Skip to main content

Jerry before Seinfeld: Delightfully Distinct

By Marybeth Baggett

For nearly thirty years, Jerry Seinfeld has been a fixture of the American cultural landscape. His signature sitcom, the so-called “show about nothing,” dominated television during the 1990s, and the comedian himself became a household name. Close to twenty years after its finale, Seinfeld remains in syndication, and its namesake has a net worth of $860 million. Seinfeld still commands sell-out crowds on his comedy tours and has recently inked a deal with Netflix to distribute new standup specials and host new episodes of his low-key Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Bottom line: Jerry Seinfeld is just about as big as it gets in today’s America. And yet, ironically enough, he has achieved this iconic status by dealing in minutia. The quintessential observational comic, Seinfeld draws the attention of his audience to the often-overlooked mundane realities that comprise our lives—breakfast cereal, wallpaper, construction tools, laundry, childhood toys, shopping, furniture. And through his comic vision, Seinfeld culls insights on our shared hopes and dreams, our fears and failings, our charms and virtues, our pride and pretensions—insights as brilliant as they seem, after the fact, obvious.

A recent documentary on Joan Didion said that her writing revealed a recurring and remarkable knack for showing the centrality of the peripheral and the universality of the particular. Much the same can be said of Seinfeld’s penchant for accentuating the extraordinary of the ordinary. Both artists remind us all of the magic of the everyday and the beauty of the quotidian. Despite this similarity, they manifest this shared trait in remarkably distinct ways. No one would confuse Jerry with Joan. And in these very differences is revealed the allure of diversity’s charm.

Seinfeld’s delightful pairing of the big and the small, the distinctive and the seemingly insignificant is at the heart of Jerry before Seinfeld, the special that kicks off his deal with Netflix, released this September. In this combination documentary/standup routine, the comedian returns, literally and figuratively, to his professional roots. Seinfeld once again takes the stage at the Comic Strip, the New York comedy club that gave him his start. Interspersing bits from his show with an assortment of memories tracing his career back to its beginnings, Jerry before Seinfeld offers a needful cultural corrective—emphasizing that the comedian’s value lies not in his celebrity status but in his unique calling and craft.

It turns out that the Jerry who became Seinfeld was remarkably unremarkable. He grew up in the suburbs of New York, second child of a middle-class Jewish family, with an upbringing marked by no major traumas or spectacular good fortunes. He was simply an ordinary kid. But that ordinary kid had an extraordinary bent toward humor. He couldn’t get enough—poring over MAD magazines, collecting every comedy album he could get his hands on, and stopping everything if a comedian came on TV.

Great performers like Jean Shepherd, George Carlin, and Abbot and Costello transported him from his “boring, regular life” to a realm of wonder and creativity. What captured his imagination, he says, is that these comics held nothing sacred; they just didn’t respect anything. It blew his mind to think that he didn’t have to simply accept what was handed to him.

Such a lesson might be poison to some kids; to Seinfeld it was liberation. It freed him to discover his unique angle on the world, to believe that his perspective mattered, too. It also enabled him, at twenty-one, to walk away from a full-time construction gig and throw himself completely into comedy, earning nothing but free meals and t-shirts and dealing with hecklers and gigs that bombed. Even still he testifies, “None of this bothered me. I was in comedy, and it just felt like heaven.”

Thus inspired, it took real work to cultivate his act, develop material, and find his voice. One of the great services Seinfeld has offered us is the inside scoop of what it takes to become a premier comedian, to achieve excellence in one’s field. Though a prodigious talent, he was willing to put in the time and effort to maximize his innate skills.[1]

What’s true for Seinfeld is true for us all: each of us has a unique voice to share, something we’re a genius at doing, which we can do unlike anyone and everyone else. As Christians we most often say that human value resides most significantly in the fact that we were, all of us, made in God’s image, His imago dei. What we all share in this respect is something unspeakably remarkable indeed.

But John Hare points out that there’s another vital ingredient to our value as human persons: our distinctiveness. It’s not just what we share in common that matters; our differences, too, are a crucial part of who we are and of why we’re valuable. No two of us is exactly alike; each of us is designed to reflect a different aspect of our Creator. A prodigious talent and distinctive voice like Seinfeld’s is a reminder that each of us is unique, that each of us has a contribution to make that’s a reflection of how God made us and what He intended us to do.

Hare writes as follows:

. . . [T]here is a call by God to each one of us, a call to love God in a particular and unique way. Revelation 2:17, in the instructions to the church in Pergamos, refers to a name about which God says, “and [I] will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no one knows except the one that receives it.” If we think of this name, like “Peter” meaning “rock” (the name Jesus gives to Simon), as giving us the nature into which we are being called, and if we think of this nature, as Scotus does, as a way of loving God, then we can think of the value of each of us as residing in us, in our particular relation to God.[2]

A theistic and Christian picture of the human condition provides a compelling account of human dignity, of incommensurable worth, and of ordained work, not just for humanity as a whole but for each and every individual. This is an account strong enough to sustain our deepest intuitions about the inestimable value of every human person—a profound truth hinted at even in a guy whose concerns canvass nothing. The story of Seinfeld shows that there’s something sacred after all.

 

Notes: 

[1] Horace make this same point regarding the poet in his classic Ars Poetica:It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].”

[2] “What we have here is an intrinsic good in a slightly odd sense; not that we have value, each of us, all by ourselves . . . since we have our value in relation. But the value is not reducible to the valuing by someone outside us, on this account, but resides in what each of us can uniquely be in relation to God.” Hare, God’s Command, p. 29.

 

image: By Tracie Hall from Orange County, us (DSC_0235) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply