Friday, June 19, 2015

Seinfeld FAQ

It’s hard to believe that Seinfeld—the show that redefined the American sitcom forever—debuted more than a quarter of a century ago. In the summer of 1989, The Seinfeld Chronicles, as the show was originally called, aired in what network executives dubbed “Garbage Dump Theater”—their pejorative phrase for prime-time TV pilot episodes shown in July and August, when viewing audiences are at their smallest. In fact, Seinfeld came perilously close to not making it past the pilot stage. While its four-episode “first season” granted the show a welcome reprieve, it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence from the muckety-mucks at NBC.

Happily, Seinfeld was given a further chance—a half season’s worth of episodes—to either sink or swim. It almost sank, but by its third and fourth years, the show was slowly but surely becoming a ratings success and a bona fide phenomenon as well. If you were alive, alert, awake, and aware in the mid-1990s, it was impossible not to get caught in the crosshairs of Seinfeld chatter. Airing on Thursday nights after the popular sitcom Cheers—and later taking over the slot—Seinfeld brought people of all ages, and from all walks of life, together as never before. They had something in common: Seinfeld on the brain. The mornings after episodes ran inevitably supplied a surfeit of breakfast table banter, office water cooler chitchat, and coffee shop repartee. Seinfeld deliberations rivaled sports talk in saloons and neighborhood gossip in salons.

Seinfeld FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Show About Nothing wades with abandon into the origins of this television classic and its frequently bumpy ride on the way to the top. The book explores in entertaining detail the show’s exhilarating journey from obscure TV pilot to sitcom icon. What pray tell was so different about Seinfeld? For starters, it shattered the sitcom mold by wholly deviating from a tried-and-true formula. Seinfeld’s characters—Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer—were the antithesis of model citizens. They were selfish, callous individuals with dubious morals. Seinfeld episodes, too, didn’t wrap up with all-is-well hugs and kisses. Quite the contrary. In fact, the gang never learned any life lessons and rarely felt ashamed at their often-egregious behaviors. This ran completely counter to the traditional sitcom modus operandi.

In the final analysis, we loved television’s Fab Four despite their innumerable personality foibles and psychological hang-ups. Really, only Seinfeld could pull it off—and it did so because it was at once incredibly clever and incredibly funny. Stellar writing and situations that all of us could identify with proved something: TV characters really don't have to be particularly likable with redeeming qualities to win us over and make us laugh—and louder and longer than we had ever before. Seinfeld set a new standard for television comedy. Seinfeld FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Show About Nothing imparts to readers exactly how the show accomplished this not inconsiderable feat. More than fifteen years after it exited the prime-time stage, Seinfeld’s also proven it’s got legs. Its continuing popularity in syndication, and via DVD sales, has made Jerry Seinfeld a billionaire—and that’s no small achievement. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Wanderer

There is this old man in my neighborhood named Richard. I heard he turned ninety-three on his last birthday. Everybody in these parts has, at the very least, seen him because he’s perpetually in motion and has been for as long as I can remember. Richard is also an outdoorsman—always on his way somewhere and seemingly never tiring of shopping and unearthing gems from other people’s garbage cans. The man likes to talk, too—to everyone and anyone who will listen. I’ve had several conversations with him through the years. Really, I shouldn’t call them conversations because they were more like monologues. Richard did most of the talking and—boy—did he have tales to tell me.

Richard was in the Air Force during World War II and witnessed fellow pilots and buddies shot down on either side of him. When I spoke with him, he was pretty long in the tooth and—it’s probably fair to say—not quite sharp as he had once been. Richard was among the Greatest Generation and his exploits explained why. By my arithmetic, he was around nineteen or twenty when he was flying bombers over Germany. When I think of myself at that age—cosseted and in college—I couldn’t conceive of receiving a draft notice in the mail, let alone being shipped to the fighting frontlines somewhere. I was petrified enough at twenty with the notion of driving a car, which explains why I didn’t get my license until I was nearly thirty.

Sadly, I just learned that Richard—who clearly has been suffering from dementia for several years now—is in the hospital. It seems he set off one morning last week on another journey of his. The man’s been wandering more than ever of late, often walking in the heavily trafficked streets for some reason and not on the sidewalks. And it never mattered to him whether it was twenty degrees or ninety degrees outside. Richard was like the postman—nothing could stop him from his appointed rounds. That is, until what happened on this hot and humid day where he walked over a mile and a half before both collapsing from heat exhaustion and breaking his arm.

There’s a good chance I’ll not see Richard ever again. He’ll more than likely be placed in a nursing home to live out whatever time he has left. Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have tried to avoid Richard on the street. I had kind of tired of lending him my ear and hearing the same stories—glorious as they were. A life lesson and life in a nutshell, too. Wander on, Richard….

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)