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Galaxy Brains

What’s the deal with Seinfeld? It was all in Jerry’s mind.

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The classic sitcom just dropped on Netflix, forcing us to consider what was really going on

Graphic frame surround the cast of the Seinfeld sitcom Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

Seinfeld is still one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, to the point that Netflix spent millions of dollars for the rights to stream the entire series, even doing an aggressive marketing campaign to tell people where to find Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer on their Rokus and Fire Sticks. The show is, once again, out for the first time now.

Seinfeld has endured despite being very dated with its numerous era-appropriate references and idiosyncratic, highly personal storytelling. The show is self-consciously reflective of creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and what they find funny and/or annoying about life. Seinfeld is mildly miraculous because it’s universal in its appeal, while also completely auteurist and highly specific. It’s so specific that I have to ask myself, is Seinfeld even taking place in the real world? Jerry the wry observer, George the perpetual victim, Elaine the social climber, and Kramer the libertine are all reflections of parts of Jerry Seinfeld’s personality. So, is it so outside the realm of possibility that these characters all just live in Jerry’s mind and the show is a surrealist masterpiece about the purgatory of the male psyche?

On this week’s Galaxy Brains, Jonah Ray and I are joined by Vulture Senior Editor, comedy journalist, and host of the Good One podcast, Jesse David Fox. We discuss Jesse’s love of all things Jerry Seinfeld, New York versus Los Angeles, and whether or not Seinfeld is on par with Waiting for Godot.

As always, this conversation has been edited to sound less weird.


Dave: We’ve described these four characters that all serve different purposes in our own minds. Jerry the observer, the righteous anger of George, status obsessed social climbing Elaine and the chaos of Kramer. The Id doing whatever it wants. I think everybody struggles with those four feelings and bringing them together is how you create a human being. But there is one character we have not talked about.

Maybe the most important character on Seinfeld, the city of New York. It’s certainly not the last great sitcom to be based in New York, but it is one of the last sitcoms where New York was crucial to the show being set there. I think 30 Rock followed that tradition. New York is a character on 30 Rock. It couldn’t be set anywhere else because of not just the fact that it’s about making an SNL-like TV show. It’s also about New Yorker problems.

Jonah: Where else are you going to have a storyline that involves a subway hero?

Dave: Exactly. Do you think there’s ever going to be another show that is going to capture New York quite in this kind of way? I know Girls and Broad City were both set in New York, but those were more niche cable shows. Seinfeld was the biggest television show in America. The cultural significance of Seinfeld is hard to overstate. Do you think we’ll ever get back to that where New York is really this cultural capital?

Jesse: It’s interesting because when they were pitching the show and when they did the pilot, the main note was “is the show too New York?” And by that they meant, are these characters too Jewish? And which is why all the actors are Jewish and all of them are performing an idea of what Judaism looks like. But two of the characters are Italian. And I think what is happening is, one, there was a monocultural idea of New York, which is like it’s where these Jews live and talk to each other. That also is breaking down as New York gets more diverse.

But also, as television becomes more fractured, you get depictions of New York that are much smaller. Broad City did an episode that was just about a street. “This is the street we live on.” And Girls is very much about Brooklyn. Awkwafina’s [Comedy Central] show is more about Queens. Like, I think the assumption, the sort of Seinfeld confidence to say we’re going to make a show that’s about “New York City,” but it’s only going to be about people who live within four blocks of each other. I can’t imagine someone doing that.

Dave: I think what you’re saying speaks to the insular nature of the show. The show is about characters who live in the same neighborhood in the same four block radius and do the same things every week.

Jonah: I thought they made up the idea of Kramer getting lost at the corner of 2nd and 2nd. I was like, there’s no city in the world that would do that. That doesn’t make sense to me. So when I found out that that’s how New York works, I was very confused.

Dave: In Queens, they’ve got numbers and then a dash and then more numbers and like, what is this? There are too many numbers. The subways are numbered and lettered.

Jesse: Before this becomes just New York versus L.A, it is a grid system that is incredibly intuitive! But I understand L.A. has like four streets that go the entire way and then everything is off of it.

Dave: I think everybody hates where they live. That’s just a fact. And Seinfeld is about hating the place where you live. And there is a sense of purgatory to it, which I think is reinforcing what I’m trying to say about the show. You feel trapped when you’re watching Seinfeld.

Jesse: I think Purgatory is exactly it. The show, at least Jerry’s version of the show, is Waiting for Godot. These people are stuck reliving the same conversations about nothing. It’s not a show where it’s a show about nothingness. Nothing happens. There’s the story of how Jerry put a picture of Earth seen from space in the writers room to explain to people, this doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is just this is just our lot and then we’re going to be dead in one hundred years or whatever, and no one’s going to care about this.

In Larry’s version of the show, everyone gets in each other’s way and it’s like these complicated plots. Jerry doesn’t care about the complicated, but Jerry just wants these people to have nothing happen to them, that they go through all these journeys and then they’re in the exact same spot. The Chinese restaurant episode is like a further distillation of the show. There’s no plot. Literally it’s them waiting for their table. And even when their table is called, it’s like that sort of complete meaninglessness. I think it captures the darkest part of the show.