Saying goodbye to self-indulgence with 'Seinfeld'
By Jill Brooke
May 15, 1998
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The long goodbye to "Seinfeld" has at long last come to an end.
Amid all the hype and hoopla, maybe the reason so many fans found this goodbye difficult involves the same reason so many of us watched the sitcom in the first place: The finale forced us to say goodbye to adolescent self-indulgence.
In this vein, one of the show's defining moments occurred during the 1995-96 season. Jerry and George were sitting in Monk's Cafe, contemplating their navels and those of women.
"What's wrong with us?" Jerry blurted out, interrupting the drivel. "Why aren't we married? Why don't we have wives and children? Why are we not men like our fathers?"
Of course, that was the point. They were nothing like their parents.
Single, self-centered and not apologizing for it
Prior to "Seinfeld," sitcoms largely reflected society's expectations. If you were in your 30s or 40s, you were married with children, or you wanted to be.
Then along came Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, single and unapologetic. Like many baby boomers, they found that dating wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
But they had a consolation prize: friendship. The bond among these four nitpicking, angst-ridden complainers turned out to be as realistic and tight as any family relationship on television.
Meanwhile, in their dating misadventures, the characters provided sometimes biting insight through their self-centeredness. They illustrated all the ways this picky generation can sabotage a relationship.
We learned, for example, that "a preemptive break-up" was an effective strategy, in which you break up with someone before they have time to break up with you.
It became worthwhile to debate whether someone was "sponge-worthy" -- a phrase that emerged as Elaine dithered over whether to sleep with a date and diminish her stockpile.
And when no one was around, the show suggested, there was no shame in being "master of your domain" (a phrase for masturbation), unless, like George, you lived at home.
Reasons to break up, and avoid growing up
The reasons cited for breaking up were memorable and laughable.
"'Seinfeld' revealed men's military secrets. They really will break up over whether you eat peas one at a time," explained Mark Simone, a stand-up comedy writer and television historian.
Before "Seinfeld," we were taught to believe bad morals or bad manners could cause a break-up.
But we learned that having bad taste in commercials, laughing strangely, having big hands, not kissing on the third date and, worst of all, being liked by your parents, were all acceptable dumping grounds.
Deep down, the show's characters never wanted to settle down. They weren't after a mate to bicker with or kids to give them one crisis after another. They weren't looking to work in an office where their boss gave them ulcers.
They wanted to remain young, carefree, fun-loving single people. The cast looked and acted as though they were fresh out of college.
For Jerry, cereal was fine cuisine and Superman cartoons were great art. You rarely saw George in a tie and jacket. Kramer looked like he got his wardrobe from vintage clothing stores. And Elaine's hair was often anything but coifed.
As for their apartments, they were more Ikea than Martha Stewart.
The characters, like so many baby boomers, were determined not to live their parents' lives and settle down at 25.
The comic bite of reality
But the "Seinfeld" cast didn't live life so much as examine it. They were the right characters for an age where no one was distracted by world wars or economic downturns. Minutiae was the currency, spent with self-absorption.
There's been a lot of debate about how despicable some of the characters could be at times -- Jerry mugging an old lady to take her loaf of marble rye, for instance, to name just one of the many examples through the years.
Plenty of shows have bad characters, but on "Seinfeld," nobody cleaned up the mess. Beyond the main characters, the world got even uglier and odder with characters like Newman, George's parents and J. Peterman.
Still, so many people loved "Seinfeld" simply because it was funny, despite the character flaws -- and maybe because of them.
"The show looked real," Seinfeld said, explaining his show's success. "This is how many people really act and how people really talk. That's why so many enjoyed it."