Was Seinfeld a 1990s Greek Tragedy?

It’s known as the greatest sitcom of the 1990s, starring the arguably most famous comedian of all time. But is Seinfeld even a comedy? Or would we be better off labeling it as a tragedy, owing its themes and plot structures to Sophocles and Euripides more than Cheers and Bunker?

Let’s take a look.

Jerry’s stand-up is the prologue

With very few exceptions, you can be certain that any classic Greek tragedy will open with a prologue. The prologue is one of the most basic and expected foundations of the tragedy’s structure. ¬†Likewise, you aren’t watching a Seinfeld episode unless it opens and closes with Jerry walking you through some witty deconstruction of human interaction, which itself highlights and introduces the themes of the episode.

While the prologue is often performed by a chorus in a classic tragedy, it can also be delivered by the protagonist or another central character. And this is actually an important thing to note: Jerry is not the protagonist, not the tragic hero. That role belongs to another character, which we will discuss below. 

The laugh track is the chorus.

Of course, laugh tracks aren’t unique to Seinfeld. But what role does a laugh track play? They, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, inform us, prod us, tell us how to feel and when. They are not the audience. Remember that. You, we, are the audience. The laugh track is pretending to be an audience with you, manipulating you.

That manipulative laugh track, telling you how to feel. Worth noting Ricky Gervais’s line in Curb Your Enthusiasm, regarding Seinfeld: “Lovely show. I love broad comedy. I love the laugh track on it, to tell you when to laugh.”

George is the tragic hero.

Jerry, as said above, does not fill a traditional tragic hero’s role. But he is no other hero either. He is more the bystander, the commenter, making notes on what he sees and what others do. George is the one who strives and fails. And he is by far the most evil of any of the characters, not caring who he pulls into his wake.

I realize it's odd to refer to this man as a villain.
I realize it’s odd to refer to this man as any kind of hero.

What better example is there than the death of his fiancee? Which, let’s note, didn’t happen on-screen. Which leads to the next point…

The action is off-stage

Oedipus stabs his own eyes out, in Oedipus Rex. But where does that happen? Off screen.

When George’s fiancee dies, where does that happen? Somewhere else.

This is the theme with all Greek tragedies and all Seinfeld episodes. The major moments happen somewhere else. As the audience, we see the build-up and the aftermath.

Who is the prophet? The soothsayer?

Oedipus, seeking widsom.
Oedipus, seeking widsom.

It’s hard to say, although we can certainly agree that people are often giving George information that he ignores. Perhaps it’s Jerry. Jerry, who seems to have prescient knowledge of what will occur. Not that it can save him…

There are no happy endings

Where does Seinfeld end? They go to jail. And think about how many episodes and seasons before that refuse to give us closure or happiness or sentimental endings. Why? Because, like in so many tragedies, these characters, in the end, get what they deserve. George is a Creon, an Achilles, a Heracles. He is doomed. They’re all ultimately doomed, as they refuse to learn their lessons, refuse to see the world beyond their selfish, stubborn, insular kingdoms.

Are all sitcoms actually tragedies?

It’s worth noting that many of these observations could be expanded beyond Seinfeld and into other shows. Friends, Cheers, All in the Family, Three’s Company. Are any of these actually comedies? Should we start viewing them as the tragedies that they are?

1 Comment

  1. This is a really compelling theory and it holds a lot of water. Seinfeld always seemed more like a commentary on the mundane than anything else, it’s proclaimed “show about nothing,” that’s really about everything, because what is life but mundane? Laughter and comedy have long bern used in tragic situations.

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