The following essay is an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined), out now in paperback.
There’s a passage in the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology where dialectic Marxist superstar Slavoj Žižek goes on a tangent about how to properly satirize institutional power. His point, in essence, is that you can’t successfully erode an institution by attacking the person in charge. [I suppose it’s possible that this wasn’t exactly what he was talking about, because sometimes Žižek can be hard to follow. But this was my takeaway, and my interpretation is valid, even if it’s wrong. Misinterpretations can still be accidentally true.] According to Žižek, attempting to satirize the public image of a powerful person inevitably proves impotent; this is because positions of power are designed to manipulate and displace a high degree of criticism. You can mock the president with impunity—nothing will really happen to him or to you. Part of the presidential job description is the absorption of public vitriol. It’s a rubberized target. A comedic assault doesn’t change perception in any meaningful way. [“It’s not the respectful voice that props up the status quo,” Malcolm Gladwell once noted. “It is the mocking one.” Gladwell was subsequently mocked for noting this so respectfully.] Clear, unsubtle political satire on TV shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report can succeed as entertainment, but they unintentionally reinforce the preexisting world: These vehicles frame the specific power holder as the sole object of scorn. This has no impact beyond comforting the enslaved. Power holders—even straight-up dictators—are interchangeable figureheads with limited reach; what matters far more is the institutional system those interchangeable figureheads temporarily represent.
So what does this mean, outside of an academic discussion about power? Well, maybe this: If you want to satirize the condition of a society, going after the apex of the pyramid is a waste of time. You need to attack the bottom. You need to ridicule the alleged ideological foundation an institution claims to be built upon. This is much, much more discomfiting than satirizing an ineffectual prime minister or a crack-smoking mayor. This requires the vilification of innocent, anonymous, working-class people. If you want to damage the political left, you must skewer the left’s bedrock myth—the idea that all people are equal and that people want to be good (which implies enforced fairness would make everyone’s life better). If you want to damage the political right, you must likewise skewer the right’s bedrock myth—the belief that the human spirit is both sacrosanct and irrepressible (which implies unfettered freedom allows all people to prosper equally). To illustrate how either ideology is flawed, you must demonstrate how those central notions are moronic. And this requires the satirist to present the average citizen as a naïve sheep who fails to realize the hopelessness of his or her position. The successful social satirist must show a) how the average liberal is latently selfish and hypocritical, or b) how the average conservative fails to comprehend how trapped he is by the same system he supports. A world-class satirist knows the truth about his audience and does not care how exposing that truth will make audiences feel.
This is a difficult task (and if you need proof, just ask the tortured corpse of Machiavelli). Deep satire is a collision sport. It’s a little cold and a little antihumanist, so most of its potential purveyors don’t go for the jugular. But they went for it on Seinfeld, and they did so relentlessly. And they did it so well that most people barely noticed, no matter how often the writers told them directly.
Seinfeld debuted in July of 1989. Considering the limitations of what network television was (or could be) in ‘89, it has proven to be the most imperative live-action sitcom of the modern era. Nothing else comes close. Like the music of Zeppelin or the teen archetypes of Salinger, its subsistence in the culture scarcely dissipates. Its four principal characters are so engrained in the American consciousness that there’s no need for me to name them or describe who they are. Seinfeld will live in syndication forever, partially because the show exists within its own evergreen reality: a version of New York that’s obviously based in Los Angeles, populated by a collection of impossible personalities who are caricatures of actual people. Like traditional sitcoms, Seinfeld emphasized character over plot; unlike traditional sitcoms, the audience was never supposed to empathize with any of the characters they loved. When describing the program’s brilliance, it became common (in fact, cliché) to say Seinfeld was a farcical “show about nothing.” But that description was lazy. It was not a farce. It was social satire. And to nonchalantly claim it was “a show about nothing” erroneously suggests that its vision was empty. Seinfeld was never a show about nothing, even when nothing happened. Seinfeld simply argued that nothing is all that any rational person can expect out of life. It was hilarious, but profoundly bleak. By consciously stating it had no higher message—the creators referred to this as the “no hugging, no learning” rule—it was able to goof around with concepts that battered the deepest tenets of institutionalized society. It was satire so severe that we pretend it wasn’t satire at all.
Most episodes of Seinfeld circuitously forward two worldviews: The first is that most people are bad (and not very smart). The second is that caring about other people is absurd (and not very practical). It is the most villainous sitcom ever made, particularly since its massive audience never seemed to fully grasp what it was literally seeing. This was true from its inception. There’s an episode from the first season (“Male Unbonding”) in which Jerry reconsiders his lifelong friendship with a self-absorbed man he hates. The relationship is based on nostalgia; as a child, the despised man’s family owned a Ping-Pong table. Jerry longs to sever this relationship and resents that the man still desires his company. “I would have been friends with Stalin if he had a Ping-Pong table,” he tells George (a different self-absorbed friend Jerry actually likes). All of this is funny, because Jerry Seinfeld is funny; it’s also relatable, because adolescent familiarity sometimes lasts longer than it should. But consider what this premise is really doing: It is satirizing the notion that relationships matter. It suggests that healthy friendships are disposable, and that the commitments we make to nonessential acquaintances are absurd extensions of social politeness. And this is not the subtext. This is the text. Like The Prince, the collected Seinfeld teleplays generate an ironic instruction manual for not caring about other people. Kramer expresses a few altruistic feelings, but Jerry, Elaine, and George do not. They sometimes exhibit qualities of loyalty, but mainly to “the vault.” What they call “the vault” is the tacit agreement that they can tell each other anything, without fear that the information will be leaked to other involved parties (they stick the information “in the vault”). Their deepest loyalty is to the art of keeping secrets.
Certainly, most of the retrospective credit for this weltanschauung is directed toward Larry David, the bald misanthrope who created Seinfeld in orchestra with its namesake star. As noted by virtually everyone who has ever written about this program in any context, Jerry’s fictional friendship with George is a simulation of Seinfeld’s real friendship with David. But that connection is only a fraction of the influence. David’s deeper contribution was the injection of his solipsistic morality (which ended up becoming the whole enchilada). Smarter critics had suspected this throughout the nineties, but it became undeniable once David’s improv exhibition Curb Your Enthusiasm premiered on HBO in the fall of 2000. Curb Your Enthusiasm was everything understated about Seinfeld, amplified into aesthetic totality. David will even use random episodes of Curb to directly point out incidents from Seinfeld that were based on his life, almost as if he wants to make sure everyone knows he was the wizard behind the curtain. At times, this preoccupation can almost seem petty. But it’s never invasive, because that pettiness is just about the only emotion we see from anyone in this universe.
Most of the time, television depends on emotion. Emotion is the intangible drug that passive audiences crave; we immerse ourselves in fictional drama to feel something we want (or miss) from real life. But not in the faux reality of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and not in the pseudo-reality of Seinfeld. On Seinfeld, the characters express contempt for emotion. It is the weakest quality a human can possess. This could be demonstrated in roughly half of the show’s 180 episodes, but one does so overtly: In an episode titled “The Serenity Now,” Jerry’s thirty-minute girlfriend (ex–Full House star Lori Loughlin) pushes him to get angry, simply to see if he has the ability to express any kind of emotion in any given scenario. This is both a commentary on Seinfeld’s fictional character (who doesn’t empathize with anyone) and a meta-commentary on Seinfeld’s technical ability as an actor (which borders on nonexistent). When the girlfriend’s plan succeeds, the floodgates open. Jerry becomes an emotional wreck who cries constantly, much to his own confusion (“What is this salty discharge?” he wonders aloud). His emotional instability makes him creepy and annoying, ultimately prompting him to propose marriage to Elaine for no rational reason. By the end of the episode, his hysteria has passed. Jerry returns to his former uncaring self, and everyone (including the audience) is relieved.
Now—before you get the wrong idea—let me note that the bleakness of Seinfeld was not the lone explanation for the program’s success. There were many, many other factors. One was the unadulterated weirdness of so many of its subplots (Kramer’s desire to cover his body in butter, the enigmatic involvement of Keith Hernandez, et cetera). Another was the accidental profundity of its absurdity (most notably, George’s realization that his life would be more successful if he simply did the opposite of whatever his natural instinct suggested). Still another was its conversational singularity (if I’m flipping through channels and catch just five seconds of dialogue from any Seinfeld scene, I can inevitably recall everything else about the entire episode, almost instantaneously). Because it was filmed like a play and did not emphasize realism, it ages better than any comparable three-camera sitcom; because its narratives were so often built around absurd problems that symbolized basic problems, the ideas continue to feel more relevant than logic would dictate. It was an unusually adult TV comedy, produced in an era when that was still rare. But the darkness did matter. It played a massive role. By the end of the show’s tenure, it was so self-consciously dark that it started to resemble shtick; if interpreted as satire, the final season (and especially its finale) was too obvious and much less effective. But that does not negate all the previous antihumanism that was slipped into conversations and congenially consumed as playful.
This is a compliment.
Take “The Raincoats” from season five, a two-part episode that primarily revolves around the doomed possibility of Kramer going into the vintage-clothing business with Jerry’s father (who was visiting from Florida). A secondary plot involved Elaine dating a character played by Judge Reinhold. Initially, Reinhold’s alleged flaw is that he is a “close talker,” who invades people’s personal space during conversation. However, this pales in comparison to his greater transgression: He becomes obsessed with spending time with Jerry’s visiting parents. He takes them all over Manhattan, invites them to dinner, and loves their company.
“Don’t you think it’s odd,” Elaine asks Jerry over coffee, “that a thirty-five-year-old man is going to these lengths to see that someone else’s parents are having a good time? And I can’t even say anything, because he’s just being nice. But no one’s this nice. This is certifiably nice.”
“You’re right,” responds Jerry. “He’s insane.”
Now, do I agree with those sentiments? Yes. I do. I would absolutely think a person who wants to spend all his free time with the parents of his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend should be classified as insane. I assume most rational people would feel the same way. But here’s the thing: Every single aspect of this episode is insane. The whole idea of Kramer going into business with Jerry’s dad is insane. Another “Raincoats” subplot requires George to take a little boy he barely knows to France; still another examines the ethics of making out while watching Schindler’s List. Every element of “The Raincoats” is nuts. But only Reinhold’s insane niceness is a problem. It’s the only thing that prompts Jerry and Elaine to have a straightforward conversation about how such behavior is unacceptable. It’s the one action they can’t accept. The idea of someone being nice for no reason is enough to make Judge Reinhold “undatable,” which places him in the same category (according to Jerry) as 95 percent of the planet. In another episode, Jerry specifically breaks up with a woman because she’s “too good.” Here, again, he says this directly: “She’s giving and caring and genuinely concerned about the welfare of others. I can’t be with someone like that.” Because he’s so candid about this distaste, it feels like a traditional joke. But it’s not a traditional joke. It’s an omnipresent worldview that informs everything else, and it’s what made audiences feel like they were watching the most sinister (and the most authentic) versions of themselves.
The acridness of Seinfeld was never hidden. It was certainly not something no one else realized, even as it was happening. “Meanness is celebrated,” wrote Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Examiner in the run-up to Seinfeld’s 1998 finale. “Nobody is living an examined life. Getting yours is the goal. Anger and bitterness supplant happiness. Emotionless sex wins out over love, and the mundane is king.” There were periodic complaints about the show throughout its existence, always for this approximate reason (it made fun of the disabled, it played the death of a minor character for laughs, it made casual racism hilarious, et al). I’m not breaking new ground here. But I’ve noticed something peculiar in the years that have passed since it went into syndication. I’ve noticed that the living memory of Seinfeld has changed. It’s now consumed like a conventional situation comedy; the emphasis has shifted toward the memorable catchphrases it spawned and the low-stakes comfort of its nonserialized storytelling. It’s become more akin to I Love Lucy or Night Court: an amusing distraction from a bygone age. But that perception underrates its significance. It feels weird to classify one of the most popular TV shows of all time as “underrated,” but the program’s raw popularity latently misdirected its more significant directive. Seinfeld mainstreamed day-to-day villainy. It made America a different place. A meaner, funnier place.
I love the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, mostly because it’s a straight-up hybrid of Seinfeld and Cheers (vulcanized by PEDs and the Internet). The humor on It’s Always Sunny is—technically—crueler than anything Jerry or George would have ever said to anyone. Its antagonism is less nuanced. But there’s another key difference that matters way more: Everyone involved with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is hyper-conscious of the cruelty (including the audience). None of the characters talk like real people; we always know they’re supposed to be understood as sociopaths. You need to know they’re crazy in order to appreciate what they do. And that’s not how it was on Seinfeld. On Seinfeld, the psychopathy felt normal—almost bor- ing. The people just talked like people. They sat in a coffee shop and casually discussed how civilization was awful and existence is meaningless, and twenty-two million people watched it every week. It opened a window while pulling down the shades, and we can’t go back. This is the world now. This is the world.
Chuck Klosterman is the New York Times best-selling author of six books of nonfiction (including Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and I Wear the Black Hat) and two novels (Downtown Owl and The Visible Man). His debut book, Fargo Rock City, was a winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. He has written for GQ, Esquire, Spin, the Washington Post, The Guardian, The Believer, and The A.V. Club. He currently covers sports and popular culture for ESPN and serves as “The Ethicist” for the New York Times Magazine.
Copyright © 2013, 2014 by Chuck Klosterman. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
To learn more about I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined), click here.