A sitcom about nothing? Really?
It wasn’t breaking news in January 2020, so it went by quietly because who wants to hear about a new virus these days? A team of Australian researchers had tracked down a new virus they described as "boring," one that attacks mosquitoes, not humans. Its name: Yada Yada.
by André Lavoie
Did you say, “Yada Yada”? If you believe this is a Latin phrase or a coded message, you are obviously not aware of the cult surrounding the sitcom Seinfeld that was a big hit and made the cash register ring at the American cable network NBC from 1989 to 1998. In Seinfeldian lingo, “Yada Yada” can be translated as “blah blah”, and hard-core fans of the series will tell you that the expression was first used by the complex-ridden George Costanza (played by Jason Alexander) in an episode that aired in 1997. Since that time, the universe has been split into two groups: those who know what’s going on, and the others...
Nearly 30 million viewersSeinfeld, like so many other sitcoms, was named after its star and creator, Jerry Seinfeld. The incorrigible New Yorker, born in 1954, who had become known from his appearances on the small stages of comedy clubs in the 1980s, gradually attracted the attention of famous hosts of late-night talk show hosts such as Johnny Carson and David Letterman. And what humoristic fuel did he use to keep the embers hot? The vagaries of everyday life, the vicissitudes of married couples, and the stupidity of mankind, which turns each day into a series of small nightmares.
Based on this vast material, and with the collaboration of the comedian, screenwriter, and actor Larry David—who is the epitome of misanthropy, as he shamelessly displayed in the series Curb Your Enthusiasm—Jerry Seinfeld has literally built a sitcom in his image. And not just because each episode opens and closes with a stand-up comedy number in front of an enthusiastic audience, but also because of what constitutes its centre: a quartet of jolly neurotics whose least worry is whether they are likeable persons.
Gravitating around the local celebrity Seinfeld are his best friend, the utterly misanthropic George; his ex-girlfriend Elaine Benes (played by Julia-Louis Dreyfus), a sarcastic lawyer with an look that has been coined as "Upper West Side grunge" (not quite a compliment); and Cosmo Kramer (played by Michael Richards), the eccentric and attention-guzzling neighbor whose hairstyle appears to be brought on by an electric shock. The 180 episodes, which were watched at the time by nearly 30 million viewers, dissected the daily life of these insignificant New Yorkers down to the smallest detail: from restaurant visits to the laundromat, and from anonymous office towers to their apartments with in interior design of the 1990s (just like their clothes, which bring tears to our eyes today).
The buzzword “nothing”Whether you are an early fan, a staunch advocate, or a casual admirer of the sitcom, one thing about Seinfeld often comes up, and it is annoying at least for those who are not passionate followers. This sitcom is said to be about… nothing. It is so much about nothing that in an episode in the fourth season, Seinfeld decides to knock on the door of NBC to pitch the concept of a sitcom about... nothing.
This may sound abstruse and downright daring. But watching these unfriendly characters express their contempt with hilarious lack of restraint is the lot of so many other sitcoms. During the same time period, Friends (1994-2004) was all the rage, featuring a gang of talkative, brainless, and equally neurotic young heroines and heroes who had never started any revolution except on their couch. And looking at the New York apartments they lived in, one still wonders about their secret that allowed them to pay for them...
Jerry Seinfeld is not necessarily known for his biting humor. He remains someone who sings about everyday life, an attentive observer of our mores and customs, even the most detestable. This is an attitude that he has retained until the present day when he goes on stage—where he continues to feel the most at home. Hence his near absence from the movie screen, and his discreet appearances on television. No one needs to worry about him being taken care of in his old age, he received one million dollars per episode, not counting his fees for the sitcom’s concept, and as a producer.
With its nine seasons, during a decade dominated by US President Bill Clinton when we still believed in the end of the world and the triumph of globalization, Seinfeld said a lot about our recklessness, our egocentrism, even our total lack of empathy in the face of the misfortune of others. Easy to say that this is a typical New York behaviour. The unstoppable success of this sitcom, for which Netflix acquired the rights starting in 2021, shows how millions of people still identify with Jerry, George, Elaine and Cosmo. And that’s not “nothing”.
About the author
André Lavoie has been a film critic at Le Devoir since 1998, a contributor to various magazines and radio programs (Aujourd'hui l'histoire), and a contract researcher at Ici Radio-Canada Télé (Vox Pop). After obtaining his master's degree in film studies at the Université de Montréal in 1992, he worked for several years as a facilitator of introductory workshops on the seventh art. Since 2001, he has devoted himself mainly to his work as a journalist, critic and lecturer.