Seinfeld and Sisyphus: some thoughts

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So, FOX Sports has a bracket going for the best Seinfeld episode, and aside from undoubtedly being less of a waste of your time than actual March Madness (final two paragraphs), it got me thinking about some things.

First off, no, for the record, I don’t see the irony in implying that Seinfeld is not a waste of your time. Seinfeld was genre-defining, the original. But I’ll save the soapbox sermon for another time.

Seinfeld is often billed as “the show about nothing.” Jerry Seinfeld recently did a Reddit AMA in which he had this to say about the show’s subject matter:

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it’s the opposite of that.

Now, any good critic knows that authorial intent is suspect at best, but what’s important about the above statement is not the positive assertion of what the show is about, it’s the negative assertion that makes us question the cliché that Seinfeld is about nothing.

One of my college writing professors often made the distinction between what a text is “about” and what it is “About.” What it’s about is the element of story we call plot. What it’s About is something more akin to its themes. So, Moby Dick is about a bunch of guys killing whales, and more specifically about one guy trying to avenge himself on one whale, but it’s not About that. What it’s About requires more than a cursory reading, and can be a subjective analysis.

I think it’s significant that “the show about nothing” caught on so quickly, and was accepted by so many people. It’s notable that most people’s first encounter with the phrase was in its spoken form on the show. The distinction between “about” and “About” is only possible in writing, not in speech. So, if we reject that Seinfeld is about nothing, is it possible that it might actually be About nothing? (Or perhaps About Nothing?)

The show is about things — obviously, otherwise there is no plot — but their ultimate significance is nil: it’s About nothing (which is distinct from it not being About anything). I can’t remember which actor said it, but I think in the DVD commentaries for the show someone pointed out that the characters in Seinfeld are not people to admire. They’re the worst sorts of people. But their lives are recognizable, and so their Nothing, their lack of direction and meaning and significance, is ours. “Show about nothing,” then, is less of a statement about the show as it is the show’s statement.

This isn’t really a fully developed argument, just some thoughts that occurred to me from synthesizing ideas from a few disparate sources. As regards the title, it’s a reference to Albert Camus’s treatise against nihilism, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Can a show About nothing also be a comedy? Apparently so. After all, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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