Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Review of SeinLanguage by Jerry Seinfeld

If your television set was plugged in and turned on at all during the 1990s, then chances are you caught at least one episode of the hit comedy Seinfeld. Seinfeld was one of the highest-rated programs on TV throughout its incredible 9-year run, and the series finale drew an estimated 77 million people, making it the third most-watched program of all time behind the Cheers finale (93.1 million) and the M*A*S*H finale (106 million). With the rate at which most television shows decline in quality after a couple of years, there had to be some quality that kept viewers coming back for more Seinfeld. That quality of course, was the humor.

Jerry Seinfeld, the show's namesake and co-creator, was arguably one of the biggest reasons for the success of the series. Seinfeld got his start in showbiz as a standup comedian, and as everyone who is familiar with his career knows by now, caught his big break when he was invited to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Seinfeld's personal brand of humor involves making wry observations about everyday occurrences: being stuck in traffic, sitting on an airplane, eating lunch in a diner -- these were the events that he built his routines around. In short, his comedy was about "nothing."

In the book SeinLanguage, Seinfeld gives fans a bit more insight into his early years. We are treated to brief glimpses of his childhood and are provided with a few pivotal episodes from his younger years that show us how and when he realized he was going to be a comedian. Interspersed throughout the narrative are several of Seinfeld's most famous skits or monologues. Sometimes the monologues are related to the preceding life event that Seinfeld describes, thereby showing the reader where he got his ideas for the jokes; but often these monologues just stand on their own and aren't connected to the narrative in one war or another.

Overall, I was disappointed with this book for several different reasons. First of all, I couldn't really tell what the purpose of the book was. I mean, was it supposed to be an autobiography? If so, then it didn't give nearly enough information about Seinfeld's life. I'm not saying that it would have to start with "I was born in ____" but Seinfeld certainly could have described many more episodes or experiences than he did. Was it supposed to be a collection of jokes?  If so, then the narrative portions were wholly unnecessary, and just served as disjointed interruptions. Was it supposed to be a little of both? Well, I guess so, only because that's what it was. But that format just didn't make sense to me.

A second reason for my disappointment was that I had heard a majority of the jokes on the television show, so I wasn't really getting very much new material for my money. In all fairness, SeinLanguage was published in 1993, which was when the show was just beginning to air, and I didn't get my hands on a copy until much later. Nevertheless, it was a big letdown to eagerly thumb through the book trying to find something new only to realize I already knew the punchlines to almost every joke or story in there. Plus, Seinfeld's type of comedy is much more effective when it is performed than when it is read. You might be surprised at how flat some jokes come off when they are on the printed page.

A third reason for my disappointment was Seinfeld's writing style. Despite the fact that the book was written in the first-person and definitely had the comic's distinctive "voice," I didn't feel drawn into the narrative. To me, a good autobiography ought to make the reader feel like the subject in question is sitting right there in the same room telling a personal story. Seinfeld had a prime opportunity to do so with SeinLanguage, but failed to get that feeling across.

My review of SeinLanguage might lead you to believe that I'm not a big fan of either Jerry or his show. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. I have seen each Seinfeld episode several times, and know most of them by heart. And yet they are still funny when I watch them. It's just that as a book, SeinLanguage doesn't deliver.

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