Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 16: Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian

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The Independent Culture
OUR LIVES are so pointless: working, shopping, dating, taking clothes to the dry cleaners. Not everyone's life, obviously. There are people who have ships to build, operas to write, races to run, wives and husbands to murder. Their views, and actions, you will find represented in other sections of this newspaper, and also on television and radio.

Jerry Seinfeld, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself - in this decade of unprecedented wealth and comfort - to articulate the concerns of the unremarkable majority whose idea of a major contemporary issue is the difficulty of finding your car in a shopping-mall car park. An entire episode of Seinfeld's sit-com dealt with this problem; the solution being that instead of parking levels being numbered or colour-coded, they should be called things like "Your mother's a whore", or "My father's an abusive alcoholic" as an aide-memoire.

Seinfeld is a kind of poet of the pointless. His sit-com is quite deliberately about nothing. In early episodes in 1990, a stand-up comedian called Jerry Seinfeld was seen trying to persuade TV executives to commission a show about nothing - a neat little post-modern idea since the series, to the eternal credit of American television, was clearly already in production.

Seinfeld has been criticised, predictably, for dealing exclusively with the perceived problems of a pampered few, for ignoring the world outside that of relatively rich Manhattanites. You might as well take a pop at the novels of Jane Austen for ignoring the Industrial Revolution.

And if the parallel between Seinfeld and Austen seems a little far-fetched, compare the two worlds: enclosed, unhealthily concerned with wealth, possessions, and with strict codes of etiquette. Austen, it is true, tended to do less material about cordless telephones, but Seinfeld's take on the problems of dating, for instance - "What is a date but a job interview that lasts all night?" - is not a million miles from the exquisite agonising of Austen's characters.

Seinfeld, the final episode of which was shown in the US on 14 May, 1998, may be the most successful series in American television history. In a multi-channel world catering for a variety of specialist interests, the show created something media experts thought no longer possible, a shared television experience. Half of America settled down for the final Seinfeld, as if it was the moon landing.

But was it personal vision that created the series, or was Seinfeld merely fortunate in somehow tapping into a popular mood? The former is almost certainly the case. The show might have appeared as casual as Jerry's jeans and sneakers, but 10 years of planning went into it.

In 1980, Seinfeld had been plucked from the stand-up circuit to write for Benson, a popular sit-com, at a salary of $4,000 (pounds 2,500) a week. He did not last long, and for the next 10 years resisted further blandishments to write "someone else's crummy jokes", waiting for the opportunity to bring a rare commodity to American TV comedy - a little truth.

He'll do something on body odour for instance - "I have the underarm deodorant with the cologne smell. Why do you want the smell there? I think once a woman's got her nose in your armpit, the seduction's pretty much over" - but he is not playing to the crowd. The anxieties in Seinfeld are the anxieties of Seinfeld.

According to friends, Jerry is not significantly different from the rather picky character we see on screen. Little wonder, then, that he no longer felt able to do the show.

It must be exhausting to present yourself weekly on screen in a largely unsympathetic light. The last comedian to do it was Tony Hancock, and it probably contributed to his death, which is one of the many reasons why Seinfeld's chosen comic route is really rather heroic.

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