Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Low-brow Aesthetic, High Brow Ideas, Part 1: Seinfeld

Item: While I have a complete contempt for modes of entertainment that have no ideas behind them and little intelligence about them (most sitcoms, almost all action movies), I also have a disdain for pretentious arthouse films that they they are about ideas and are big on mood but short on plot and entertainment.

In his essay "A Tale of Two Sitcoms," Steven Stark writes about what he sees as the superiority of Home Improvement over Seinfeld. he actually has solid insights into what makes each show work (Home Improvement is about accepting responsibility and commitment, while Seinfeld is stuck in the adolescent mind, fleeing responsibility and commitment while making jokes about masturbation and incontinence). However, I'm still struck by how an intelligent person prefers a show with completely predictable structure and a catch-phrase of "Ooh, Ooh, Ooh," (literally, a catch-phrase of grunting) over a show that revolutionized the way a sitcom can be done. There is a lot of low-brow humor in Seinfeld, though that's not the crux of its humor: the important element of Seinfeld's humor is the observation and analysis of the complexities of contemporary social connections. It's also a show driven by word play and character humor.

Seinfeld often seems to have a purile appeal. The most famous episode is about a contest between friends to refrain from masturbation. All sorts of adolescent ideas about sex and relationships are presented. BUT...there's ideas behind Seinfeld. There's intelligence. If it's not the post-modern, deconstructionist sitcom (a show about "nothing), then at least it is a show filled with irony, about the absurdism of contemporary social life, the ridiculousness of commercialism, the confusion over social conventions, even, dary I say it, THE ANXIETY OF EXISTENCE. There's something many people may overlook: underneath the light-hearted veneer where we laugh at the foibles and problems of the four main characters, Seinfeld can be a very dark show. In one episode, George says: "Well, Jerry, I been thinkin'. I've gotten as far as I can go with George Costanza." Jerry responds, "Is this the suicide talk or the nickname talk?" A lot of bad things happen to people in Seinfeld, often as a result of the insensitivities and flaws of the main characters. Injury, illness, death, unemployment: these are some of the results of sandwiches, Juji Fruits, Junior Mints, lunches, cheap envelopes, cheap wheelchairs, and very frequently, thoughtless words. These mundane parts of life lead to the decidedly non-mundane (you could call them tragic if Seinfeld gave them a bit of dignity).

You see, behind the low-brow comedy of a show whose primary goal is to get laughs, there are ideas. There are truths about the random and absurd ways our lives work, the way the seemingly minor, pointless elements of our lives can lead to our doom.

Seinfeld is a sitcom, the most low-brow of genres. Though its humor aspires above the low-brow of Home Improvement, it is a decidedly watchable, entertaining show that makes us laugh. I'd almost be willing to say it has a low-brow aesthetic (with an asterisk: Seinfeld wasn't a conventional sitcom, but used many short scenes and changed the way content, pace, and setting to into a sitcom episode. In some ways Larry David again changed how a sitcom can work with Curb Your Enthusiasm, but that's a point for another post). Let me then present Seinfeld as the first example of my Low-brow Aesthetic, High-brow Ideas theory.

More explorations to follow.

1 comment:

  1. most of the popular theater in 18th and 19th century england was low brow clowning to the most common of bear baiters. but the best of these clowns performed with such skill that he raised clowning to an artistic expression of the human condition. the very lowest of early 20th century art forms was the cinema and the lowest form of the cinema was slapstick comedy. chaplin's skill however roused the admiration of such types of picasso and sartre and slapstick later became the dramatic foundation for the ultra brainy brow works of samuel beckett-- mainly for his interest in the chaplinesque.
    i'm not ending this by saying i think jack ass two could end up being something of importance but i know what you're saying about seinfeld. to me what makes seinfeld something special is expressed in the final episode. four mean spirited, amoral new yorkers locked up in prison for mocking a man being mugged. i think that's pretty smart stuff.