The question we’re debating today: Is Seinfeld one of the greatest comedians of all time, or is he an overrated one-trick pony? Is he as gifted as Bruce, Pryor, Carlin, Rivers, Rickles, Hedberg, Martin, Chappelle, C.K., Hicks, Williams (Katt and Robin), Kinison, Dice Clay, Murphy, Rock… or is he second tier? Is he merely very successful and we should leave it at that? Read on for one answer; at the end you’ll find a link to the rebuttal.
It would be easy to rewrite history on comedian Jerry Seinfeld, whose acute—but clean—observational quicktakes on the minutiae of life were quasi-revolutionary in the mid-70s but came off as quaint by the early-00s. His nasal, sing-songy cadence was rife for parody (see: Frank Caliendo, Jimmy Fallon, Seinfeld himself) but he helped to steer stand-up toward personal stories and pleasantly neurotic takes on life, leading the way for alt-comedians like David Cross, Janeane Garofolo and Marc Maron with a more experiential and less bit-centric style. He might not be the kind of comedian young comics like to cite as an influence. He may not have broken boundaries like Richard Pryor, pioneered new forms like Andy Kaufman or inspired a revolution like Bill Hicks. Nevertheless, he’ll always be indispensable to the comedy pantheon.
Whether he’s a quintessential “comic’s comic” or not is a matter of taste; regardless, he’s dedicated himself to stand-up for 40 years now. At a time when most comedians use stand-up as a launch pad to movie stardom (Amy Schumer), at which point they often abandon it completely (Eddie Murphy) or go monk (David Letterman), this is a big deal. After a 10-year run of the instant-classic Seinfeld, he chose to end it all, even while execs dangled $100 million in front of him to continue, to return to stand-up, which demands respect. He actually turned down several high-profile offers to become a late night host himself—which he deftly parodied in a 3-episode arc on Louie—so he could continue touring his act. He wrote and produced numerous film projects, television shows, books, short story collections… anything to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump or sell out his own legacy.
Seinfeld’s observations speak to a basic human desire to laugh at society’s ridiculous standards.
Few would make the argument that Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is groundbreaking. But it’s a short, simple and well-executed insider’s take on comedy with top-tier guests (Howard Stern, Steve Martin, Garry Shandling) who open up to Seinfeld about their craft. The Crackle webseries was a low-stakes chance for him to do things his way without suits second-guessing every decision he made. If this all sounds too easy, check David Brenner’s milquetoast, unfunny Inside Comedy gabfest on Showtime.
While the regionalism of Seinfeld’s Upper East Side humor seemed like it would have prevented the show from “playing in Peoria,” the universality of its observations translated the world over, speaking to a basic human desire to laugh at society’s ridiculous standards and social niceties. One could probably create a simple mathematical equation for his and Larry David’s perfect ethnic yin-yang of comedy. Let’s try: Seinfeld’s shrewd dissection of human behavior + Larry David’s die-hard punctiliousness = a culturally seismic moment.
Like any good creator, Seinfeld was smart enough to surround himself with excellent comedic actors (Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), top-notch writer-directors (Carol Leifer, Larrys David and Charles) and unforgettable guest stars (Bryan Cranston, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener) to ensure that his show was more than the sum of its parts. To say that he is not a good enough actor to play himself, on whose comedy the entire concept for the show is based, is to wholly miss the point. By this logic, we’d all live in a world where Burt Reynolds played Rocky Balboa. Whether or not he is a better actor (a debate for another day), no one lived the script like Stallone—and Seinfeld. Stallone, coincidentally, was also savaged by critics for his portrayal of Rocky until he was nominated for an Oscar for the role…twice.
Or look at it another way: It’s like critiquing the “stars” on Dancing With the Stars for being bad dancers, even though they are. Except this contestant invented the entire show, and we don’t even want to give him his shot to compete. Jerry never needed to be the funniest person on Seinfeld; he created, wrote and produced it based on his own life, and he was smart enough to get out the way and let other, more seasoned performers do their thing. The man wholly embraced the format of traditional stand-up, its history and style, then successfully brought it to a brand-new medium, only to finally put the pieces back together in a different shape in the old medium. Seinfeld will always remain master of his domain; how he follows up on these ridiculous lifetime achievements is hardly the point.
DON’T AGREE? Read Jonny Coleman’s rebuttal here.