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 counterargument.
Let me just kick this off by saying that that Seinfeld the show is an obvious sitcom classic that will outlive us all. But Seinfeld as a comedian is wildly overrated, often cringe-inducing in his public comments and scripted material, and ultimately not one of the funniest people of his species, his generation or even his medium. There are many, many funnier people than Seinfeld—the people he chooses to work with, for starters. And while Seinfeld is a popular and blindingly successful performer, there are a lot of popular things that we don’t consider “the greatest”: Coldplay. The Cheesecake Factory. Daniel Tosh. Trump.
Of course, Seinfeld suffers from the eponymous Seinfeld problem, which means that it’s easy to take the show’s influence for granted as everything that followed was in part influenced by it. Seinfeld is historically significant and, at times, amazing. That’s a given. But I’d argue that you could swap out a dozen other comedians to play the role of Jerry, and you’d have the same great show. The problem is that Jerry isn’t really an actor. Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards are actors that can actually act and only underscore how untalented a performer Jerry is. You might argue that it’s difficult to play the straight man, but I’d counter that Jerry isn’t so much the straight man; he’s a blandly sketched and personified void. Factor in the influence of Larry Charles and Larry David, and you’ve got five people who are funnier than Seinfeld on his own show. David, Charles, Dreyfus and Alexander have all found massive success in other comedic vehicles. Outside of Seinfeld, what has Seinfeld given the world?
Is anyone trying to argue that Seinfeld’s standup is relevant in the 21st century?
Now, let me be very clear: This isn’t just an attempt to kill the sacred cow for the sake of contrarianism. It’s more like, now that Seinfeld has shown that he has nothing else to add to his legacy, let’s actually look at what else Jerry has produced since his breakout sitcom. There isn’t much to look at. Sure, he sells out theaters for his stand-up, but is anyone trying to argue that his standup is relevant in the 21st century? Part of the fundamental physics of comedy is that it requires surprise, and Seinfeld seems incapable of surprising us in a post-’90s, post-Seinfeld world. And is anyone standing up for A Bee Movie? Is Seinfeld so afraid to fail that he can’t take risks anymore? What is his comedic legacy, exactly, if not observational airline humor that was already a self-parody by the late ‘80s?
The rebuttal I often hear is, “Yeah, but have you seen Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee?” Yes. I have seen enough of the series to know that it is a turgid strokefest where Seinfeld unintentionally underscores just how out of touch he really is. And the show is 22 minutes for a five-minute idea. Clearly, no one has said no to Mr. Seinfeld in a long time.
The funny thing about watching someone who’s worth a quarter of a billion dollars driving a custom car is that it means nothing. Pretty much no one can relate to the pace and tone of the show, which exists in some weird celebrity bubble posing as a reality show. And the truth is Marc Maron pulls better stories and shows out of lesser celebrities. So do many other podcasters who don’t have access to A-list talent. Watch the Will Ferrell episode and marvel at how Seinfeld can make Ferrell, one of the funniest humans breathing today, so pedestrian and unfunny that you wonder what the point of this program is. Is it to reveal how banal and humorless comedians really are? Seinfeld has wisely turned down many offers to be a late night host, and Comedians proves that he is charmless and lacks any discernible presence or vibe.
The only remotely valid argument for Jerry being relevant is that he inspired and made Larry David laugh. But making a great comedian laugh does not a great comedian make. Sure, he’s a “comedian’s comedian,” but isn’t that just a backhanded way of saying he can’t rock a non-comedian crowd like he used to?
So this really boils down to the semantic difference between funny and influential. Seinfeld is influential, but is his shtick funny anymore…or was it ever really? Aren’t grandpaisms like “comedy clubs are too PC” misplaced in 2016? Is real-life Seinfeld much more like a Larry David-style crank?
Seinfeld is the definition of middle-of-the-road—a Kedsey Matthews on mood stabilizers—and he’s been lucky to be around creatives who were so much more gifted than he is. Like so many other great Americans, Seinfeld sat on a good hand and failed upward into the history books. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I hope future generations know that the end of the 20th century produced dozens—if not hundreds—of funnier humans than Mr. Seinfeld.
DON’T AGREE? Read Christopher Tarantino’s defense here.