A blog world truism is that you get on the wrong side of Vanity Fair's James Wolcott at your peril. Regular readers of his blog know that seeing a cultural cad dispatched by Wolcott is a lot like watching someone being killed by Pam Greer's drug-addled hooker with a double-edged razor blade under her tongue in the unlamented "Fort Apache the Bronx:" There's a moment of guilty/erotic excitement, then you're just watching someone bleed out from several mortal cuts they probably didn't even feel.
Wolcott takes a moment to defend Jerry Seinfeld against the backlash of the omnipresent promotion of his new movie--whose name I will not speak, even if there were the slightest chance any of you haven't heard of it at least seven times in seven different media, and there is no chance of that.
And yet, at whatever risk to life and limb (a risk softened somewhat by the fact that it's very unlikely, though not impossible, that Wolcott knows p3 exists), I fear I must take exception to his take on Seinfeld.
Seinfeld has three gifts, one of which I admire, one I respect, and one I envy.
That being said, we must get to the point: Whatever you think of his observational standup and his ability to see a marketable idea and run with it, Jerry's not terribly funny. He's not awful, mind you, he's just middle-of-the-road in his claimed performance genre--observational stand-up--that's always been the point where you go to the kitchen for a snack anyway. Not that observational humor isn't funny, sometimes, but even Steven Wright can have you casting sidelong looks at the refrigerator after a certain amount of time.
And, of course, Seinfeld would be another refugee of Comedy Central's "Premium Blend" if it weren't for the series--which, after the first few seasons, stopped showing staged snippets of his stand-up comedy in favor of more time for the ensemble sit-com. It was easier to believe Jerry's character was earning enough to live in Manhattan doing stand-up if you didn't actually see him doing it.
Which brings us to Seinfeld's gifts: With creator Larry David's help, he resurrected the Abbot and Costello style of cross-talk that's been largely absent from mainstream comedy since the influences of vaudeville on television mostly died out by the end of the 1960s. That's the reason that his series gave pop culture so many endlessly repeated tag-lines; it's something that Abbot and Costello were pretty good at in their day, too. That's the gift I admire.
Second, as Wolcott notes, Seinfeld has flourished in large part because he has recognized--and unrepentantly struck--the deals that would make it happen. If his new movie has the faint whiff of a desperate bid to stay relevant, detractors can take comfort in the fact that all that multimedia promotion will disappear like the morning mist in about another week, followed by one final marketing hiccup in a couple of months when the DVD comes out. I don't admire Seinfeld's make-the-deal determination, but I respect it.
And what I envy him for is that he was able to be wildly successful in a medium--the ensemble sit-com--for which his performance talents wildly underequipped him. Watching him working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards was a lot like watching another show-within-a-show veteran, Larry Matthews, who played Rob and Laura Petrie's son Richie: You could turn the sound off and still know when the punchline was coming because Jerry knew it, and couldn't keep from smirking. It was telegraphed about 30 seconds in advance. His biggest scene with Alec Baldwin in the season opener of "30 Rock" was jerkily edited, as they struggled to find camera angles that didn't show him cracking up over Baldwin's scenery chewing. Jerry on the set, like Larry Matthews surrounded by actors the least of whom could run circles around him, at least was having the fun of watching it all happen from the best seat in the house.
I don't mind that Seinfeld is worth millions, or that by some buzz-kill criteria he doesn't <air quotes>deserve</air quotes> it--after all, the American dream isn't to become fabulously wealthy through merit; it's to become fabulously wealthy by winning Powerball. But it does disturb my sense of justice to think that he doesn't cook breakfast for Louis-Dreyfus, Alexander, and Richards every morning, after which he should go to Larry David's house and pleasure him in the way they both think is most appropriate, since without those four we'd remember Seinfeld only about as much as we'd remember Larry Matthews.