Jerry Seinfeld, Sheldon Cooper, and the Heart of Darkness

Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory are two of the funniest television shows ever produced. Aristotle and Freud thought humor a serious business. Notwithstanding the work of those thinkers and others, why we laugh at humor remains an enigma (beyond “because it’s funny”), and the surest way to kill a joke is to analyze it. However, inevitably embedded in great humor rests a kernel of truth.

In its own words, Seinfeld is “a show about nothing” that embeds profoundly bleak truths. The four main characters are Elaine, George, Kramer, and the ringleader, eponymous Jerry Seinfeld, a standup comic who plays a standup comic. In today’s lexicon, none of them are well “grounded.” Chronically insecure and obsessed with appearances, they are exaggerations―as close to nothing as people can get. They have no real virtues, but neither are they guilty of any high crimes or misdemeanors. Rather, Seinfeld episodes are filled with petty mendacity, manipulation, seduction, hypocrisy, self-promotion, insincerity, vanity, venality, and every other small beer transgression known to man. The fun of Seinfeld is watching it all blow up in the perpetrators’ faces, usually in three or four cleverly interwoven story lines.

The Seinfeld four scheme for something―sex, money, admiration, popularity, absolution―for nothing, or less. The show usually satisfies a moral formula: its characters wind up with nothing, or less. If they did not, Seinfeld never would have achieved the popularity it has. The four are impossible to like, admire, or respect; we have to have the last laugh or we will stop laughing. An uncharacteristically unsatisfying episode was “The Soup Nazi.” The soup nazi is an eastern European immigrant who makes great soup. He is a rarity on Seinfeld, an unyielding perfectionist who loves his soup and his store and cares not at all what people think of him. His customers must abide by his strict protocols about standing in line, approaching the counter, ordering, and paying. Elaine smugly mocks the protocols and he banishes her. (“No soup for you!”) Contrary to the usual formula, Elaine gets the last laugh, obtaining and publicizing his recipes and putting him out of business. The audience is shortchanged: the phony bitch didn’t get what she deserved.

Even when the formula is followed and we are laughing, the laughter has an edge. There is no brilliant, demented Kurtz here, going native and establishing himself as a homicidal deity, but Seinfeld, in its own way, is a contemporary Heart of Darkness. Its darkness is its nothingness, its void.

Many critics and viewers found the show’s finale wanting. It is a courtroom catalogue of the rotten things the four have done and their victims, and they end up in jail together, convicted for laughing at, rather than aiding, a fat guy who was getting robbed. It puts an exclamation point on the show’s moral message―nothings end up with less than nothing―but it is not very funny and lacks the poignancy of other long running shows’ finales. Poignancy is impossible with Seinfeld; the audience has to care about the characters.

More revealing, and discomfiting, would have been to show some or all of them, thirty or forty years down the road, assessing their lives. Their childhood dreams and ambitions have disappeared in white lies, going along to get along, chasing status, and always, always worrying about what others think of them. They realize they have squandered their most precious gift. How many people’s assessment would be that much different? Perhaps the last line would be one of them whispering, “The horror! The horror!”

If the soup nazi was the Seinfeld exception in his brilliance and devotion to craft, those traits are Big Bang Theory rules. The seven main characters are three PhD Cal Tech physicists: Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj; Howard, an engineer with “only” a masters degree from MIT; Amy, a PhD neuroscientist; Bernadette, a PhD microbiologist; and Penny, not book smart, but wise in the ways of the world and the male scientists’ Gordian knot: women. This is a show about the lives and loves of somethings; the kind of people who discover new solar systems and subatomic particles, design microcircuitry, and find cures for cancer; people often derided as “nerds.”

The center of this solar system is theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper, who regularly says that he will win the Nobel Prize and who is so darn smart he probably will. He is a condescending know-it-all who does in fact seem to know it all, but among his saving graces is that he freely acknowledges his few errors. Howard is not quite as maladroit as the other male scientists and is the first to have a girlfriend, but none of them have much of a clue how to “get along” in contemporary society, especially with the opposite sex. Raj cannot even talk to a woman unless he has had something to drink. Unlike the Seinfeld four, all the scientists, male and female, lack an essential social skill―they cannot lie―and when they try, they usually end up admitting it, often before the lie is even exposed.

“The Contest” is considered by many to be the best episode of Seinfeld, in part because it deals with an almost universal practice that almost nobody talks about: masturbation. Comic as it is, the episode’s tone is the salacious half-smile of the miscreant who is violating a taboo and getting away with it. The Big Bang Theory treats masturbation like it treats menstruation, fornication, defecation, urination, flatulence, video sex, and online pornography: facts of life to be acknowledged, scientifically studied and analyzed, and openly discussed. All of them are fit phenomena for the show’s comic zingers, which elevate raunch to a higher plane.

Humor is a product of intelligence and Big Bang characters often turn the tables on a world that doesn’t understand them, but which they understand too well. Like Seinfeld’s characters they trade scathing insults, but some of the best laughs are when they direct their wits at the 99.9 percent with lower IQ’s. At such moments we are laughing with the characters, not at them, a rare experience on Seinfeld. Cooper’s comments on the follies of human mating rituals are sociological gems. Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays Cooper, maintains a straight face while flawlessly delivering elaborately constructed observations that end with an unexpected twist of a punch line. He has won two well-deserved Emmys.

The male scientists love comic books, video games, action figures, and Star Wars and Star Trek. In one episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and George feed a woman with a “cool” toy collection sleep-inducing food and wine so they can play with her toys while she slumbers. It is weird and creepy. The scientists’ passion, on the other hand, is endearing, a love of heroes and the heroic preserved from childhood, something the bullies could not beat out of or take away from them.

It is no accident that Penny is from salt-of-the-earth Nebraska and not superficial Southern California, where the show is set. She looks past the scientists’ geeky awkwardness to their essential “somethingness”―their brains, accomplishments, character, and good hearts―and becomes their friend, confidant, scold, and advisor. Her relationship with Cooper is oddly touching. Sometimes she is his not-smart-enough pupil (in one episode he tries to teach her nuclear physics) and sometimes she is his surrogate mother. (Cooper’s actual mother is a Bible-thumping Texan and the show comically exploits both the clashes between her and her atheist son and his need for her.) For Amy and Bernadette, Penny is the beautiful, popular cheerleader prototype who would have nothing to do with them in high school, and their attitude towards her, especially Amy’s, borders on worship.

Both shows have episodes dealing with “friends with benefits”―sex without romantic attachment. In Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine, who had a previous relationship, construct an elaborate set of rules that will supposedly allow them to enjoy sex without reigniting their relationship. Their have-your-cake-and-eat-it-effort comes up short. Intended or not, sex has strings, but Jerry and Elaine’s inchoate feelings remain inchoate because neither one offers any quality or virtue that can be liked, admired, respected, or ultimately, loved. Nothings cannot fall in love. As Sheldon Cooper might say, whether one thinks of love as additive or multiplicative, zero plus―or times―zero will always equal zero.

The Big Bang’s Leonard and Penny also try no strings sex after their first failed attempt at a relationship. It does not work because while they do not fully understand why, they are falling in love. The show reaches an apex when Penny visits Leonard at his lab to demonstrate her interest in his work. As if by magic, Leonard conjures a hologram of first a pencil, then the earth, then a galaxy as he explains a string theory conjecture that the entire universe may be a hologram. He uses magnetic levitation to levitate a heavy iron ball. Penny’s wide-eyed wonder is genuine. She says, “Sometimes I forget how smart you are,” locks the lab door, and tells Leonard to take off his clothes. Their sex is an expression of love between two somethings―a man who can make pencils dance, galaxies rotate, and iron balls float, and a woman who admires his intelligence, character, and accomplishments.

To be loved, one must have something to love. Howard, the inventive engineer whose distasteful approaches to the opposite sex earn him a well-deserved remonstrance from Penny, is the first of the male scientists to marry, to Bernadette. When he comes back from a month in space and does not get the hero’s welcome he deserves from his wife, mother, or friends, we feel sorry for him, notwithstanding his occasional repulsiveness. How many of us are ever going to face the challenges of being an astronaut, and should we not pay tribute to the few who do? Even antiseptic, asexual Sheldon develops a love interest―Amy, who is just as socially inept and quirky, but also just as bright. Raj, whose sexuality is somewhat ambiguous, is the last to find his beloved. The tongue-tied couple dates in a library, silently picnicking and texting each other. Love is always a possibility for the world’s somethings. It is a tragedy far beyond Conrad’s that the world has so few of them and so many of the Seinfeld four.

This review first appeared on Straight Line Logic on 11/19/12

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