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18 ways to watch 'Seinfeld' without laughing.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By MAX WATMAN
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The ingredients of popular culture rely on a toolbox full of easy reference points. Television is a referential medium, like westerns, and while Seinfeld made a show of flouting typical sitcom underpinnings such as ending shows with a moral, it couldn't have operated as a television show without what Dunne is calling the "intertextual." The thesis that Seinfeld is intertextual (it's worth noting, of course, that a show isn't even textual) is supported by evidence such as: "Timeliness is also a key factor in the episode called 'The Checks,' when Elaine hooked up with Bret, a potential new boyfriend who thinks of the Eagles' hit 'Desperado' as 'his' song. Because this song dates back to the mid-seventies, this precise allusion effectively situates Bret as a classic-rock-listening Yuppie."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but no, it doesn't. The precision of the allusion was funny. He was a dork with a starry look in his eyes and an absurd, utterly invented, habit of shushing people when a schlocky, melodramatic song came over the speakers. In the show, to the strains of "Desperado," Bret would gaze off into the distance, imagining himself, perhaps, riding the plains.

This misinterpretation of the joke, or just plain not getting it, is endemic to these "scholarly" essays. Amy McWilliams writes: "The language of Seinfeld is certainly at the center of its appeal, and has given us wonderful new words to describe the annoying people around us (close talker)."

"Close talker" is a reference to one of the many types of annoying people invented on Seinfeld, and the point of it was, always, that there's no such thing as "close talkers" or "man hands" or "high talkers." Or not exactly that there is no such thing, but rather that the classification of previously unobserved, or underobserved, daily minutiae is Jerry Seinfeld's act. The shtick is all about the magnification of something very petty.

It is telling that the two most insightful and spirited pieces in the book were not written in the academy. Salon posted an excellent piece written by Bill Wyman in 2002, and it's printed here (one flickering screen regarding another--perfect). Geoffrey O'Brien originally published "The Republic of Seinfeld" under a different title in the New York Review of Books. While calling into question the title of that periodical, he points out that the ennui that is the operating mood of Seinfeld is precisely that of a TV watcher, which is about the sharpest observation in the whole book.

Those two essays demonstrate clearly that insight tends to be more profound outside of the academy than inside it; the scholarship represented here is shoddy. One author points out that the show has inspired "everything from the coffee shop banter in Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction to a knock-off porno film, Hindfeld."

What kind of student would opt for the thin gruel of television scholarship? Wouldn't a scholar ambitious enough to put words to paper rather be writing about something with some teeth? It's like digging a hole in a flower pot: The boundaries are obvious from the start. The only thing these essayists manage to do is to simplify their explication to such a stupefying degree that even their elucidation of the most obvious is like a flash of light. Certainly that's not the reason anyone went to graduate school? For whom does the dull flicker of the television suffice?

Clearly, the scholars here suffer from the same ennui pointed out by O'Brien: They have become sadly inured to the tedium of television, and with their minds dulled by it, have taken up the only topic they grasp. But since they have only television, they aren't bright enough to illuminate anything. And it dawns on the reader that the existence of this book is proof that they ought not to teach television at our universities.

Max Watman is the author of Race Day: A Spot on the Rail with Max Watman.