Summer 2012

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Purple Prose
Illustration by Anthony Freda

Jerry, We Hardly Knew Ye

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Stuart N. Brotman (C74) of Lexington, Mass., teaches entertainment and media law at Harvard Law School.
Media law expert revisits Seinfeld in a mad marathon.

When I served in 2004–05 as president of the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City and Los Angeles (now called the Paley Center for Media), I kept one deep, dark secret that I now can reveal at last. Unlike the hundreds of people who asked me at cocktail parties, I knew that we really didn’t have all the episodes of Seinfeld in our massive archival collection. Truth be told, we only had 40 out of 180 episodes of the popular TV sitcom that aired on NBC from 1990 to 1998.

So, aided by Netflix, which has the full collection, I decided during the past holiday season to create my own museum at home by watching the complete Seinfeld series on DVD in its order of airing. I began this marathon project on Thanksgiving and finished on New Year’s Day. I started with a sense of hesitation, to be sure. Would it be as funny and inventive as I remembered it, and could it keep me amused, episode after episode, for days on end? The good news is that, for me, it upheld its TV Guide reputation as the greatest series of all time.

But I also was struck by a sense that the characters functioned in their relatively low-tech world like they all were wearing Puffy Shirts (season 5, episode 2, where Jerry wore one when interviewed on The Today Show, with Elaine gleefully pointing out his resemblance to the Count of Monte Cristo). Jerry had a walkie-talkie–sized cordless phone he used frequently in his apartment, along with what was then called an answering machine (and Elaine checked her own answering machine compulsively, a precursor to email and texting, I guess). Kramer was more than excited when he announced in season 9, episode 19, that he signed up for the deluxe package of Now We’re Cookin’, a new food delivery service that would send restaurant menus by fax.

In virtually every episode I found myself in a wonderful time warp, when no one thought about interrupting their meals at Monk’s Café with their heads down, tapping furiously on their smartphones. I also began to imagine what the series would be like if it aired in today’s 24/7 digital world.

Imagine, the long lines waiting for the Soup Nazi (season 7, episode 6) would disappear before our eyes as the gang receives a text message telling them about his daily fare and then tweets their orders back. That would truly have been a show about nothing.

Or how about season 5, episode 21, with the ugly baby in the Hamptons who provoked a “breathtaking” reaction as Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus [C82, H07]) looked into the crib? With a quick review of the family’s Flickr album while still in Manhattan, she could have spared herself the trip out there. And George would have stayed behind, too, thus avoiding the indignity of exposing his shrinkage after he pulled off his swimming trunks.

“The Contest” (season 4, episode 11), however, might have become even more interesting to watch. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer inevitably would have set up their own Facebook page inviting “friends” (Newman, Puddy, even Marisa Tomei) to join them in an online battle of wills to see who could hold out the longest. Imagine thousands of people logging on at the same time to read Kramer’s plaintive posting, “I’M OUT!” right before the show went to commercial.

Fast forward to today. A happily married George and Susan Ross would be posting pictures of their own breathtaking baby on Flickr. Instead of George picking out those cheap wedding invitations with the toxic envelope glue that led to Susan’s tragic demise (season 7, episode 24), all would have been well after sending the Paperless Post versions that satisfied both George’s frugality and Susan’s sense of efficiency.

And “The Finale” (season 9, episodes 23 and 24) no longer would be the subject of heated arguments about whether this one-hour episode really was the way to bring things to an end. Instead, the defense lawyer Jackie Chiles surely would have introduced Kramer’s Droid smartphone video at trial to show exactly how the carjacking in Latham, Mass., had happened. Rather than being found guilty of not helping at the crime scene, our fearless foursome now would be seen as good Samaritans, alerting the world on YouTube about the need for greater vigilance when driving.

That means we’d still be joyfully watching Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer continue with their day-to-day lives on the Upper West Side. If we weren’t too busy chronicling our own day-to-day lives online, of course.