What's the deal with these 'Seinfeld' parodies?
There’s supposed to be a rule that you can’t parody something that’s already funny. But it’s not impossible—it’s just harder. If you want to parody Seinfeld, for instance, you’ll need to come at it from a whole different angle. And if you want to parody a parody of Seinfeld, you have to get weird.
While the Modern Seinfeld Twitter account is a mass hit with 653,000 followers and a TV job for one of its writers, its parody @Seinfeld2000 enjoyed media success without cracking 25,000 followers. @Seinfeld2000 challenges the reader with antihumor and emergent comedy tropes (like the misspellings and script-like narration common in Weird Twitter). Some popular tweets:
Gerge name his baby iOS Seven— Seinfeld Current Day (@Seinfeld2000) September 18, 2013
Jery is talking dirty to his GF on his Verizen network iphone 4S Sudenly they hear a cough in the backgruond JERY: Hello? BARY OBAME: Hello— Seinfeld Current Day (@Seinfeld2000) June 6, 2013
Woody Alen cast Krame as 29 yr old in film abt magic pretzels, eating them make you 1 year older KRAME: These pretzels are making me thirty— Seinfeld Current Day (@Seinfeld2000) July 7, 2013
MILY CYRUS: Hey gerge, the ocean called, their running out of shrimp GERGE: Ya? Well the TWERK store called and their running out of you!— Seinfeld Current Day (@Seinfeld2000) October 8, 2013
Gerge lie to his GFF, say his job is to study the efect of weather on fish Sharknado sudenly begin "IS ANYONE HERE A MARINE METEROLOGIST"— Seinfeld Current Day (@Seinfeld2000) July 12, 2013
Picture any thing K now imagen that thing in a diferent context LOL— Seinfeld Current Day (@Seinfeld2000) July 12, 2013
The account is mainly a parody of Modern Seinfeld (which @Seinfeld2000 derides as mere pastiche, not parody), and partly a parody of Seinfeld—humor arising from cleverly reinterpreting classic Seinfeld jokes to make new punchlines—but it’s also a parody of all mainstream Internet humor, which tends to lean on topicality, nostalgia, and relatability rather than actual jokes.
It’s also a prolonged character bit. The author told Muck Rack, “There’s something very funny to me about the character running @Seinfeld2000 who’s extremely irate and just can’t let it go.”
I asked him about this quote. He replied:
"Sadly, I think the division between the 'character' I'm writing as and myself has started to erode. Now maybe it's just me who can't let it go. But that's only because people who follow @Seinfeld2000 are so enthusiastic about it! [...] People are, like, really invested in it, which I think is incredible, and it pushes me to keep trying to be funny and keep it interesting. And keeping it interesting is really the challenge— because at the end of the day, this is a one-note joke. The joke is: a deranged person is obsessed with the question 'what if Seinfeld was still on TV'. That's it. But I want to play that note on every instrument available. I'll play it in every octave, I'll play it flat, sharp, in every harmony and chord, I am going to play the shit out of this one fucking note."
“Every instrument” includes an in-character Reddit AMA, a narrated microsite, and a set of mashup T-shirts that will terrify anyone still worried about “hipsters.” It also includes an ebook, The Apple Store, a bestseller at Smashwords before Warner Brothers shut it down and Gawker serialized it.
The novel is written fully in character, but it expands past jokes and metajokes into some actual pathos, as the character satirizes both the BuzzFeed-driven world of clickbait and the Olds who fear they will be pushed out by the millennials who seem to be in charge of the culture around them. The four Seinfeld characters are lost and scared in the modern world, jealous of those who have adapted to it—a heightening of the social anxiety in the original Seinfeld, made freshly funny because it’s unfunny.
Middle-aged Jerry is a struggling has-been whose Warren Beatty-style sex history is embarrassing, not impressive. Elaine is struggling to stay relevant in a business dominated by TV recaps and listicles. Kramer is a racist who screams at black teens. George, finally released from prison for his fiancée’s murder, falls for Lena Dunham, the most obvious symbol of millennial youth and “buzz.” In this grittier version of “no hugs, no learning,” we see the consequences of these sociopaths’ lives, and the shock of these consequences makes us laugh. Parodists like @Seinfeld2000 understand that the original show’s innovations have become the default for comedy, enabling current comedians to develop far more challenging work.
The narrator also earns our scorn and pity. He’s so racist and reactionary that he invents a subplot about an insane Muslim Obama (“Barry Obame”). He has a poor grasp of English—simulated not just with constant misspellings of even the main characters’ names, but a patois of poor storytelling full of asides to the reader, like “If you havent guest by now” and “I'm not gonna beat around the bush here.” The style matches troglodyte fanfic like the infamous “Christian Humber Reloaded” or “DOOM: Repurcussions of Evil,” and it’s built as smartly as the ESL passages of Everything Is Illuminated.
You can imagine a disgusting redneck grandpa actually writing this novella on his Dell as a scathing satire of the Youngs and the Liberals. @Seinfeld2000 (he remains anonymous) says he actually wrote it on an old laptop that couldn’t go online:
"It sort of helped me to get into the character of the author, a crazy person hammering away on an obsolete laptop, disconnected from the world... I wrote the book in one week, waking up earlier than usual—I'd drink a Red Bull at like 6am and just start typing away, go to work, come home, and then continue until I was too tired to go on."
He told me he may find more outlets for the @Seinfeld2000 character, but he’d like to try something new.
"I'd probably keep an eye out for new trends and try to hop on one of those. There are a lot of horrible 'inspirational' Twitter accounts that are so stupid but SO popular, and the avatar is Wiz Khalifa and they tweet bullshit all day like (just pulling this out of my ass here) 'When you find the one you love, make sure the one you love is also the one you trust.' Things that sound kind of profound but are completely vacuous and get thousands of retweets from dumb teenagers. Or maybe I'd make up a politician or something."
@Seinfeld2000 is not the first Seinfeld parody based on absurdity, antihumor, and angst. It’s part of a small accidental tradition: separate creators who independently discovered the same general way to do to Seinfeld what Seinfeld did to sitcoms.
When Modern Seinfeld showed up, it frustrated Josh Crowley, who with Tom Appleton had been tweeting and tumbling fake Seinfeld plots since 2011 at Seinfelt.Tumblr.com and @JerrySeinfelt. Together they’ve published over 800 plots.
Early plots were simple, tweet-length, and often could have described real shows. June 29, 2011’s entry is “The Alliance”:
Kramer declares his apartment a commonwealth nation to avoid paying taxes. Elaine goes on a blind date with someone who ends up being another woman. Jerry and Newman strike an uneasy alliance against Kramer.
The plots stayed only slightly heightened from actual Seinfeld plots. January 16, 2012, “The Bird Feeder,” was pure pastiche:
George takes a new job at New York City’s largest real estate firm, and finds himself inappropriately dressed after incorrectly assuming the company had a “Casual Fridays” policy. Elaine believes it’s possible for a woman to suffer something akin to erectile dysfunction, which she terms “Feminine Failure.” With the onset of winter, Kramer feels great concern for the ducks in Central Park, buying a grocery store’s entire inventory of bread and tossing it at the birds. He is greatly disturbed when pigeons try to get in on the action and fights them off. After Jerry’s agent tells him he needs to be writing edgier material, he uncomfortably tries to decide whether to write about domestic abuse, the Catholic Church, or racial epithets. Uneasy with all of these, he panics onstage and abandons his prepared material, unsuccessfully ad-libbing something about how Chileans are always so cold before he descends into stream-of-consciousness obscenities.
But on Feb. 1, 2012, with “The Novel,” the entries started getting some distinct character:
As George Costanza awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. “Aren’t you going to swim?” Kramer asked. Jerry shook his head. “I can’t swim. I wasn’t allowed. My asthma—” “Sucks to your ass-mar!” And then Elaine asked him with her eyes to ask again yes and then he asked her would she yes and his heart was going like mad and yes she said yes I will Yes.
From here on, Seinfelt got heavy with literary references. From June, “The Passion”:
Three times, George denies that he knows Jerry. Kramer walks out onto his fire escape and, acquiescing to the crowd, gives them Newman. Elaine weeps at Jerry’s feet. Jerry’s last words during a set are, “WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?!” and the audience goes wild.
From October, “The Deal”:
Elaine’s wings melt when she flies too close to the sun. “Unbelievable!” she exclaims. “I purposely bought wings that weren’t made of wax!” After getting cursed by a witch, Kramer comes down with a condition that makes him speak backwards. To communicate, he must tape record everything he wants to say, then play it in reverse. George keeps blanking out on what happens to him between the hours of 9pm and 10pm. He presumes he’s just zoning out while watching reruns of Greatest American Hero, until weeks later, when he finds a diary in his own spidery handwriting that intricately details the nightmares he’ll have that night. The devil returns to collect on his half of the deal with Jerry.
An obnoxious audience member keeps shouting Jerry’s punchlines before he can, causing Jerry to try to recite his jokes as quickly as possible. Elaine brings a strange, spiky fruit over to Jerry’s apartment, but upon cutting it open, the odor leads them to suspect that her greengrocer may be trying to kill her. Kramer argues that he can’t be understood outside the context of dialectics with a solid understanding of Descartes and Hume, if not Leibniz as well, and if one isn’t familiar with the German language then one might as well cling to pantheistic mysticism rather than explore a more rationalistic understanding of self-consciousness. He becomes distracted from his diatribe by the “sweet, sweet smell of durian.” George suffers a string of sexual encounters that each end with the sheets covered in his partner’s blood — at first menstrual, then worse.
For the following year, the plots have remained surreal. In “The Paper Cut,” Jerry’s Superman figurine comes to life. In “The Sunset,” Kramer’s body mutates like a lengthening shadow. In “The Children’s Television Workshop,” a nightmare version of Sesame Street takes over the show. In “The Eusocials,” the entire cast are bees. In many entries, guest characters (especially Jerry’s girlfriends) disappear in mysterious ways.
The surrealism is often borrowed from literature and philosophy, and it often satirizes an actual aspect of Seinfeld or of the actors’ later lives and work. (Elaine, for example, pretends to be blind.) Tom tells me in an email interview, “My favorite posts are the ones where I start with an idea, like, ‘What if someone's physical size grew like their ego,’ and go from there.”
"Sometimes I do adaptations of other stories, like in the Beauty and the Beast one or the Crisis one, and I know Tom did one based on 'Bartleby, the Scrivener.' It's really interesting trying to recontextualize the iconic Seinfeld characters into other well-known settings. We try to stay as true to the characters as possible, but we've also added some of our own recurring attributes that sort of caricaturize their original personalities. Lately we've been playing with the format a little, too. Tom did one that was structured as a play written in iambic pentameter, and I had one that was just the word 'the', based on one of Kramer's plots from over a year ago."
They find it flattering when others write in their style. “We got mentioned once for a Yahoo article,” Appleton said, “and the author mentioned our blog as a sort of modern folklore—the characters are known by everyone, the difference being the authors' interpretations. I thought that was spot-on.”
While both of the previous projects are impressive, the towering classic of weird Seinfeld parody is the 2010 Vimeo series “The Jerry Seinfeld Program.” Comedians Arthur Meyer and Dan Klein play George and Jerry in a greenscreen of Jerry’s apartment. At first they simply parody Seinfeld’s goofy banter:
“Dan and I came up with the idea for ‘The Jerry Seinfeld Program’ when I was having trouble opening a can of beans in our apartment,” Meyer explained. “Dan was with me, and we started pretending to be Jerry and George, I think for no reason other than that it just was fun. That is the closest to the actual ‘Seinfeld’ that we ever got.”
But things get weird.
You can read the most disgusting, spooky, or mindbending words, and it won’t match the shivering thrill of watching two men act fearlessly stupid while staring through the screen at you.
They apply this same freak-out method to an unusually effective fourth-wall break:
Klein recognizes the tonal shift.
“The show is pretty polarizing,” he said. “It starts off as a straight parody and people tend to like that because they understand it. Impressions are funny to a lot of people. When Jerry and George start losing their minds though and are talking about God or measuring their penises or yelling at the studio audience, that's when people have to think if they wanna keep watching. I WOULD!”
The last several episodes get serial as it’s revealed that in this world, “Seinfeld” is still on the air after 21 years, no one likes it, and George and Jerry feel unfulfilled.
From that point, things get dark.
Incredibly dark. Devoid of dignity.
This is not the kind of comedy that gets a CBS sitcom deal. But it’s brave and it’s bracing. It impressed comedians like CollegeHumor’s Amir Blumenfeld (whose name peppers the series’ Vimeo comments), and I’m sure I’m not the only person who fell in love with Klein and Meyer because of it.
Klein’s origin story goes a little differently than Meyer’s:
“The inspiration for ‘The Jerry Seinfeld Program’ started with Arthur and me just joking around about really weird or violent episodes of Seinfeld, like if the show somehow got to that point,” Klein said. “The one example I remember was Arthur acting as George saying, ‘I raped her Jerry!’ It was so over-the-top and gruesome that I couldn't help laughing. Those jokes went on for years until we realized we could potentially turn it into something. ...
“I think we were both a little sick of trying to come up with clever sketches to try to make some kind of splash in the comedy scene. We needed a break. The more and more we talked about those weird Seinfeld episodes (I think the original title was ‘Seinfeld Episodes That Just Missed the Mark,’ like they were cut episodes), the less thinking we did. The whole idea was that the show had jumped the shark and become really bad, so it allowed us to shut our brains off, which was a huge relief. Imagine if these great writers ran out of ideas. What would a delusional, psychopathic Jerry Seinfeld write about? That was a lot more fun than than just the idea of more episodes of Seinfeld.”
Much like @Seinfeld2000, this is a story about corrupted creative minds.
“Secretly, the show really is about me and Arthur (aside from the fact that Jerry and George acting crazy is funny to think about),” Klein said. “It was made by two 25-year-old guys who were recognizing that we are going to die one day. It was about the fear of not being good at what we wanted to be (comedians). It was about the fear of running out of ideas. Rather than do a web series about two 25-year-old white guys in Brooklyn though, we went this route. I'm not even sure we realized some of these things as we were writing them, but the feelings were there. And making the videos was definitely cathartic.
“There's something fun about taking a familiar, beloved thing and playing with it and kind of destroying it. It's a little sadistic, but it's fun. It's like playing with action figures. Plus, who cares? Seinfeld is still a great show.”
So to truly honor a great work of comedy, you have to violate its corpse, and do so very precisely, like a serial killer. You have to show that you have no pretense of doing the work’s job better than it did itself, but that you will make something new using the material. Otherwise you’re mucking around in pastiche.
I’d love to characterize these weird Seinfeld parodies as a “movement,” but there’s no collaboration. Each was created without the knowledge of the others. None of the creators I talked to could name another strong Seinfeld parody outside the ones discussed above. (The closest anyone could think of was Welcome to Night Vale, which is more accessibly weird, and has been iTunes’ no. 1 comedy podcast for months.)
It might be more impressive than a unified movement, that when smart comedians wanted to parody a popular show, they all independently found the same strategy: Be sharper and weirder, and alienate mainstream audiences. This will keep you from relying on cliché, and it will earn respect from other comedians. Larry David doesn’t think Modern Seinfeld is funny, but I’d bet even money he’d laugh at these three parodies.