When she’s done watching the whole run of Friends, I’m going to let my 10-year-old daughter watch the whole run of Seinfeld—and that’s pretty much what you need to know about the comedian’s work. Would I let her watch Curb Your Enthusiasm? Not in one million years. South Park? Nay. Girls? Not until she’s a woman. But Seinfeld? Sure, I’ll have some explaining to do around about the master-of-my-domain episode, and there will be an uncomfortable conversation about shrinkage, but for the most part she can cuddle up with Jerry and Kramer, George and Elaine, and I know they’ll keep her safe.
I love Seinfeld, but I’m not the first Seinfeld-lover to note the harmlessness, bordering on banality, that defines our most popular comedian ever. The New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman has described that appeal as a “benignly neurotic skepticism that merges Jewish cadence with WASP restraint.” But watching Netflix’s Jerry Before Seinfeld, the first stand-up special in twenty years from the highest paid comedian in the universe ($69 million last year), I began to wonder if there was anything at all Jewish in Seinfeld besides the cadence.
In this hour-long set, Seinfeld explores an apparently totally idyllic past, offering a picture of America, and his place in it, that seems distant even from the gentle Judaism of some episodes of his great sitcom. I’ll say it: in this new special, anyway, Seinfeld’s not really a Jewish comedian. That’s a big claim to make about the man whose sitcom featured a dentist who converted to Judaism just so he could tell Jewish jokes, and which built an episode around Seinfeld’s character’s parents’ reaction to news that he was making out with a girl during Schindler’s List. (Also, this is a man who famously dated a 17-year-old named Shoshanna Lonstein, then married one Jessica Sklar.) So I’ll put a finer point on it: there’s no feeling in his spieling.
In her brilliant new book Feeling Jewish, the literary critic Devorah Baum argues that Jewishness—as a sensibility, as a way of seeing the world—is about a surfeit of feeling. Whether we’re talking about neurosis, or hysteria, or anxiety, or about mother attachment, or about utopian dreams in politics, the “Jew,” both in his own imagination and in the view of anti-Semites, is that creature from whom feeling bubbles forth. By contrast, anti-Semitism is often an attempt to restrain feeling, to tamp it down, to order it—think of fascism in politics, which prizes order, predictability, and a return to known folk ways, against the roil of Jewish disorder and uncertainty.
And so: The Jew is seen as dissolute, unbounded, possibly queer; the Gentile is structured, known. The Jew anxiously awaits the messiah; the Christian knows He has come. The Jew roams, rootlessly cosmopolitan, searching for she knows not what; the Gentile is bound to the place she comes from.
In this schema, what are we to make of the Jerry of Jerry Before Seinfeld, who tells us, during a break in the stand-up action, as we watch Super-8 movies of his childhood, “There was no drama in my life or in my family or in my world”? He then adds: “Would I have been funnier if I grew up in Peoria in a whorehouse, raised by prostitutes? Absolutely. But this is what I had to work with.” And then, the goyish kicker, the mayonnaise in the buttermilk: “My parents were really nice, Betty and Cal. I had a wonderful older sister, Caroline. I had a nice family.” Has a less Jewish thing ever been said?
Well, maybe. Later, in another flashback, we get this cherry on top of Seinfeld’s Middle American Tastee Freez parfait: “I remember thinking, ‘Even if I’m not any good at it, if I can just make enough for a loaf of bread a week, I could survive. And that would be the greatest life I could have.’” The contentment, the serenity, the sane, well-adjusted lack of ambition—there is no Jew like this.
Don’t get me wrong: you must watch this comedy special. Jerry Before Seinfeld is, for all the reasons you might imagine, a sheer delight, filled with warm, funny bits about all the ways things used to be better. As he tells it, growing up in the 1960s, a child’s life consisted of biking without helmets and eating sugary cereals. “No helmets, no seatbelts, no restraints,” he recalls. “Anything came to a stop, we just flew through the air. I was either eating 100-percent sugar, or airborne.” Well, I want that life. Who doesn’t? Freedom outside, snacks inside. (“Life cereal,” he muses. “That’s a ballsy name, I always thought.”) A fantasy of belonging, available even to boys named Seinfeld. No wonder he makes TV I’ll let my children watch.