Tuesday, June 13, 2017

“Seinfeldia” Gives Us the Yadayada . . . Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

Though the show Seinfeld left primetime in 1998, after a stellar nine-season run, it still has plenty of fans. That can be proven by its success in syndication, by the existence of such social media sites as @Seinfeldtoday, and by the incorporation into our language of references to Festivus and the Soup Nazi. A Brooklyn Cyclones baseball game held in 2014 at a Coney Island stadium was a good-natured gathering of Seinfeld enthusiasts who showed off their affection for their favorite show by donning Jerry Seinfeld-style puffy shirts, imitating Elaine’s herky-jerky dance moves, passing out Vandelay Industries business cards in imitation of sadsack George Costanza, and hawking “master of my domain” sweatshirts.  

The source of all this Seinfeld trivia is a bestselling 2016 book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, now newly out in paperback. It’s called Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, and it digs deep into the Seinfeld archives, exploring Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld’s original impetus for the show, how the characters evolved, how the writing staff functioned, and how the public came to adopt “a show about nothing” as their own. The origin stories of some of the most famous episodes are here (“The Junior Mint”!), and we’re introduced to the actual people who gave their personalities and in some cases their names to members of the cast. I particularly like the way a poster advertising one of the show’s fake art-films, Rochelle Rochelle, showed up recently on a defunct New York marquee, totally surprising the SoCal woman who’d posed for it twenty years earlier. Rochelle Rochelle, billed as “a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk,” was only one of the movies the Seinfeld characters favored. Others, including Prognosis Negative, Chunnel, and Sack Lunch, have since been given their own photoshopped posters by fans of the show, with Hollywood celebrities in the leading roles.

What apparently made Seinfeld a standout in its day was its attention to the minutiae of daily life, as filtered through the perception of characters who are lovable but not exactly likable. Larry David insisted from the start that sentimentality would never be part of the mix. His credo (which later got printed on jackets for cast and crew): “No hugging, no learning.” When Seinfeld began, both David and Jerry were standup comics who were TV production novices. But once the show caught on, their very flip, very meta style began to have imitators. Soon the aesthetic of Seinfeld was starting to dominate TV sitcoms: cutting became quicker, laugh-tracks were eliminated, “single-camera” on-location shooting began to be favored over three-camera shoots in front of a studio audience. There were other kinds of influences at work too. One newspaper editorial credited Seinfeld with turning around the reputation of New York City in the 1990s. Audiences took away from Seinfeld the fact that the city was a funny, quirky place to live (this despite the fact that almost all the filming was done in L.A.)

Author Jennifer Armstrong’s research for Seinfeldia took her to some interesting places. She learned a lot in discussing the show with the woman charged with translating it into German. So much does Seinfeld depend on the quirks of the American idiom that a good translation is nearly impossible. Take for instance the episode when Jerry tries to remember the name of a girlfriend. She’s told him it rhymes with a female body part.  Just imagine being the translator who needs to come up with a Germanic name that fits a very private part of the German anatomy. (In English, the name turns out to be Dolores.)        

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