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Greetings and salutations and welcome to season 2, episode 17 of the Pop Culture Academy where we do all things pop culture with just a bit of an academic slant. I'm your host, MK Adkins. What has happened this week since last we spoke? I finally caught up with the Miles Davis documentary, Birth of the Cool, which came out I believe earlier this year. Really good; very in depth. I'll say this, I was really looking forward to this, you know a Miles Davis documentary is really going to have to impress me because for me he's one of the top five or six artists of the 20th century, in any genre. You know, name whatever genre you want. He was that important. And so, you know I expected big things from this documentary and it's pretty good. Very in depth. I think the thing that got to me the most were the interviews with some of Davis's wives, especially Frances Taylor who was this brilliant, brilliant dancer and who had this conflict. You know, she'd essentially given up a world-class career for Miles Davis because he was a bit jealous about her career. And she talks about that. I mean, she's clear - her sort of, I don't know, frustration with that comes across. But at the same time that's fused with this recognition of how important he was, not to diminish her stature but I mean this was a guy who was among the most important musicians ever. He's very humanized - we deal with the drug abuse that caused the breakup of their marriage. But she lionizes him at the same time, the fact that he insisted, insisted, that the studio put her photo on the cover of his album, Someday My Prince Will Come. So, anyway, I found those interesting. It's a good documentary if you - if you don't know about Miles Davis you definitely should pick it up but even if you know something about Miles Davis, it's a pretty good watch.
Also an alert, I happened to notice - I don't keep up with these things as well as I should. So many things going on in life these days and, we talked about this before on the show, but I don't always keep up with the latest album releases and so sometimes they hit me a week or two later and surprise me. Mary Chapin Carpenter has a brand new album out in the last two weeks; it's called The Dirt and the Stars. Now if you missed it, Lucinda Williams also had a new album out earlier this year. These are two of my all time favorite singers and I tend to connect them to one another I think because of "Passionate Kisses" which was on one of Mary Chapin Carpenter's earlier albums, kind of put Lucinda Williams on the map a little bit before Cartwheels on a Gravel Road came out, before she really hit the big time. Anyway, I've heard really good things about this album. I haven't had a chance to really sit down and listen. I promise I will report back when I do. Awhile back I did catch an early release of one of the songs off the album, "Our Man Walter Cronkite" which is a typical Mary Chapin Carpenter brilliant tune. You know, she hits notes of nostalgia better than anybody. And also, just a note for my good friend J out in North Carolina, this one recorded at Peter Gabriel's studio. So, you know, kind of an interesting connection there. Peter Gabriel, Mary Chapin Carpenter, not necessarily people you think of together but you know, a studio is a studio.
So for this episode I want to get into Seinfeld a bit. I guess it's still on in reruns, right? Maybe TBS in the afternoons. For awhile you couldn't escape the reruns. For about fifteen years Seinfeld was just on all the time and deservedly so but I mean I guess anything wears out, fades a little over time. I mean, as bizarre as I find this I know that some people don't like Seinfeld. I have a good colleague at my last teaching job who just didn't like Seinfeld, never got that humor which - I don't know, by the end of this episode you'll - I don't really understand that. I don't really understand how you don't get Seinfeld. But it also, you know, maybe it's lost some of its sparkle, dare I say it has become somewhat passe? I know in the last years that I was teaching it had really lost something for my students' generation. But then you know, how many years has it been since that show went off the air? More than twenty, right? I want to say 22. In fact, let me confess something. I still haven't seen the series finale to Seinfeld and there's a story there. That last episode I was really excited about. It came out on my birthday. I have a good birthday. I share a birthday with George Lucas, for instance, and so a lot of the Star Wars films have been released on my birthday. But it just so happened that the Seinfeld series finale, the last episode, was going to be released on my birthday. My first wife and I went out to dinner, my oldest daughter who was two, well 18 months at the time, went out to eat, went over to Walmart and I mean, I live in Arkansas, where you going to go on your birthday if you don't go to Walmart? So, we go to Walmart, we're heading back to the car, we're going to get in the car, go home, watch the finale. This is back in the old days where you could record it on VCR and in fact, I did record it on VCR. But this is before the days of DVD, this is certainly before the days of DVR. And so we're heading back to actually watch it on television and we were run over in the parking lot of Walmart and - you know when I say run over, we were run over. You know, the car didn't actually run over us but we were hit by a car as we were walking to our car. Somebody just turned the corner and didn't see us and just popped us. We were really, in many ways we were very very lucky. Terrible things might have happened to my 18 month old daughter who is 23 now. They didn't. But, we spent some time in the ER that evening. And missed the Seinfeld finale.
Now, here's the second part to that story, a second confession. I am terrible about delayed gratification, right? I get a letter from an old friend and it's not that I don't want to read the letter, it's that I desperately really want to read the letter. It's from an old friend; I know it's going to make me feel good to read the letter. I don't open the letter because when I open it and read it then it will be gone, it will be through. I have this, like I said, therapy-level problem with delayed gratification. And, well let me tell you another story. I heard this story about the writer John Irving, you know World According to Garth, and Cider House Rules and...amazing, important contemporary writer and happens to be a massive fan of Charles Dickens and from what I understand has read absolutely everything Charles Dickens has ever written except for one story. And he's saving that story to read on his deathbed so that he'll have something new of Dickens to sort of charm him at the end. It won't be done. That's kind of the way my delayed gratification works. If I watch the Seinfeld last episode then it's done. Right? And as long as I don't I feel like maybe somehow it's not completely done, I'm saving this little nugget back. Now, I understand it's a terrible series finale and I'm not really saving it anymore. These days it's just 'cause I haven't gotten around to watching it. But I haven't seen it. But I will say this, I've seen every episode other than the finale, you know, dozens of times. But the fact that it is kind of a dated show, the fact that it's 22 years old, it's lost some of it's luster, it's not as popular as it once was in terms of syndication. It doesn't speak to this generation the way that it once spoke to my generation. To me that just means it gives it more reason why we need to revisit it and think about it.
My wife accuses me all the time of saying that everything is the greatest, right? This is the greatest show ever, this is the most important artist...I mean, I've already done it once in this episode, right? We were talking about Miles Davis. And it is true that I get excited about almost everything I watch and listen to and it becomes important. But I have trouble thinking, truly, of a more important television show than Seinfeld. I mean, that's probably ripe for an episode too - the top 10 most important tv shows of all time. But this one really does do something that ticks all the boxes. It really did change the television landscape. It's one of those shows, it's one of those artistic moments where it not only changed the future of television, what came after it, but in a lot of ways it changed everything that had come before. It made us rethink everything that had come before. Now, it's incredibly enjoyable; it's funny as hell. You could say that about a lot of sitcoms of course. You know, I've been watching Mom lately and fallen in love with that series. Alison Janey is a national treasure. You could talk about The Office or Everybody Loves Raymond. The Bob Newhart Show or Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore Show or I Love Lucy or Friends. Seinfeld is just as funny as the funniest of those.
There are important shows that aren't necessarily entertaining to watch, do you know what I mean? Like I would say that Twin Peaks is one of those top 10 most important shows ever. And first season, so good. But there are definitely moments in that series, especially as you get into the second season where you're like "uh, it's just not enjoyable to watch as something else might be." That's never true with Seinfeld. Seinfeld is as funny as any of the shows that I listed before but it has significance that goes well beyond it's comedy. Maybe only MASH. That's the only one I can think of that I would think of as significant in this same sense and the genius here is that the significance of the series is melded together with its comedy. So, if you get the comedy then you've kind of gotten it's importance and if you get it's importance then that only makes it more howlingly funny.
All right but let me stop singing it's praises and get into it. We might start with the fact that Seinfeld has famously been called "a show about nothing." And there's absolutely truth to that statement. And part of it's significance has to do with that statement, the fact that it was a show about nothing. But that's also a little misleading, it wasn't entirely a show about nothing. You know, in one of the mid seasons they have a whole plot line where George and Jerry pitch a television show to NBC the same way that Larry David and Jerry had pitched Seinfeld to NBC. It's sort of art imitating life if you will. George comes up with this great idea of doing a show about nothing and it's clever because already at that point Seinfeld was being called a show about nothing and so they were sort of writing the real world into the show. He gets in there with the top NBC producers and they say "what's this show about?" and he says "nothing." And they say, "I don't know if we're going to go for that." That's really the truth, right? On Seinfeld what happens is they come up with this ridiculous sitcom-y premise and if you know sitcoms - you could get really, if you start looking into the premise of sitcoms, the situation of the situation comedy, you'll find some really outlandish premises out there. And so they sort of make fun of that; they have Jerry who has a butler. I think at some point maybe somebody ran over him (a little synchronicity here). I think maybe somebody hit him with his car and couldn't pay off the debt and so he becomes Jerry's butler to pay off the debt. And that's the premise of the show, Jerry, which is the show within the show Seinfeld. That's kind of the way it really happened.
Seinfeld is not a show about nothing, it certainly did not begin as a show about nothing. It's actually, I mean the situation of the situation comedy is he's a comedian. And originally the point was each episode you sort of saw how his life informed his comedy and also, I guess, how his comedy informed his life. That was one of the things that led it where it went is that you sort of saw how those two things fused together. And it wasn't always just that his life informed his comedy. Sometimes you felt like the comedy was almost creating his life. The shows always began with a standup routine from Seinfeld himself and usually that set up what would happen in the episode. So the situation was comedian's life. So the show sort of becomes about that process that a comedian goes through, at least that's what it is in the beginning. But the seeds of pushing the envelope are already in that idea if you think about it. His life, like most comedians, his life informs his comedy. So, he's going through life. Things happen to him, he makes an observation, it becomes a comic bit. Only in this case what we are seeing is his life is a sitcom. So, the life that creates his bits is also a bit. And the bits in his comedy are actually what made the sitcom, if you see what I mean so that it's a bit about a bit about a bit about a bit and you lose track of where it comes from. There is no real.
But pretty quickly Seinfeld and Larry David seem to have caught onto this, to have recognized what they had and they came to understand that the premise, that setting him up as a comedian could be really pushed in some fascinating ways. And at the same time they really understood the form they were working in, the sitcom. Better than anybody they seemed to have grasped exactly what a sitcom is. A sitcom, again, the humor in a sitcom so so far removed from real life. The things that happen in sitcoms take moments and push them so far out from reality. The situations are so extreme, you know, it's not like drama. With a sitcom you really have to suspend disbelief. I mean, take Three's Company, right? Jack Tripper (John Ritter) has to convince his landlords that he's gay so that they'll let him live with two women. And he keeps this premise going up for years and the most outrageous situations come out of that single ridiculous premise. On Malcom in the Middle there's a great episode where Lois decides that she's just had it with the whole family. And so she gets in the shower and she just, she won't come out. She's in the shower for several days. It's just things that could never be, they are so exaggerated. But with comedy we suspend our disbelief. Here's the weird thing, we do suspend our disbelief with comedy but we pretend it's coming out of something real. There's the comedy half of a sitcom and there's the situation, a sitcom. You go back to a show like, I don't know, Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show, what is the content of Leave It To Beaver? The content is supposed to be real life. This is a kid, we watch this kid and he has a brother and family and he goes to school and he gets into all the hijinks and whatever. You're supposed to pretend that this is a real family that you're watching. That's what's going on in your mind; we're getting back into virtual reality again. What's going on in your mind is this is a real kid that I am watching do real things. And it's crazy and you suspend disbelief but you're thinking of it as a real situation.
Let me put it in other terms, think of the show as a snapshot, a photograph of life okay. Like imagine a tree for instance and you take a picture of the tree. So then you've got the real tree and you've got the picture of the tree and they look pretty much the same. They aren't the same, that's important. But they look the same. And maybe that's kind of the way drama work on television. Something like, I don't know, the show Thirty Something or Grey's Anatomy. It's a picture of the world and I know it's fiction but as we watch we're supposed to pretend we're watching real life unfold. That's why we get upset if someone dies on a show like that because we're engaged in it as though it were really happening.
A sitcom does that in a slightly different way. Maybe we might call it a caricature of the tree rather than a photograph of the tree. So there's still the real tree and then there's this funny drawing of the tree, but it's still the tree. When you watch The Brady Bunch you're supposed to pretend you're watching this real family doing real things. The dad's an architect, he's got three boys. He marries a woman with three girls and that's okay, that's a little outrageous but we buy into it, we believe it. And Seinfeld starts out that way. You're supposed to be watching the life of this guy who's a comedian. And you're supposed to see this as a slice of reality. It's exaggerated, it's funny because it's a comedy. But it's real. But then somewhere along the way Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld realize something; instead of pretending this is reality let's just leave that completely behind. Right? It won't be a show that mimics reality at all. It'll be a show that's about a show. It's not about the world, it's about the sitcom world. Again, the sitcom life which isn't real feeds the comedy which isn't real which then feeds back into the sitcom which isn't real.
So, the outrageous things that sometimes happen on a sitcom, they decided they were really going to push very deeply into those. So they start thinking, what do sitcoms typically do? Let's do all those things but let's take it as far as we possibly can so that it'll be completely obvious and no one will be confused that this is not real life this is a sitcom. We'll try to draw attention to the fact that this isn't real. You know, for instance, sitcoms typically have a couple of plots in each episode but for whatever reason everything comes together nicely and neatly at the end. Everybody learns a lesson. I mean, think your Full House, for instance. Think your Brady Bunch. Everything comes together, we learn a lesson, there's a moral. Everything works out and it gets wrapped up nicely and neatly. Now, that makes no sense in real life but that's how it happens in a sitcom. There's always a nice conclusion after 22 minutes.
So Seinfeld creates these bizarre plot lines that go in all these different directions and are all completely separated from one another and then suddenly in the last scene, magically, they just come together. And there's no reason why they come together, they just do. My favorite episode is the episode where George decides - well, Jerry decides that George is going to be a marine biologist. Right? They run into someone they knew from school and George is obviously interested in her and so Jerry says, 'Oh, yeah, George is doing well. He's a marine biologist." So now George is stuck having to be this marine biologist. Now we could explore this in another way and talk about, again, the fake within the fake within the fake, within the fake. But let's just go with it. George becomes a marine biologist or George pretends to be a marine biologist. Meanwhile there's a secondary plot going on that's completely disconnected. Kramer has decided to go out to the sand dunes that overlook the ocean and practice hitting golf balls. It's this new thing that he's discovered, it's cool you can just go out and hit these golf balls and they just sail out into the ocean and it's beautiful and relaxing and it's zen, whatever. All right, completely different plot line. At the end of the episode George begins telling this story about how what happened to him when he pretended to be a marine biologist. He's walking on the beach with the girl, he's telling her, making things up about marine biology, things that he doesn't know. Talking about plankton or whatever. And suddenly there's a beached whale up in front of him and this crowd has gathered and everybody is worried about the beached whale. People are very concerned and upset that this whale is beached. And somebody in the crowd says, "Is anyone here a marine biologist?!" And George's girlfriend says "Yes, my boyfriend is a marine biologist." So now George who is never one to let a lie go, I mean he's going to take it as far as he can possibly take it, finds himself climbing up on top of this whale. And he doesn't know what's going on. He, obviously, he's not a marine biologist. But he gets washed up on top of the whale so that he's looking straight down into the blowhole and he realizes that the whale can't breathe, that there's something keeping the whale from breathing. And so he reaches his hand down in there and he pulls out a golf ball. Right? And Kramer's comment at the end is "hole in one." Now, that is howlingly funny on so many levels but one of the ways it's howlingly funny is that these two plot lines have come together in a way that makes no sense and yet makes complete sense.
So, let me go back to the photograph analogy, the picture analogy. Now instead of a picture of a tree or a caricature of a tree now we have a picture of a picture of a tree, right? Almost like you took a picture, well you know how you get mirrors - if you put two mirrors together and its mirror mirror mirror mirror and it just - there is nothing in the mirror but mirror, right? There's an image of an image of an image of an image and in all of that in post modern terms, that is the world that we now live in. Where there's nothing but an image, right? We're in the mirror world, there is no real. The tree, it doesn't exist anymore. And once we get into television - all of that starts, post modernism really gets going when we get into television. Post modern theorists like Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrilliard, Lyotard, they say we've become the image. We are so surrounded by images, once tv gets invented, we are so surrounded by images that we can no longer tell the difference between the real and the image and so the image becomes an image of an image of an image. Simpler terms, we're in the matrix. Think about it. In the matrix, if you're really in the matrix and you see that woman in the red dress. What is it you're seeing? I mean she's not real, she's only an image. But here's the thing, she's not an image of a real girl she's an image that's been completely created out of nothing. She's only the image. There is no real girl. That's Seinfeld. And once you say, well, okay, this is a show about a show. It's a sitcom about a sitcom, a sitcom about what a sitcom is, well, I mean, then you can play with it in all sorts of ways. You can have an entire episode set in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant or you can have an episode that happens basically backwards in time.
All right, and that's brilliant and all but let's go one step further because Seinfeld managed to show us that the world has become the matrix. I mean, that's not easy to do. We may know, postmodernists told us, that the world's just an image of an image of an image, but we spend a lot of time pretending that's not true. I mean, how upset, for instance, are we with Donald Trump? How upset have we been with Donald Trump for years? I know that I'm livid almost every night. But if it's true that we're in the matrix, then Donald Trump isn't real. He's just part of the simulation. Now we don't like to think that way; it scares us. It feels like we've lost control. So most of the time we pretend. But Seinfeld sort of forced us to look at this situation because in bizarre ways reality and tv shows started to blend.
So if you know the show you know that there are clear echos of reality. George is obviously based on Larry David; Kramer is based on Seinfeld's real neighbor when he was a struggling comic in New York who was a guy named Kenny Kramer. Characters like the Soup Nazi; the Soup Nazi was a real guy. Then in the middle of the series they do a - we mentioned this already - they do a whole season that's based on making a sitcom. That is, they relive over again the process of pitching a show. They take what was real and put it into the show. They write the pilot, they film it. The show basically recreates Seinfeld's reality. And in this case it's a show within a show that's postmodernism. It's meta. We're going to give you a picture of a picture. We're going to look into that mirror again. But it gets stranger, right? So the real Kenny Kramer decides, in true Kramer fashion, that he's going to cash in a little on his celebrity. He's always coming up with a scheme. He comes up with schemes in the show, this is what the real person was like. And one of the many schemes he came up with was to create what he called The Kramer Reality Tour. This is all real. Quote on quote "real". The Kramer Reality Tour was this bus that he drove around New York, took people on and charged them and he pointed out real places that were connected to the show. Actually I don't think it was The Kramer Reality Tour I think it was called The Seinfeld Reality Tour. So now you've got life imitating the show, right? I'm going to show you real things about this fictional show but the show is based on reality. All right but then the show picks up on this. They know. Jerry and Larry David, the writers, they know that Kramer's doing this. So they have, in the show, Kramer sells his past life to Peterman. But then he loses the rights to his own stories because he sold his life story. So the only way he can sort of cash in on his story is to create what he calls The Peterman Reality Tour, right? So now you've got the show, Seinfeld, which is making fiction out of a real event but that real event is based on the fictional show. And the fictional show is based to some extent on reality. You lose track of what's real and what isn't.
All right. Then the show ends. Like Seinfeld ends. I never saw that episode but it ends. But Larry David starts Curb Your Enthusiasm and now that's supposed to be real but it's not, it's fake. Right? It's supposed to be a documentary following Larry David around. It's not. And the Seinfeld cast is always showing up. And so you're supposed to be seeing them now as "real people" only they're not really being real people because they are playing sort of fake versions of themselves. And then, for a whole season, the whole season is about Larry trying to reunite the cast to film a new episode which in real life the cast had said they were not going to do. But in the Larry David Curb Your Enthusiasm reality they get talked into it. And in the final episode of that season, we see them make an episode of Seinfeld. And so, here's the bizarre question - have they really reunited because this really is a new episode of Seinfeld? We really are watching the cast reunite on the old sets and do Seinfeld only at the same time it's not Seinfeld because this is Larry David and it's not - it's fake reality. It becomes, you know, we lose track of reality - that's what post modernism is all about.
Now Seinfeld is not quite as ground-breaking as it might seem. Seinfeld premieres in 1989. I think you have to give a lot of credit to Cheers, the show that came before it, was kind of the lead in before it. And Cheers was a show, you know, to it's credit began as the classic guy/girl sitcom. Will they get together, won't they get together? But once Shelley Long left it morphed into being a show about nothing, just people talking at a bar. But more than Cheers you really have to give credit to Garry Shandling. Shandling was just this brilliant brilliant, I mean, he's one of those guys you know went too soon. But in 1986 which was 3 years before Seinfeld he creates It's Garry Shandling's Show which really is, I mean he really takes it further than Seinfeld. The whole world really is on a sitcom and he says it up front - we break the fourth wall right at the beginning. He knows he's a sitcom character, he knows his house is the set, the theme music talks about itself, it really is an image about an image and in that sense it goes deeper with this premise than Seinfeld does. And of course it beats Seinfeld to the punch by three years. But it was on Showtime so it's not getting the same wide audience, particularly in those days, as Seinfeld was getting on NBC. And so It's Garry Shandling's Show only manages four seasons. Now it's brilliant. If you can track it down and watch it. It's incredible. But Seinfeld is the one that's introducing this to a much broader audience.
Together though, these shows break the sitcom. There's another popular postmodern term and that term is deconstruction. And deconstruction, it's a complex term and we need to spend a whole episode on it one of these days but it's when you take a word or an image completely apart until you realize that there's really nothing there, that the word doesn't mean anything. Seinfeld takes the sitcom completely apart so that you can't pretend anymore like you used to. You can't suspend disbelief anymore. Traditional sitcoms, now, after Seinfeld, look ridiculous. They look fake. They aren't clever anymore. And so actually, this is true, go back and check the historical listings, no new sitcoms that succeed after Seinfeld ends for several years. Now there's Friends and there's Everybody Loves Raymond, both of which started while Seinfeld was going on. But nothing else for a number of years like four or five years, nothing else works. They keep putting sitcoms out there and then they just quit producing sitcoms altogether for awhile, the major networks just quit doing it because they couldn't find a way around this. Seinfeld had made all sitcoms look stupid in comparison. Until The Office. And what does The Office do to get around the sitcom? We're not going to be a sitcom; we're going to pretend to be real life. So you turn the sitcom completely inside out and you go a completely other way. Park and Rec follows that. Curb Your Enthusiasm. And then after a period of time when that's kind of cleansed our palette we finally begin to go back to traditional sitcoms. In the last 10 years or so. Big Bang Theory. Two and a Half Men. Modern Family. The Middle. More traditional-like. I mean, Modern Family is still very faux documentary. But for the most part we've gone back to - Mom, is another good one. We've gone back to the traditional sitcom. But it took several years for us to get over that hump. All right now look, we haven't gotten into some of the finer points of Seinfeld. I mean, for instance, has there ever been a cast like this one? These four people and you add Larry David, it's a staggering amount of talent. And what's even more staggering is that these people weren't stars coming in. They made themselves. And they made this show. We could talk about the catch phrases. Such a sitcom thing and deconstruction. Think of (Steve) Urkel's "did I do that?" Seinfeld deconstructs that idea of a catch phrase so that every episode has its own catchphrase. Spongeworthy. Master of your domain. Close talker. Golden boy. Yada yada yada. And here's the amazing thing, and I love it when this happens in postmodernism, they are making fun of the sitcom but they are also out-sitcoming every other sitcom in history. Other examples of this. The South Park Movie parodies Disney but out-Disney's Disney so much so that South Park winds up with show tunes from the movie up for Best Original Oscar. Or, another good example, Fountains of Wayne was this band who they could copy everything in music. They could copy country, we've talked about them before, them copying the muscle car song that's very popular trope in rock music. They copy everything. But Fountains of Wayne manages to produce better versions than the songs that they are parodying so that then, again, they are screamingly funny but also really really good dead-on versions, homages if you will, to the originals. And, anyway, there's so many aspects of the show that we could get into. But as usual we've gotta stop somewhere and that's enough for one episode.
Thank you so much for listening. If you like what you hear please let us know. Follow us on Twitter, on FaceBook. Check out our YouTube page and visit us at www.popcultureacademy.com. And please tell your friends about us. I'll be back with an all new episode next Friday; see you then.
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