Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s serialized ode to nothingness can be seen so often in reruns, at all hours of the night, that it’s almost as if Seinfeld never left us.
But it did, and when an episode from the show’s second season – it would end in 1998 after nine seasons – flitted past my almost-closing lids one night and I dozily heard Jerry ask George (Jason Alexander) if he was seriously going to drop a mickey in his boss’ drink, the show felt suddenly, well, old. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Wasn’t a mickey a small bottle of liquor? Right away, the reference showed Seinfeld’s age, but because of the simplicity of the set-up, audiences would understand that a mickey is today’s Rohypnol, rendering George’s boss properly inebriated and humiliating himself as George had planned. That’s what you get for not letting everyone use the executive bathroom.
It’s understandable that an episode of a show that started its inimitable run 23 years ago would now sport the early signs of wrinkles. Miraculously, though, Seinfeld still maintains its youthful rosy hue and continues to bring on the belly laughs and impress with the number of envelopes it was willing to push.
And we haven’t even discussed the new lexicon it gifted us. After all, where we would be without short-hands like Regifter, Yada Yada Yada, Double-Dip and Sponge-Worthy? Of course, even Sponge-Worthy would have to be tweaked to fit today’s vernacular but it doesn’t make the joke any less funny. Timelessness is a tell-tale sign of something that’s classic, and Seinfeld absolutely warrants that descriptor.
Where the series feels a little like an older person’s program is in its absence of technology: no one has cell phones, Jerry hardly uses his hilariously-oversized computer and his getting a two-line phone was not only a major plot point in the episode “The Outing” but figuring out how to use it turned into the kind of snafu that we’d mercilessly tease our grandparents about. During the bottle episode, “The Chinese Restaurant”, George is forced to wait by a payphone (!) for a call from his girlfriend, which feels like a problem from the time of cavemen. And yet, we still laugh until our cheeks hurt when the maitre d’ calls out “Cartwright” instead of Costanza and George misses the call he’s been desperately awaiting.
The show also reveled in its purposely excessive political correctness while broaching some subjects that would likely be even more closely scrutinized today. During the episode entitled “The Chinese Woman,” Jerry agrees to go on a date with Donna Chang after only hearing her over the phone and assumes he’ll be courting an Asian woman. George’s mother also enlists Donna’s advice about how to save her failing marriage, assuming Chang is a wise Asian woman, since she fit into the stereotype. So when she shows up to meet Jerry, and she’s a white woman, it’s revealed that her name is actually short for Donna Changstein and both Jerry and George’s mother are let down, while their own biases, and ours, are laid bare.
An episode like “The Contest,” while brilliant and risque, had to concern itself with not offending anyone in light of its central plot was about the foursome of Jerry, George, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards) seeing who could hold off on pleasuring themselves the longest. With shows that celebrate sex, both solo and with at least one partner, on every other channel nowadays, a story like this one seems like it would barely register as being racy. And yet the episode works better because they never overtly state what it is they are trying not to do and it’s clear Seinfeld and David have fun making the characters talk around the deed and putting them in increasingly sexually tense situations as they squirm and sweat.
But perhaps the most telling sign of a show that continues to warrant our attention when there are a million distractions to be had, and Netflix queues to get through, is that the references are just as potent and used within the right group of friends — like say, mine. They can function much like inside jokes and communicate so much with just a few words. So when I gripe about a skinny mirror in a store, shout Serenity Now! as a calming mechanism and claim some charming soul must have The Kavorka, we’re all speaking the same language two decades later.