Sunday, March 24, 2024

AND NOTHING TO GET HUNG ABOUT [441]


I found myself rediscovering the sitcom “Seinfeld” recently, an incredibly easy thing to do following a multi-year, multi-national deal with Netflix keeping it constantly on demand, but the high-definition widescreen transfer made from the original Super 16 film is far away from when the show was little known in the UK, when it was found only late at night on TV, and later in DVD box sets.

 

Created by Jerry Seinfeld and long-time friend Larry David from conversations about the small things in life that make a stand-up routine, creating a rich and relatable seam for stories usually avoided by other sitcoms to that point, “Seinfeld” is a sharply written cultural institution in the United States, and perhaps the greatest live-action sitcom ever made there, the existence of “The Simpsons” providing that necessary qualifier. Set in the Upper West Side of New York, to the left of Central Park, Jerry Seinfeld plays a less-famous version of himself, a central point around which most events happen; Jason Alexander plays George Costanza, a Larry David analogue played as a ball of insecurities; Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Elaine Benes, Jerry’s smart and hot-tempered ex-girlfriend who successfully became a regular friend; and Michael Richards plays Kramer, Jerry’s unpredictable “hipster doofus” neighbour. I feel most people might already be aware of the set-up of “Seinfeld” by now, but I once had to explain the show to people who had never heard of it.

 

The outlandish plots and characters the show often used in pursuit of the biggest laugh is testament to my belief that saying something is based on a true story means nothing, despite the real-life experiences of the show’s writers making their way into episodes. I also find it an easier watch than the later shows that mine their humour from uncomfortable situations, like “The Office” and Larry David’s own “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, almost like the multi-camera filming and studio audience laughter is providing a safe distance to laugh at some of the more excruciating situations, ones that coined euphemisms like “shrinkage”, “sponge-worthy”, “master of my domain” and “...not that there’s anything wrong with that”.

 

What I have been watching the most recently have been the outtakes and bloopers, meticulously preserved on the DVDs and displaying both how much fun the actors and production staff had making the show, and how much Jerry Seinfeld really was playing himself on it. The show recently also spawned its own YouTube channel showing highlights, making me go back to watch the full episodes, while wishing they would release these remastered episodes on Blu-ray.

 

However, “Seinfeld” was probably best described as a “cult hit” in the UK during the BBC’s original broadcast of the show. It first showed up on BBC Two in 1993, on Thursdays at 9pm, on the back of the show’s huge success during its fourth season that contained famous episodes like “The Contest”, “The Bubble Boy” and “The Junior Mint”, as well as the season-long story where Jerry and George pitch a sitcom version of their own lives, a line of dialogue giving rise to the false observation that “Seinfeld” is a show about nothing at all.

 

However, the BBC began their broadcasts of “Seinfeld” from the start, when it was initially slower, more low-key, with fewer, longer scenes, with executives at NBC giving the show time to find itself. Infamously, the original 1989 pilot was followed with a 1990 season of only four episodes, using the budget intended for a Bob Hope special, introducing Elaine as a mandated female character, and a second season of thirteen episodes where Michael Richards started playing Kramer as the smartest man in the room, rather than the dumbest. After the first ten episodes, the BBC Two broadcasts moved to Saturdays around 10pm, slipping closer to midnight by the time the fourth season’s denser, multi-layered and often coincidental and absurdist episodes were finally shown in the UK, by which time it took over from “Cheers” as America’s favourite sitcom. The BBC should have started with the fourth season first.

 

My exposure to “Seinfeld” began in about 1998 with its seventh season of episodes like “The Soup Nazi”, “The Sponge”, “The Gum” and “The Invitations”, where George’s fiancée Susan dies through licking the gum on old envelopes. Relegated to cult status, the show was often used on BBC Two as filler during Parliamentary recess, and reviews of the day’s proceedings were not broadcast. Having only read text summaries of episodes online, and with my having been interested in how sitcoms were written, it had already been impressed on me that “Seinfeld” was a show that needed to be watched – I also found it to be a better show than “Friends”. 

 

Now able to track the BBC’s airing of the show, and through its subsequent reappearance in panel discussions and as a specialist subject on “Mastermind”, you end up realising that the biggest audience Jerry Seinfeld personally had in the UK must have been when he appeared on “Des O’Connor Tonight” in 1981, two years before his debut on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”, where he worked his stand-up routines about cars and left-handedness into the conversation, and when he later appeared on “Jasper Carrott – Stand Up America” in 1987, recorded in Los Angeles.

 

The final broadcast of “Seinfeld” on the BBC was in October 2001, three years after it ended its run in America, but before the DVD box sets began to appear. I never kept the VHS recordings I inevitably had to make to see a show past my bedtime, but the memory of it stayed with me long enough to be rekindled on home video. I’m just glad that more people have heard of it now, an odd thing to say about such a famous show.

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