M.Y.O.P.I.A. #6: Do Cell Phones Sink Seinfeld?

Seinfeld stopped filming new episodes nearly twenty years ago. The show remains popular on reruns, and still garners new and young viewers. For good reason, Seinfeld was brilliant. It featured metaphors people relate toward everyday life. We all encounter “low-talkers,” want to define the taboo of “double dipping,” maybe even meet incantations of “Soup Nazis.” Since the time the show ended, cell/smart phones have greatly altered social interactions. Maybe you’ve discussed, or pondered, the topic of how cell phones might change Seinfeld. Maybe you’ve read articles and theories on the internet that go so far as to say some episodes become obsolete in the age of cell phones. Against such criticism, does Seinfeld become an acronym: Sitcom Exists Irrelevantly Now For Every Later Demographic? Is there justification to the theory that Seinfeld loses poignancy in our new technological age?

The Seinfeld pilot debuted in 1989, but the first season didn’t air until a year later. The show ended in 1998. Cell phones became more common in the mid to late 90s. Later episodes commonly incorporate cell phones, but earlier years do have some common communication barriers. Here are some examples.

The Parking Garage: The four friends split up to search for Kramer’s car in the large parking structure, and no one can find one another in the huge complex.

The Phone Message: George leaves awkward and frustrated messages on a girlfriend’s answering machine. When he learns she’s just been unexpectedly out of town, he and Jerry hatch a plan to steal the answering machine tape.

The Soup Nazi: Two so-called street toughs steal an armoire Kramer is supposed to guard for Elaine, and he can’t immediately call for help.

The Engagement: Jerry and George make a pact to renew old relationships and get married, but Jerry decides not to follow through. Having no way to contact his friend, George gets engaged.

The Bubble Boy: Jerry and Elaine are following George in a separate car to the Hamptons. George has the directions, but he drives too fast and the group gets separated.

Here are five episodes that would play out different with cell phones. Simply applying cell-phones to Seinfeld, however, misses the whole point. Seinfeld wasn’t about a way to fix awkward situations characters got into; the show was about characters being stuck in awkward situations like real people genuinely get stuck in. Sure, cell phones might offer a simple fix, but that wouldn’t mean end results would change. In some other way, George would still end up at the Bubble’s Boy’s house arguing over “the Moops.” Elaine would still have her armoire stolen, even if it meant the street toughs frightened Kramer so much he ran away. Jerry would have still gotten arrested for public urination while searching for the car in the parking garage. Even in the age of cell phones, people forget where they park, and people still sometimes really need to urinate.

Notice that people don’t seem to make cell-phone comparisons to other popular shows of the era like Friends, or Wings (was this show popular…it always seemed to be on), or Home Improvement. Seinfeld was, and still is, extremely relatable. Although cell-phones might offer an alternative to some Seinfeld situations, there are only a tiny minority of easy fixes in this complex show.

What about when Jerry dates a deaf girl and she misreads his lips in saying, “How about six, six is good?” How about where George finds immense success by doing the exact opposite of all his instincts? What about all of Kramer’s get rich quick schemes, and Elaine having to buy the absolute perfect socks for one of many of her ridiculous bosses? The sitcomhelped bridge gaps on topics a bit odd to discuss, ranging from masturbation and nose-picking, to shrinkage and proctology. Phrases people still use in everyday speech stem from Seinfeld: master of your domain, not that there’s anything wrong with that, a puffy shirt, a manzier/bro, top of the muffin to you, yada-yada. People even celebrate the holiday of Festivus.

Had Seinfeld lasted a few more seasons, cell phones would have continued to integrate, and it would have been interesting to see how characters responded some of the gripes that come with them, like auto-typing errors, the growing trend of people cancelling/changing last minute plans via text, or the use of apps, of which, surely Kramer could come up with something ridiculous. Yet, the characters still would have had mix-ups and mishaps. They could have discussed who was worthy to call on a dying battery, or could have been sent the wrong way by google maps. But, Seinfeld and the situations in the show were meant to exist in the 90s.

The show is a fantastic time capsule to the period. It was an allegory of everyday life during the 90s and created a poignant social commentary, but in reality, times haven’t changed all that immensely. Yes, there have been technological changes since the 90s, but socially, people are people. Seinfeld stills capture the attention of younger audiences because the characters and the things they faced are still relevant to young and old audiences alike, and will probably continue to be for as long as people continue to eat éclairs off the top of garbage, discuss the importance of the various buttons on shirts, or make bum deals over the ownership of a girl’s bike. As long as people wish to laugh at the society around them, and at themselves in turn, Seinfeld will always have a place in our culture.

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