Updated: Nov 7
"It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."- Macbeth
“No hugging, no learning.” Through its 9 year run at NBC, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s sagely words acted as the show’s founding principle. The motto provided a philosophy, a story structure, and a map for where every episode would go. These words provided an elegant solution to a narrative pitfall that many modern sitcoms try fall into. In this post I discuss the narrative dissonance sit-coms inevitably face and posit the simple solution that Seinfeld offers.
"What is this obsession people have with books? They put them in their houses—like they're trophies. What do you need it for after you read it?" - Jerry Seinfeld
The Problem made its way into Hollywood’s consciousness in the mid-1980s, when aspiring Disney scriptwriter Christopher Vogler wrote a brief memo on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In his book, Campbell makes two particularly noteworthy points. First he shows that the hero myth reveals itself in the vast majority of cultures around the world, from the Blackfoot tribes to ancient Mesopotamia to modern Hollywood. Second he argues that this myth can be broken down into 17 stages. This general structure of the hero’s journey repeats itself again and again, transcending cultural and geographical barriers. He then argues that this prevalence proves the validity of Jungian psychoanalysis as well as the existence of God, but we will follow Vogler's memo and focus on the saner part of Campbell's project.
Volger read these observations and truncated the 17 steps down to 12, eliminating redundancy and detail. He called this innovation the Hero's Journey, the archetype for a mythological hero's story development in any era. He then applied this to the 80's media landscape. As an example, he showed how Star Wars, the greatest success of the decade, fit snugly into the hero's journey. In fact, not only Star Wars but a great many shows and movies could be broken down into the same 12 steps. The stages are as follows, along with their corresponding moments in the first Star Wars movie.
The Ordinary World
Luke is a bored water farmer on Tatooine
The Call to Adventure
Leia’s pleading message is played for Luke by R2-D2
Refusal of the Call
Luke declines the call, goes home, finds his family has been barbecued and is then motivated to pick up the hero's mantle
Meeting the Mentor
Obi-Wan gives Luke his father’s lightsaber and is generally old and wise
3. Crossing the Threshold
Luke leaves the farm and enters the seedy world of Mos Eisley Cantina, encountering stormtroopers on the way
4. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Luke and Han meet in the Cantina, Han kills Greedo, a bounty hunter. Jabba the Hutt is established as a secondary adversary
5. Approach to the Innermost Cave
Han, Luke, Chewie, and Obi-Wan infiltrate the Death Star
8. The Ordeal
a. Luke and Co rescue Leia but are forced to watch as Obi-Wan is cut down by Vader. The lowest
9. Seizing the Sword
a. Back at the rebel base Luke vows to take down the Death Star with the newly acquired plans
10. The Road Back
a. The second approach to the Death Star
a. The final battle. Luke is down in the trench, nearly dies fighting Vader, lands his miracle shot,
and rises out of the trench like a phoenix
12. Return with the Elixir
a. Luke and Co return in triumph, the Death Star destroyed and a hero’s welcome awaits
So what is problematic about the prevalence of this journey in the modern-day sitcom? A couple of issues stand out. First, this story lends itself to personal growth. At its core, the story is about heroes and emotional triumphs, the hero goes on a journey. So how does a sitcom that runs for 22 episodes over eight or nine seasons sustain perpetual maturation and growth? By the end of any series, the characters should all be ubermensch, superior moral beings that have transcended petty humans. By writing moral triumphs into every episode TV shows seem to have backed themselves into a narrative corner.
So writers often count on the audience to forget. This is the favored technique of sitcom writers in the modern era. A good example of this is the Big Bang Theory. Most episodes center around the various group members' quirks, how they lead social disasters, and end with the realization that they are lucky to have such a great group of quirky friends that always reconcile at the end of the day. They then repeated this formula 279 times with great commercial success.
A comparison of two episodes, from the show's first and last season respectively, demonstrate just how repeatable the formula is.
S1 Ep 15. Sheldon’s sister Missy comes to town. She meets the gang and tells embarrassing stories about Sheldon. Sheldon has his feelings hurt, and Missy becomes friends with Penny and leaves. The gang fights over who will ask Missy out, and resolve the fight through Wii boxing. All three members then ask out Missy, but all fail. Finally, Missy tells Sheldon how proud she is of him, the embarrassing stories she told earlier were a misunderstood sign of love. Sheldon and Missy make up. Geographic and cultural distance does not mean connections fade. Reconciliation, All is well.
S12 Ep 4. Sheldon is reached out to by his old friend Tam. After much discussion about this mysterious past figure, who Sheldon only vaguely references as a betrayer. Tam and Leonard meet, discuss Tam’s past, and how Tam and Sheldon simply drifted apart after Sheldon moved away from Texas. Sheldon and Leonard fight over this, Sheldon and Tam make up and rekindle their friendship, and Sheldon and Leonard also make up. Geographic and cultural distance does not mean connections fade. Reconciliation, All is well.
Both episodes revolve around the exact same personal flaw, Sheldon's insecurity about people's feelings for him as it relates to physical distance, and have the same happy make-up ending. In the very first and very last season, little difference is found.
Of course, the audience is not so remarkably naïve as to ignore this constant repetition. Writers use story beats like Sheldon’s Aspergers and the characters' general nerdiness to explain the constant and repetitive miscues that always seem to happen. This would be believable if the characters did not appear to genuinely acknowledge their wrongs after each episode. Not only do they acknowledge their wrongs, they allegedly learn from them. Characters vow to be better, then imperceptibly regress in the week in between episodes. Television shows try to eat their moral cake and argue the calories don't count for anything. To put it more cleanly, any moral progress repeated 279 times needs to either happen at an imperceptibly slow pace or the progress needs to illusory.
Vogler addressed the exact problem moral comedies face in his memo. In the section about the final stage, "Return with the Elixir", Volger says
“Sometimes it’s just knowledge or experience, but unless he(the hero) comes back with the elixir or some boon to mankind, he’s doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. Many comedies use this ending, as a foolish character refuses to learn his lesson and embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in the first place.”
An endemic problem in television is the tendency to bring back the elixir, learn the lesson, or triumph over the problem and then lose it all in the next week, like landing on the same bad space over and over in Chutes and Ladders. Characters climb step by step, then slide back down during the week. Note that this problem becomes more and more evident in the streaming era, where consumers binging shows can recognize the moral formulaic friction more easily. We no longer have the week to forget.
Another contributing factor to the repeating stories is the consistency that is demanded from the various characters. Each character in a show is typically a personality archetype, and this must remain extremely consistent throughout. Take Friends, for example. Ross, Chandler, Rachael, Phoebe, Joey, and Monica exhibit no personal growth or even change from season to season. Reckless Joey does not suddenly become thoughtful after his antics get him into hot water once again, nor does Worrier Ross become more freewheeling after his uptightness leads to miscommunication. More importantly, the roles they play within stories remain fairly similar. Ross is almost always the protagonist, the quirky nerdy straight man (straight comedically and sexually). Rachel is the female protagonist, willfully independent until she realizes she needs help from her friends. The other characters' stories revolve around these two, acting like caricatures of themselves while they complement the primary storylines.
This need for constancy in character roles also leads to the dreaded necessity of the new character bloat. Since a core set of traits only lead to a very finite amount of interesting and believable situations, shows must add new personalities to avoid the realization that these characters are merely an unchanging set of three or four adjectives, interacting with each other in elementary ways much like chemical reactions. As an example of this, I present the DVD covers of the first and last seasons of Full House.
If you managed to spot the difference, good for you! The mullet only had its brief time in the sun, and only Full House's first season got to bask in that glorious light.
"You know I always wanted to pretend I was an architect."- George Costanza
Seinfeld's solution to the problem posed by combining the hero’s journey and an inherently static television format is simple. Create characters unworthy of admiration and unable to learn. American television knew what it wanted, that is to say morally righteous stories. Previously this had been an affirmation "Show people who are generally good and therefore strive to be good". Larry David gives us the contrapositive. "These people are not good and do not strive to be good". By showing their folly, you create morally righteous stories without constant proselytizing.
So who does not strive for goodness? Fools, idiots, self-involved people you should not emulate. People so wrapped up in the narcissistic minutiae of everyday life that they are unable to even think about their lives in some greater arc, so calloused by the world that they not only ignore the suffering around them but actively contribute to it in self-destructive cycles.
You know, New Yorkers.
What makes Seinfeld great is not its revolutionary story structure nor unexpectedly dynamic characters. George is stingy and neurotic, Jerry is cynical and neurotic, Elaine is emotionally intelligent and neurotic, and Kramer is just goofy. These characters' personalities are as static as any classic sitcom; they are equally applicable from S1E1 til S9E24. Seinfeld does have an advantage in that its characters are untethered from moral scruples. As a result, each member can each play any role in any story. As long as they act in the self-interest that is fundamental to the show, any position the characters take is justified. George, Jerry, and Elaine all play the role of protagonist, antagonist, and neutral party, sometimes even switching within an episode. Although Kramer is typically relegated to the role of sidekick, instigator, and mischief maker, he is also morally malleable. He just usually acts in a supporting role to one of the other three. It is important to note that all Seinfeld did was remove the set-in-stone character roles. Seinfeld reinvented nothing.
Nor did Seinfeld do away with the Hero's Journey. Take one of the greatest Seinfeld episodes, The "Marine Biologist".
The Ordinary World
The set-up. Kramer decides to play golf on the beach. Jerry and Elaine talk about War and Peace, as well as Tolstoy’s alternate title. War, What is it Good For?
The Call to Adventure
Jerry runs into high school acquaintance, tells her George is a marine biologist, and sets them up
Refusal of the Call
George initially refuses the date as he is obviously not a marine biologist
Meeting the Mentor
Elaine meets the old Russian writer, Testikov, whom she annoys with Tolstoy's alternate title. This incenses him to throw her pager out the window where it hits someone.
Crossing the Threshold
This is the part where the Seinfeld characters implement their schemes. Elaine plans to record the Russian writer to make him pay the injured woman's hospital bill. George goes through with his date
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Elaine and Jerry try and fail to get the writer’s admission of guilt; the writer then throws the pager out the window which hits the same woman
Approach to the Innermost Cave
Kramer hits golf ball into the ocean, which sets up
8. The Ordeal
a. As George is walking on the beach with his date they see a giant beached whale in pain
9. Seizing the Sword
a. Motivated by his desire to hide his lie, George gets on the whale, reaches down, and pulls an
object that was obstructing the blowhole, reminiscent of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone
10. The Road Back
a. George admits he’s not a marine biologist, he’s then rejected by his date
a. George returns to the diner, harrowed and changed
12. Return with the Elixir
To reiterate, Seinfeld is treading very old ground with its general story structure. But to apply the term ‘Hero’s Journey’ to any of the Seinfeld episodes is comical; it’s a joke Jerry might make in his stand-up act. “What’s the deal with our hero’s journeys? We aren’t heroes, and we don’t journey!”. By enabling and embracing the characters’ self-destructiveness instead of fighting against it, Seinfeld avoids the narrative friction that pervades typical sitcoms. No longer do the characters feel like they reset week to week; they make no progress, and as a result the jokes hit again and again when Jerry finds some tiny fault with his girlfriend or George’s lies and laziness get him into trouble again. It does not stale in the same way typical sitcoms stale because it does not try and make any larger progress. There is never a Ross and Racheal type get-together, no families or alliances are formed, each character is miserly and alone in the first and last episode.
Of course, Seinfeld's success does not solely rest on the back of its easily repeatable general structure. Seinfeld is enjoyable because it is relatable. Its much lampooned observational comedy provides a down-to-earth basis. More people spend more time obsessing over the small problems in everyday life as opposed to the more bizarre situations that are talked about in other sitcoms. Seinfeld has its share of unbelievable scenarios, but at its core, it maintains that constant touchstone of the banal personal injustices of everyday life.
Seinfeld merely took Vogler's advice, advice that has been passed down for comedies since at least the great Greek playwrights. "a foolish character refuses to learn his lesson and embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in the first place.” Incorporating inherent self-destructiveness into a comedy frees it of the burden of serializing moral lessons. Instead of putting characters in a purgatorial limbo where every episode ends with false moral ascent, Seinfeld relishes in its characters' hellish loops of self-sabotage. "No hugging, no learning".
You have the chicken, the hen, and the rooster. The chicken goes with the hen... So who is having sex with the rooster? –Frank Costanza