Liz Lemon and Jerry Seinfeld

I had the privilege of basically watching every episode of 30 rock all in a row. I call this a privilege for two reasons. First, its a good show and I like it, but second, it let me get a feel for the overall artistic value of the show. In other words, I got to do a little philosophy.

Since I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld at this time too, I was thinking about what made Seinfeld so great and what features, if anything, 30 Rock shares with it. I haven’t really come up with any answers, so I’d be interested if someone has a developed take on these shows.

Seinfeld as a show is kind of narrower and more realistic, although I guess Kramer is kind of like Tracy Jordan. For instance, most Seinfeld episodes are named after a certain genre of person such as “the Jimmy” or “the Chinese Woman” and people are schematized to serve as representations of common daily struggles such as dealing with a “low talker” or a “face painter.” Jerry’s girlfriends are also a parade of caricatured dating nightmares (think, the “two face.”) For 30 Rock, the emphasis and plot points are usually much more tied to show business than Seinfeld, which is really just about living in New York and VERY daily issues (think about how the dry cleaner as a person and a destination figures in episodes). Also, it’s worth pointing out that the list of characters in Seinfeld is basically four, while 30 rock has at least 5. Another thing I notice is that New York is really an agenda item for 30 rock and it’s often contrasted with Jack’s Boston heritage (his love interest in season 4 is from Boston as well) or Kenneth’s humble southern origins (he’s from Georgia), whereas Seinfeld is more implicitly solipsistic and just assumes that everything is happening in New York: there’s almost no reference to any other part of the world (maybe Florida where Jerry’s parents live). Finally, Seinfeld has way more old people — Nanna, George’s parents, uncle Leo, the old guy Elaine dates, and various other situations involving the elderly. As a consequence, death is much more present in Seinfeld:  George’s girlfriend Susan, Gary (Seinfeld’s conniving bald friend who didn’t have chemotherapy), the old woman who dies in “the pony remark” whose funeral prevents Jerry from playing in the baseball championship.

I think the success of Seinfeld is all about each character’s relative equal level of insanity. George is fat, bald, and neurotic, and Kramer is of course crazy. Even Jerry, the big boss, reveals his irrationality and weakness at times, which is what makes “one the gang.” Elaine, to a lesser extent, has episodes of mistake or cruelty.

30 Rock is different in that the jokes are hierarchy based. Think of Lutz. Liz walks into the room and yells “EVERYONE SHUT UP” pauses and then yells, after everyone is already quiet, “LUTZ SHUT UP.” But she meets her match in Jack who constantly derides her. He’s cool and in control, though of course I think part of the show’s brilliance is that his friendship with Liz really does develop as he faces challenges that he can’t handle. There are conservatives and liberals (Seinfeld is almost never political), and higher and lower class as Jack’s upper class and corporate sensibilities are injected to every situation. “Lemon” is the perennial victim of most episodes. Her social ineptitude is contrasted with her professional manner and competency.

Anyway, Seinfeld is all about the repeated argument that continues to evolve throughout the show. J Peterman tells Elaine that he’s in “Burma, or as you might know it, Myanmar.” In the next 10 minutes, every major character has an exchange that repeats this joke, amplifying it and mutating in subtle ways. Jerry says “Burma, you mean Myanmar.” Then Kramer walks in and says “Where’s Burma” and Jerry fills him in, “It’s Myanmar.” Sometimes other minor characters serve to amplify these simple little disagreements as well, proving one character right over the other.

30 Rock has more visual jokes (think of Frank’s hats) and works by using sarcasm and pacing. Jack’s whispery voice or his deadpan delivery are essential to 30 rock’s humor, as well as the not-over-the-top mentions of ridiculous happenings in character’s lives. For example Frank pees into jars in the office during one episodes.


6 Responses to “Liz Lemon and Jerry Seinfeld”

  1. 1 chris
    April 1, 2010 at 5:51 am

    It’s awesome that you did a blog post about this because these are literally my two favorite TV shows in the history of the world besides The Wire, and for some reason I’ve never really compared them in my mind. I can comfortably say that I’ve seen every episode of Seinfeld at least 4 times, and every episode of 30 Rock at least twice.

    You definitely hit on some important points. I think you are right that Seinfeld is a more realistic show. It’s much easier to imagine yourself in the world of Seinfeld, hanging out in Jerry’s cramped, not-very-impressive apartment. It’s a lot harder for people to connect themselves to the world of 30 Rock. The characters are the elites of society: writers of a popular TV show, superstar actors, and rich businessmen. They work on the top floors of one of the most impressive building complexes in New York City. The stage is set for these two different worlds in the opening credits to each show: compare the gilded, flashy opening credits of 30 Rock (even the song sounds like it belongs to the upper class), to the much more subdued opening of Seinfeld with the mundane shots of Jerry’s apartment building or small night club, set to the slow beep bop opening beat. Of course this is kind of the point: Seinfeld is, famously, the show about nothing. To put it another way (as George does in his pitch to the NBC executives) it is a show about the not-necessarily-exciting things you did today. I would be willing to bet that this difference is a main reason a lot more people liked and watched Seinfeld than like and watch 30 Rock.

    I think another main reason for that difference in popularity is that you have to work a lot harder to understand the jokes on 30 Rock than the jokes on Seinfeld. In the most recent episode there is a patch of dialogue where one of the actors on TGS is nominated for “a Juno,” which is “kind of like a Canadian Grammy,” for having recorded a psyche up song for an Ottawa Senators hockey game. The actor says he’s not going to win, but “it’s an honor just to be nominated in the same category as Sir Dave Coulier.” That 30 seconds of TV contains jokes on like 10 different levels, but you have to have a very serious knowledge of pop culture, and you have work pretty hard in the moment to get any humor from it. I certainly don’t feel comfortable naming all of the levels, but, to start with, you have to know how ridiculous it is that the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy would be named after a 2007 movie in which a Canadian actress happened to star. You have to find it funny that the Canadian Grammies would have a category for best psyche up hockey song. You have to find it funny that the actor who plays Uncle Joey on Full House would have been nominated in that category. And you have to question why he said “Sir Dave Coulier.” Does he think that Dave Coulier was actually knighted? Wait a minute, was Dave Coulier knighted? There are a few more levels of funniness stuffed into that exchange. This kind of layering and complexity of jokes is totally typical for 30 Rock, but totally different from the kind of comedy in Seinfeld, which is, as you say, either part of running joke that builds throughout the show and is not hard to follow, or is a result of Kramer’s physical comedy or Jerry’s one-liners making fun of George. It’s obvious which type of comedy is more accessible and more likely to appeal to more people.

    You’re right about the different treatments of New York City, and the preponderance of hierarchy based jokes in 30 Rock. I think you’re also right about the relative equal level of insanity of each of the characters in Seinfeld. It makes it so they can each be the butt of jokes, or the subject of the main ridiculousness in any particular story, which gives the show variety.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      April 1, 2010 at 6:48 am

      haha, thanks for this enthusiastic response. I thought this might be a good fun post. Yea, you must really like these shows, because I think your points are subtle and dead on. I didn’t even think about the music issue.

      My question is: who consistently makes you laugh the most on 30 rock. I honestly think that it’s probably Frank for me, or I guess Jack, but he’s expected to just make fun of everyone and he sometimes whispers too much. Jerry on the other hand yells too much. But yea, Jack is definitely the boss while Jerry is merely an average guy who makes plenty of mistakes even though he is the “leader” of his little group of friends (think of when he starts refusing to “kiss hello” or when he doesn’t call back Alec Berg to thank him for the hockey tickets).

  2. 3 chris
    April 1, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    That’s a good question. I might have to go with Lutz. Any time he talks he is hilarious, and any time someone says something about him, usually to make fun of him, it’s hilarious. So he is probably the most consistent for me. A lot of Kenneth’s jokes fall kind of flat to me, and Jack does sometimes whisper too much. Liz probably makes me laugh the most, that’s partly because she’s consistently really funny and makes some of the most piercing jokes, but also because she has the most screen time. But I find all the characters really funny at times. I even have to disagree with you about the Elisa character (Jack’s Puerto Rican girlfriend). I thought she was one of the funniest guest stars, and I thought the episodes and jokes centered around her were some of the best. Although maybe I was just distracted by how attractive she was.

  3. May 5, 2010 at 2:01 am

    What a fun Ha Ha Ha ha. . . . . . .

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