I was browsing the Vulture website recently when I came across an entire story devoted to a single moment from “Mad Men,” the one on the elevator when Pete Campbell says “Not great, Bob” after Bob Benson asks how he’s doing. It’s an entertaining dissection of what has become one of the show’s most popular memes — who wrote it, why it was set in an elevator, how the actors remember it, and more. Turns out there’s a whole world to explore in that two-second exchange between Pete and Bob.
I continually marvel at the level of microanalysis that pervades today’s coverage of pop culture. Audiences have a voracious — at times almost religious — desire for any and all details of whatever TV shows they happen to love, the most obvious recent example being “Game of Thrones.” It’s not a new phenomenon — Trekkies have been obsessing since the ’60s — but it first reached mainstream proportions with a show whose 30th anniversary is on July 5, a sitcom that wasn’t about nothing, as was often said, but about the slightest, pettiest things in life.
I’m referring to “Seinfeld,” of course, which pulled the country into a game of trivial pursuit from 1989 to 1998 — a game that endures on social media, where “Seinfeld” memes have a vibrant afterlife. One of the hallmarks of the show was the way it stimulated a cultlike fervor among its giant viewership — and during its peak that was an average of 38 million viewers a week. They loved specific episodes, and the specific jokes in those episodes, and the specific catchphrases that emerged from those jokes, and the specific guest stars who appeared. Many fans qualify as experts, walking Wikipedia entries on everything from “sponge-worthy” men and a woman whose name could have been Mulva to close talkers and double dippers.
Before “Seinfeld,” we certainly loved TV shows, such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Brady Bunch” and “Murphy Brown.” But we didn’t necessarily zero in on their many particulars, in the way we took on George’s cold-water shrinkage, Jerry’s nose-pick incident, and Elaine’s exposed nipple. Like the characters on the show, for whom nothing was too shallow or insignificant or superficial to ignore, the audience was fully engaged in the minutiae. I can still come up with 25 bits from “Seinfeld” off the top of my head, including anti-dentites, Festivus, “Hello, Newman,” the Soup Nazi, Shmoopie, the Urban Sombrero, “yada yada yada,” low talkers, and “master of my domain.” Much as I adored “M*A*S*H,” I’m certain I can’t pull out many lines; just episode outlines, images, and major plot events.
“Seinfeld” ushered us into a kind of baroque fandom that seems de rigueur these days. And most of “Seinfeld” ran before we got sucked en masse into the Internet and social media, before pop culture was amplified online. So all of those little things from “Seinfeld” took root in our culture without the benefit of our shared second life. That makes it doubly impressive; imagine how much harder it might have been for “Game of Thrones” to be such an intensely intricate board game for viewers without all the wikis and recaps and memes devoted to it. With “Seinfeld,” we turned a corner into a new kind of enthusiasm.
It’s remarkable that the sitcom still works so well, as it continues to air in syndication and stream on Hulu, and as I continue to watch it whenever I can. As with “Friends,” it doesn’t give us life in New York as it exists now, 30 years on. And the formula it embraced — an ensemble of friends in the city — is now extremely common. But the pettiness it mined, and the urban manners it ridiculed and celebrated, still resonate. The show, so unwilling to get sentimental and emotionally manipulate viewers, still tickles with its unapologetic and masterful embrace of the frivolous.