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Breaking the Mold of the Sitcom

Why are Jews such experts at laughter? Leo Rosten answered that question as well as anyone could when he characterized Yiddish, the quintessential Jewish tongue, as saturated with irony. When we speak about a Jewish perspective — aside from the religious one — what we often mean is an ironic view of a world known to be more complicated and more dangerous than it appears on an average day in the best of times.

Perhaps more than any other American, Larry David, the prime mover behind the scripting of “Seinfeld,” is the avatar of that Jewish sensibility. In an interview about his current HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — the closest thing we will ever have to a “Seinfeld” sequel — David said that his comedy turns on an awareness that the smallest misstep in an interaction with another person can have socially catastrophic consequences.

This is his way of saying what Philip Roth captured in “American Pastoral”: “You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance… and yet you never fail to get them wrong…. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really… an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people…?” Hence David and Seinfeld’s preoccupation with probing — always for comic effect and never sentimentally — the many gestures, innuendoes and gaps in the messages we send each other every day in every type of situation. Those, they know, contain the real meanings that pass back and forth beneath the surface of our conventions. Those are the explosives littering the minefield that is life in society.

In German, the name Seinfeld translates into something like “field of being,” and that is one way to look at the DVD that is being released sequentially (seasons one through three are now available): Each little box holds four silver discs, and each disc carries a record of some of the finest comic evocations of human vulnerability and idiosyncrasy — of human being — in the history of show business. People with little sense of humor have failed, time and again, to understand that the notorious self-centeredness of the show’s characters enables us to laugh at the selfish, neurotic traits we all share but prefer to disguise.

Watching the series in chronological order — and with the enlightening commentary of Seinfeld, David and principal co-writer Larry Charles, an old friend of David’s who shares the same lower-middle-class Brooklyn Jewish background — one can see that the “Seinfeld” trademark was there from the start: an awareness of the comic possibilities inherent in mere conversations about the minutiae of social relationships. Of course, since we know the devil is in the details, we realize that those minutiae are anything but trivial; they are the hinges on which our success or failure often swings. That is why you read guidebooks with cultural tips before traveling to foreign lands: You’d rather not find yourself running from a lynch mob because you confused the gesture for “After you, my good man” with the one for “May I press my forehead against your wife’s bosom?”

In one of his commentaries for the DVD, Seinfeld says that his show explored “the gaps in society where there were no rules. You know… how do you find this out? How do you ask this? What does this mean? There’s no indication.” David would have put it more darkly, as he does now in his own show, and it is precisely his darker view of human fallibility and presumption that keeps him thinking and writing comedy like an outsider even when — like the Jews of Germany the day before Hitler — he seems to have scaled the social ladder. In “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the very title of which gives away its author’s profound apprehension about the world, we watch a man ensconced in Hollywood luxury yet weirdly impervious to it, as if ready at any moment, when the bottom finally falls through, to pack his suitcase and head back to Brooklyn.

And yet, with all its edgy hilarity, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” can never be a “Seinfeld.” The wit is there, but not the once-in-a-lifetime collaboration of David and Seinfeld as writers, and the blessed conjunction of talents that produced Cosmo Kramer, George Costanza and Elaine Benes. Even the most dog-eared fan of the show will be reminded anew how brilliant was the comic choreography that Michael Richards, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus enacted alongside Seinfeld’s dry-and-droll performance of himself. And then there is the great supporting cast (e.g., Wayne Knight’s Newman, Phil Morris’s Jackie Chiles), and a host of superb guest characters who have entered the popular imagination — Philip Baker Hall’s Mr. Bookman, the Library Cop; Larry Miller’s The Doorman; Kathy Griffin’s Sally, the Performance Artist; Lloyd Bridges’s Izzy Mandelbaum, the Decrepit Fitness Freak, and on and on. The result: a surreal world inhabited by dozens of very odd and very funny people.

But what enabled “Seinfeld” to break the mold of the sitcom — a genre that has been in continuous operation since “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on radio in the 1920s — was its trademark achievement: an ingenious interweaving of plots around a central theme, with the understanding that conversation itself qualified as a plot line. That is what gives the show its unprecedented density, the effect of which is to stun the viewer into an awareness of how much original comedy can be packed into a 22-minute episode.

That effect works even in the experimental episode known as “The Chinese Restaurant,” in which the story operates in real time: The characters wait exactly 22 minutes, and in vain, for a table; the entire show is a recording of their steadily mounting, hunger-driven desperation as they watch other customers enter and immediately receive seats. What better way for New York Jewish jokers to portray a Kafkaesque world of unfathomable persecution than in a Chinese restaurant — the first gastronomic stop along the road of Jewish assimilation in America — where the maitre d’ announces that their table is ready the second after they have given up and closed the door on their way out?

A fear that “Seinfeld” would be “too Jewish” for a mass audience haunted the early history of the show and became a point of contention between NBC’s executives and Seinfeld and David. The principal writers of the show are all Jews, and the show is riddled with explicit and allusive references to everything from circumcision and kreplach to Moses and Hillel. (While sticking to their guns about the kind of off-beat comedy they wanted to produce, Seinfeld and David agreed to surround Jerry’s character with friends who were not Jewish — though obliquely; the fictional Costanzas, for example, seemed about as Italian as a marble rye.) Perhaps the greatest of the show’s many self-referential moments (not included in seasons one through three) is the episode in which Jerry’s dentist converts to Judaism “for the jokes.” The capper of that story is a scene in which Jerry, deciding to complain to the dentist’s former priest, enters the confessional and alleges that the dentist is an insincere convert. The priest replies, “And this offends you as a Jewish person?” to which Jerry responds, with a tone of indignation, “No! This offends me as a comedian.”

One of the really pleasurable experiences that come with the little boxes of “Seinfeld” is watching Seinfeld and David sit, side by side, years after their brilliant collaboration, as comfortable with each other and as complementary as an old pair of gloves. The show was impossible without the ideas and scripts of David, considered by his peers a comedian’s comedian. And it was impossible without Seinfeld, but not simply because of the wry observational humor that initially stimulated NBC to do a show with him. Jerry is the glue of “Seinfeld.” It was his self-assurance that kept the volatile David at the table with NBC (David parodies his own artistic temperament, something fit for an Ayn Rand novel, in both “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). And it was Seinfeld’s self-confident generosity — his willingness to encourage and highlight the talents of his co-stars, even to the point of removing himself from center stage — that made the ensemble what it was.

The Seinfeld-David collaboration, a marriage made in comic heaven, was a Jewish wedding in one way that really has not been recognized. Seinfeld’s irony, while mensch- lich, is also that of the detached insider, the man comfortable with success and money and somehow above it all. David’s irony is that of the nervous outsider, the man who — like George in “Seinfeld” and Larry himself in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — is uncomfortable no matter what, poised and almost pleading for failure. Together they created a show not about “nothing,” but about something: being at once an insider and an outsider. Jews today understand that story. So do lots of other Americans. But who knew it would be so funny?

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