Books

Why we still can’t escape Newman’s ‘Hello, Jerry’

It’s not as if Seinfeld didn’t have its critics. Writing in New York magazine, John Leonard called the show a “Cheez Doodle of urban fecklessness.” The New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, said it was “the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption.” Newman, the show’s villain, reduced these sentiments to two words: “Hello, Jerry.”

For many of us, though, Seinfeld was and is, in reruns, a dependable pleasure, an I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners for our time. The sitcom, which ran from 1989 to 1998, was topical and smart. Recall that Alf was a hit when Seinfeld was conceived. It was genuinely funny, dry as a good vermouth, eminently quotable and — yada, yada, yada — here is an intelligent book about it.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a former staffer at Entertainment Weekly whose books include a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, she delivers a solid history of the series, beginning with two unknown stand-up comedians, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, cracking jokes in a Korean deli in 1988 and realizing: This kind of banter could be a show.

And Armstrong can write. Here is her description of the two men at the time: “Seinfeld had dark hair blown dry into the classic ’80s pouf, while David maintained a magnificent Jew-fro, dented a bit in the middle by his receding hairline. Seinfeld’s delivery often ascended to a high-pitched warble; David favored a guttural grumble that could become a yell without warning.”

She has interviewed the show’s writers; its directors; its bit players; even the creator of its theme music, Jonathan Wolff, whose composition made him, in the author’s words, “the most famous slap-bass player since Bootsy Collins.”

Armstrong has an eye for detail. The actors who auditioned for the part of George Costanza, the role made famous by Jason Alexander, included Nathan Lane, Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi. Remember the episode about Elaine’s horrible, spasmodic dance moves? One of the show’s writers composed it after watching Lorne Michaels try to shake it at a Saturday Night Live after-party.

Armstrong’s book builds to an argument that we all now live in the world that Seinfeld made. Her term for this world is Seinfeldia. Part of this argument is based on the show’s position as a clear forerunner of today’s golden age of television.

David Chase’s concept for The Sopranos — “a mobster in therapy, having problems with his mother” — scans like a Seinfeld pitch, she writes. The narrative complexity of Seinfeld, the way three or four plot strands were woven into one resonating ending, inspired the creators of The Office, West Wing and 30 Rock.

Part of her argument, too, is that the show has cultural staying power. There are Seinfeld emoji and video games. Seinfeld scenes and catchphrases pop into your head several times a day — so often that they have became clichés, uncool to utter aloud. The man who cannot eat a tortilla chip making a reference to double-dipping is the man disinvited to your next Oscars party.

The reasons to read Seinfeldia are its carefully marshaled history lesson and Armstrong’s way of laying out her produce as if she were operating a particularly good stall at a farmers market.

I haven’t watched Seinfeld reruns for a while. I overdosed years ago and went cold turkey. Perhaps the highest praise I can give Seinfeldia is that it made me want to buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning.

Book review

‘Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything’ by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, 307 pages, Simon & Schuster, $26.

If you go

Jerry Seinfeld brings his stand-up act to Richmond for one show only, 7 p.m. July 8, at the EKU Center for the Arts. Tickets are $85 to $125. 859-622-7469. Ekucenter.com.

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