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Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Seinfeld: The Most Kafkaesque Show on Television

What's left to say about Seinfeld? The show was famously about people who like to pick things apart, so it only makes sense that many of its fans would be the same way. Since the series went off the air thirteen years ago, it's been analyzed and dissected almost to the point of breaking, viewed under the lens of philosophy, with Jerry's habit of jokey questioning described as everything from socratic to Talmudic, or from a postmodern literary perspective, with its layered references to real world events. But there's one comparison to Seinfeld that, to my recollection at least, has surprisingly never been made. I would argue that Seinfeld may have been the most Kafkaesque show on television, or at least the most Kafkaesque sitcom, sharing a lot of the same themes and obsessions as the famous writer from Prague.

For people with only a passing knowledge of Kafka, linking the reclusive writer to comedy may seem less than obvious. But there is a lot of humor in Kafka's work, most of it darkly funny or absurdist, but at times outwardly lighthearted. Amerika, Kafka's first novel written but last to be printed, is usually described as Chaplinesque, telling the story of Karl Rossmann, a young immigrant sent to America by his parents and forced to fend for himself. Woody Allen is a Kafka aficionado and pays homage to him whenever he can, whether it's in his short fiction or his films, particularly 1992's Shadows and Fog. Philip Roth, a writer who frequently riffs on Kafka, once said that he would have loved to see a film adaptation of The Castle starring the Marx Brothers, with Groucho as K. the land-surveyor and Chico and Harpo tagging along as his assistants. Kafka himself was aware of the humor in his work. According to first hand reports, when he would read his novels aloud to his friends, he sometimes had to stop because he was convulsed with laughter. Plus, his name is stuffed with “k” sounds, which Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys tells us is always funny.

Kafka's work is grouped in with a lot of different literary movements, including modernism, German expressionism and even magical realism, but really, he's in a league of his own. The clearest (and foggiest) way to describe his work is Kafkaesque. You know that you've really made your mark as a writer when your name becomes an adjective. Kafka has the added distinction that his eponymous adjective is so tricky to define that most people know it as a word that they don't know how to use. Its definition is notoriously elusive and as malleable as Silly Putty. Dictionary.com offers the totally useless definition “of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of Franz Kafka,” but also the slightly better (if still vague) “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.” Even the definition of Kafkaesque is Kafkaesque.

Kafka deals with the themes of alienation, the strange paradoxical freedom and terror that come with being an outsider, and the ineffectualness and mundane evil of bureaucracy. To me, this is just a roundabout and pretentious way of describing George Costanza arguing with a mechanic over whether or not he's eaten a Twix bar, and then being drawn into what may or may not be a menacing conspiracy against him at a car dealership. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer deal with these themes in almost every episode. The voice of the comedian is the voice of the outsider, and the gang spends most of their time questioning social norms that they don't understand but are forced to deal with on a daily basis.

Seinfeld has never been shy about naming his influences, whether it's people like Bill Cosby or Robert Klein in his stand-up, and in the case of his sitcom, he always names The Abbott and Costello Show as his biggest inspiration, which makes it almost impossible to look at Jerry and George without seeing the ghosts of Bud and Lou. Specifically, Seinfeld says that Abbott and Costello inspired his show's use of authority figures that were “inexplicably evil.” And although Abbott and Costello may have provided the germ of the idea, Seinfeld gave these characters an extra layer of depth, making them closer to the type of bureaucracy that Kafka fills his writing with.

The show is bursting with examples. In “The Little Jerry,” Jerry writes a bad check at a bodega. The store owner posts the check on the wall as a way to teach Jerry a lesson. After Jerry repays him, the store owner refuses to take down the bad check, claiming, “It's store policy.” When Jerry tells him, “But it's your bodega,” he replies, “Even I am not above the policy,” a dialogue that wouldn't seem out of place in The Castle. Then there's “The Chinese Restaurant,” in which the characters are denied access to a table for no reason they can discern, waiting half an hour in real time. Or the Dragnet-inspired, officious library cop from “The Library.” And of course, “The Soup Nazi,” who's confusing and authoritarian policies lead to George's banishment.

Kafka's protagonists are reactors. They are passive characters who pushed into absurd situations beyond their control. And then there's the characters' “casual acceptance of the surreal,” a phrase I once read somewhere but cannot find the source. Upon realizing that their son has been transformed into a monstrous vermin in his sleep or finding themselves trapped in a nightmarish mansion, Kafka's characters respond with confusion, but not the level of confusion that seems appropriate, instead adapting smoothly to the dream logic the stories follow. The same way that Jerry reacts with a shrug, maybe furrowing his brow, when he walks into his apartment to find Kramer making sausages or learning that Kramer has decorated his own apartment with the abandoned set of The Merv Griffin Show.

And then there's what may be the most obvious connection: Seinfeld's finale and Kafka's most famous novel, The Trial. The novel begins with Josef K. waking up only to discover that he is under arrest. The rest of the novel chronicles his confusion as he deals with the court's bureaucracy and futile attempts to learn what he's being accused of. Josef K. may or may not be guilty, and he's sentenced without ever learning. In a strange coincidence, it's also the only Kafka novel to have an ending. (All three of his novels were unfinished when he died. The Trial includes a final chapter, although it is missing a few of the chapters right before it.) Seinfeld's finale begins with the gang watching a robbery and not helping the victim (played by comedian John Pinette). They are arrested on a technicality, a recently passed Good Samaritan law, and are put on trial (and ultimately found guilty) not for doing something, but for doing nothing.

Of course, there's a lot more to Seinfeld than this, and a lot more to Kafka too, I guess. I'm not interested in analyzing comedy too deeply, I guess despite the fact that I've just written a huge article about analyzing comedy. I'm always reminded of E. B. White's claim, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Not only because it's true, but it also reminds me of E.T., which is always a plus. But to me, it's very interesting to see these themes recur, especially since they seem to be done subconsciously.

Some of these themes have even carried over into Curb Your Enthusiasm, but they don't seem to be as present (Think of Larry learning that the entire lesbian community in L.A. has been talking about him behind his back or being told that he cannot share food once he's taken it from a buffet.)

And of course, there's The Metamorphosis, Kafka's most famous work and one of the few stories published during his lifetime. The tale begins when Gregor Samsa awakes one morning, only to discover that he's been transformed in his sleep into some sort of giant cockroach. The story can be read as metaphor for a lot of different ideas, including the life of a writer as something both terrible and wonderful, or it can be appreciated for Kafka's deadpan surrealism. But whatever the case, it's connection to Seinfeld couldn't be more obvious:

Also, I'm not sure how The Marriage Ref fits into all of this, but I'm working to find a way.

Anthony Scibelli is a handsome stand-up comedian, comedy writer and filmmaker. His writing has appeared on Cracked.com and his blog “There's No Success Like Failure.”

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Tags:

kafka, nbc, seinfeld, tv

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  • hypnosifl

    The Prisoner could be pretty Kafkaesque at times, except that the main character was a bit too strong-willed and heroic for a Kafka hero.

  • Mitchell Galloway

    I believe it was David Foster Wallace, in his lecture on Kafka, who said, "Casual acceptance of the surreal." Maybe not, though. I also found this: http://books.google.com/books?id=5V797rJcqXUC