comedian and author of "Classic Sitcoms: A Celebration of the Best in Prime-Time Comedy," prefers to examine the status of "Seinfeld" as pure, classic comedy.
"The show is modeled after some of the best, from commedia dell'arte [classic Italian comedy using stock characters and situations] to 'The Honeymooners,' " he points out, adding that "the show is peopled with outrageous characters in benign situations."
Beyond that, he insists, "Seinfeld" has been as influential as any of the classic sitcoms of other eras, such as "M*A*S*H" and "All in the Family."
"All of the NBC 'must-see TV' shows are modeled on 'Seinfeld,' " he observes, noting that the show's anti-sentimental motto "no hugging, no learning" has changed the tone of TV. Shows such as "The Drew Carey Show" and the snarky "Just Shoot Me" (rumored to be the favored replacement), he adds, would have been unthinkable before "Seinfeld."
'Sometimes when I think you're the shallowest man I've ever met, you somehow manage to drain a little more out of the pool.'
- Elaine to Jerry in 'The Implant'
'I never met a man who knew so much about nothing.'
- Tia the model to Jerry, in 'The Airport'
'If you can't say something bad about a relationship, you shouldn't say anything at all.'
- George, in 'The Stand-In'
'My whole life is a lie.'
- George, in 'The Non-Fat Yogurt'
'Ya know, I don't get it. I'm not allowed to ask a Chinese person where a Chinese restaurant is? Aren't we all getting a little too sensitive? If somebody asks me which way is Israel, I don't fly off the handle.'
- Jerry, in 'The Cigar Store Indian'
Famous 'Seinfeld' Moments
July 5, 1989 - Pilot "The Seinfeld Chronicles" airs, minus Elaine, in a different apartment, with a George and Kramer who are not quite defined. Those who saw the show liked it, but liked the changes even better.
May 31, 1990 - Elaine enters the Seinfeld world in "The Stakeout."
Feb. 13, 1991 - "The Phone Message." Jerry and a girlfriend part ways for a trivial reason: She likes Dockers commercials.
May 23, 1991 - "The Chinese Restaurant" shows that the program about nothing can be about something.
Jan. 29, 1992 - The world meets Newman for the first time.
Nov. 18, 1992 - "The Contest:" 'Master of your domain,' creates a stir.
Sept. 21, 1995 - George proposes to Susan.
Nov. 2, 1995 - The famous "Soup Nazi" episode airs.
May 16, 1996 - "The Invitations" in which Susan's (George's fiance) death is played for laughs. This was Larry David's last episode as head writer.
April 24, 1997 - The catch phrase "yada, yada, yada" was born.
Sept. 25, 1997 - "The Butter Shave" tackles cannibalism, evidence that no topic is beyond their touch.
Nov. 20, 1997 - The "backward" episode airs.
May 14, 1998 - Jerry Seins off.
Will Seinfeld Finale Top M*A*S*H Record?
On Feb. 28, 1983, 60 percent of the homes with television sets, which amounted to 106 million Americans, tuned in for the final episode of "M*A*S*H," the classic series that ran for nine years. This was nearly half the US population at the time.
NBC executives are hoping for a more modest 80 million viewers for the May 14 Seinfeld finale, but some are going out on a limb to predict that it could beat the record that was set by "M*A*S*H."
Others that came close:
* The "Dallas" episode of "Who Shot J.R.?" (airdate: Nov. 21, 1980) garnered a 53.3 percent rating.
* ABC's "Roots," Part 8, on Jan. 30, 1977, took in a 51.1 rating, while the conclusion of "Cheers," in 1993 achieved a 45.5 percent share of the audience.