Friday, February 01, 2013

Kafka in New York

I never watched Seinfeld. To judge by trailers, as well as what I read at the time, it seemed to be a vacuous sitcom with a very Jewish, New Yorker vibe. That’s not a world I relate to.

However, it was a cultural phenomenon. More to the point, unlike the glib, happy-face atheism we often encounter, it reflects the cynical, absurdist outlook of a secular Jew.

Beneath the surface, Seinfeld says, much of his act concerns “the pointlessness of life itself. I’ve got jokes where I’m saying your life sucks, your possessions are garbage, you’re not important.” Larry David, to whom Seinfeld remains close, told me, “Jerry doesn’t get enough credit for his misanthropy — it’s why we get along so well.” In a new bit, Seinfeld likens a man to a balloon. At the outset of a romantic relationship, the balloon is buoyant and beautiful and “the woman holds on tight” for fear he’ll fly away. Flash forward, and the balloon’s doddering around, off in a corner somewhere, low to the floor, pathetically unable to “even lift up its own string.” It’s as elegantly crushing a joke about human decay and dashed hopes as has been told.

In conversation, Seinfeld describes an offstage “tendency toward depression,” accompanied by a lifelong spiritual yearning. “There’s always something missing,” he said. He has dabbled in Zen Buddhism (“I love the word games, the koans”), Scientology (“I took a couple classes in 1976”) and transcendental meditation. He still identifies as Jewish. “I was very flattered recently to hear about a Nazi rally in Florida where they took DVDs of the show, sprayed swastikas on them and threw them through the windows of a synagogue,” he said. “That was nice.”

He alluded to romantic dissatisfaction as something that used to depress him. On the sitcom, Seinfeld’s life was a carousel of beautiful women. “Was that my actual life at the time?” he asks. “Probably.” He remained single until he was 45, and in his act today he notes that he clearly had “some issues.” After having kids, he told me, he realized “there was this whole other quadrant of my brain lying there dormant. Kids give you something. If it wasn’t for my kids, I’m pretty much done with living. I could kill myself. Now there’s something else to live for.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now you borrowed your title, Shows About Nothing from the oft-quoted description of Seinfeld, so then is Seinfeld a nihilist sit-com?

THOMAS HIBBS: Yes, I think so. The humor often hinged upon the sort of pointlessness of, of the lives of these characters, the way in which they saw no ultimate purpose to their life - no way in which relationships, for example, especially marriage, could ever be possible for these characters because they had no larger vision of themselves apart from momentary preferences. [SEINFELD MUSICAL PHRASE]

JERRY: So Puddy wears a man fur?! [LAUGHTER]

ELAINE: He was strutting around the coffee shop like Stein Ericson! [LAUGHTER]

JERRY: And of course you find fur morally reprehensible.

ELAINE: Ah, anti-fur -- who has the energy any more? [LAUGHTER]

THOMAS HIBBS: If there is a best way of life in a nihilistic world, Jerry seems to have it, because Jerry seems able to live with few exceptions in a very detached way so that he never invests anything emotionally in any other person, and of course his hu--sense of humor which is a way - a kind of detached irony that mocks even the, the deepest sorts of human longing for love. I mean there were shows where they made fun of Schindler's List, made fun of AIDS Walks, I mean all - abortion - euthanasia -all the big debates in our society are satirized on that show in a way that - that enables Jerry to remain detached and sort of free from any connection to anyone, and I think in a world where there is no purpose or meaning, Jerry's way of going through life represents wisdom if there is such a thing in that context.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Mr. Hibbs, the characters in Seinfeld often get their comeuppance through fate-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]


BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- fateful coincidences and doesn't that suggest that there's a divine plan at work in the cosmos?

THOMAS HIBBS:You know if there is a divine plan in Seinfeld, it's a very dark one. When they're about to have the-- their pilot accepted at one point, George is worried the whole show about a, a discoloration on his lip, and, and he says I knew this would happen; I knew God wouldn't have let me enjoy my success, and Jerry says to him I thought you didn't believe in God. George says for the bad things I do. Say the episode where Kramer decides to go on the AIDS Walk for example, doing good, and yet he's beaten by the AIDS walkers because he fails to wear the AIDS ribbon, so that in this world it doesn't seem to matter whether you do good or whether you do bad, in the end your desires are always frustrated, so it seems to me that - it might be justice in the sense that not even the bad get away with anything but the good is never rewarded on the show either.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What has to be present or missing from a movie or a TV show in order for it to be nihilist?

THOMAS HIBBS:Well I think for it to be fully nihilist in the way I'm suggesting that Seinfeld is, even the quest for happiness and justice and truth and beauty, friendship, love, all those great ideals inspiring the American regime from way back when, all of those things are mocked and seen as pointless.

There's one comparison to Seinfeld that, to my recollection at least, has surprisingly never been made. I would argue that Seinfeld may have been the most Kafkaesque show on television, or at least the most Kafkaesque sitcom, sharing a lot of the same themes and obsessions as the famous writer from Prague.

Kafka deals with the themes of alienation, the strange paradoxical freedom and terror that come with being an outsider, and the ineffectualness and mundane evil of bureaucracy. To me, this is just a roundabout and pretentious way of describing George Costanza arguing with a mechanic over whether or not he's eaten a Twix bar, and then being drawn into what may or may not be a menacing conspiracy against him at a car dealership. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer deal with these themes in almost every episode. The voice of the comedian is the voice of the outsider, and the gang spends most of their time questioning social norms that they don't understand but are forced to deal with on a daily basis.

The show is bursting with examples. In “The Little Jerry,” Jerry writes a bad check at a bodega. The store owner posts the check on the wall as a way to teach Jerry a lesson. After Jerry repays him, the store owner refuses to take down the bad check, claiming, “It's store policy.” When Jerry tells him, “But it's your bodega,” he replies, “Even I am not above the policy,” a dialogue that wouldn't seem out of place in The Castle. Then there's “The Chinese Restaurant,” in which the characters are denied access to a table for no reason they can discern, waiting half an hour in real time. Or the Dragnet-inspired, officious library cop from “The Library.” And of course, “The Soup Nazi,” who's confusing and authoritarian policies lead to George's banishment.

Kafka's protagonists are reactors. They are passive characters who pushed into absurd situations beyond their control. And then there's the characters' “casual acceptance of the surreal,” a phrase I once read somewhere but cannot find the source. Upon realizing that their son has been transformed into a monstrous vermin in his sleep or finding themselves trapped in a nightmarish mansion, Kafka's characters respond with confusion, but not the level of confusion that seems appropriate, instead adapting smoothly to the dream logic the stories follow. The same way that Jerry reacts with a shrug, maybe furrowing his brow, when he walks into his apartment to find Kramer making sausages or learning that Kramer has decorated his own apartment with the abandoned set of The Merv Griffin Show.

And then there's what may be the most obvious connection: Seinfeld's finale and Kafka's most famous novel, The Trial. The novel begins with Josef K. waking up only to discover that he is under arrest. The rest of the novel chronicles his confusion as he deals with the court's bureaucracy and futile attempts to learn what he's being accused of. Josef K. may or may not be guilty, and he's sentenced without ever learning. In a strange coincidence, it's also the only Kafka novel to have an ending. (All three of his novels were unfinished when he died. The Trial includes a final chapter, although it is missing a few of the chapters right before it.) Seinfeld's finale begins with the gang watching a robbery and not helping the victim (played by comedian John Pinette). They are arrested on a technicality, a recently passed Good Samaritan law, and are put on trial (and ultimately found guilty) not for doing something, but for doing nothing.

The main characters on Seinfeld are ruled by their passions, he notes. Their obsessions are revealed always to be arbitrary and irrational and the Seinfeld universe is ruled by chance. The four main characters consistently find their plans rewarded or thwarted not by their own actions but by circumstance. For instance, in one episode, Kramer goes to California and meets a girl. Unfortunately for him she is murdered by a serial killer, and he is blamed for the crime. "Luckily, so to speak, there is another murder while he is in jail," Hibbs writes. The precariousness of one's present choices divests the ultimate issues of all significance, Hibbs writes.

Most Seinfeld episodes turn on questions of social protocol, not on moral issues. When someone does take a moral stand, it is ultimately revealed to be mere posturing. In one episode, a loud argument breaks out over the issue of abortion. Just a little while later, another loud argument starts over when a pizza becomes a pizza. "Pizza, abortion--it's all the same," Hibbs says. Moreover, the rules of etiquette are also revealed to be arbitrary and meaningless. Instead of the nihilistic era eliminating rules, initiating a lapse into a kind of anarchy, there is a medley of rules with no clear relationship to one another, Hibbs writes.

Most famously, the central characters in Seinfeld never learn from their mistakes, never grow. The final episode ends with the same conversation that began the series. Seinfeld treats the aspiration for transcendence, for permanence or wholeness, as misguided, Hibbs says. There is nothing but banal repetition and the experience of eternal recurrence as unending frustration. Jerry Seinfeld, the character, is Nietzsche's Last Man. He looks into the void and shrugs.


  1. In conversation, Seinfeld describes an offstage “tendency toward depression,” accompanied by a lifelong spiritual yearning. “There’s always something missing,” he said.

    It's been said that there's some reference to Superman in every episode of the Seinfeld sitcom. I doubt that's the case. Nevertheless, I've often seen or heard those references (e.g. HERE). These references are due to Jerry Seinfeld's real life "obsession" with Superman. He's even done American Express commercials where he and Superman star.

    The Superman character was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who were both Jewish. Many have noted the parallels between Superman and Moses, Samson, Hercules and and other heroic figures (most especially Jesus). As Jews, they may have subconsciously created the character from their cultural longing for a deliverer and Messiah. Maybe something similar is going on in Jerry Seinfeld's heart that explains his fascination with Superman.

    Anyway, here's a link to one of my blogs where I've gathered some online resources defending the true messiahship of Jesus/Yeshua.

  2. Jerry says to him "I thought you didn't believe in God."

    George says "for the bad things I do."

    This is really very culturally Roman Catholic too.