Existentialism in Seinfeld

By Katherine Sinyavin //

“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

(Camus 28)

One of the key points of Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus is that life in and of itself is not Absurd. Rather, the human mind makes it absurd by asking questions about life in attempts to find meaning, but never receiving any answer. Thus, Camus writes, “if there is an absurd, it is in man’s universe” (35). Furthermore, the absurd ceases to be absurd if one somehow accepts that life is meaningless or stops thinking about it because then the absurd loses its “essential character, which is opposition, laceration, and divorce” (35). As noted in the first quote, the absurd arises from a confrontation: from a desire for meaning in the face of total  meaninglessness. Thus, life is both absurd and not; most of us go through our day-to-day lives not thinking about why everything is the way it is and to what purpose. Life, then, is generally not absurd. It is only in some moments when I ask—and yearn to know the answer to—such questions, when everything I have ever done loses meaning, when everything is just absolutely absurd. Furthermore, absurdity depends, to a certain degree, on life not being absurd. As Camus writes: “The world is not too much” (121). If the world were not silent, simple, just there—if the world were not not absurd, then it would not be absurd. Absurdity is, in itself, absurd. 

Camus’ description of the absurd is demonstrated well in the TV show Seinfeld, which teeters on the brink between being so mimetic of regular, everyday life as to justify its label of “a show about nothing,” and being so absurd as to make the viewer question how life could be this way. This latter effect is strengthened by the former: because it is so seemingly non absurd, and because it shows such ordinary scenes of everyday life, its absurdity is strengthened. While this phenomenon can be found in practically every episode of Seinfeld, I want to focus on “The Statue” (Season 1, Episode 6), which emphasizes the absurdity of the absurd in a particularly apt and humorous way.

On the surface, the plot of “The Statue” is simple: Jerry, the sitcom’s protagonist, finds a statue in his basement; George, Jerry’s best friend, recognizes it as the same statue he had broken when he was younger by accidentally dropping it, about which his parents continue to nag him; George gets the statue and can’t wait to show to his parents; a guy who comes to clean Jerry’s house steals the statue and refuses to return in; Kramer, Jerry’s neighbor, goes and steals it back; and finally, at the very end, the statue falls out of George’s hands yet again and shatters. On the surface, this episode appears odd but not out of the ordinary: anyone could find themselves in this situation. 

And yet, the plot is also riddled with such confusing and ludicrous developments that are absurd by Camus’ definition of the term: the episode’s oddities cause us to ask questions about their meaning, and yet the story does not give us any answers. For example, the person who comes to clean Jerry’s apartment and steals the statue is a guy named Ray who enters Jerry’s apartment with the exclamation “Ah, greetings, greetings, and salutations!” and assures Jerry, “[Your apartment] will sparkle like the stars of heaven upon your safe arrival, sire” (S01E06). His pompous and eclectic manner appears performative enough to be fake yet consistent enough to perhaps be genuine—but the viewer never finds out who Ray really is and why he acts the way he does. His girlfriend Rava, whose book another one of Jerry’s friends—Elaine—is editing, is the complete opposite of Ray: when the latter is running late, she suggests, “maybe he’s dead,” and when Jerry mentions his mother, she retorts, “My mother left us when I was six years old. All seven of us. We never heard from her again. I hope she’s rotting in an alley somewhere” (S01E06). This time, however, her intense cynicism is given an explanation by Ray, though a rather absurd one: she is the way she is because she is from Finland. 

Thus, Ray, the paragon of positivity and pomp, and Rava, the unfriendly foreigner, are the two opposing poles around which the narrative weaves itself. How does one confront such a ludicrous man about a robbery? Thievery seems just so absurdly out of place in Ray’s persona, that accusing him of it feels wrong, to both those involved and to the viewer. Yet the fact that he stole a statue, rather than something more expensive or valuable, somehow seems fitting. And Rava then unfoundedly accuses Elaine of being jealous of her bizarre relationship with Ray, and Rava and Elaine then get into a fight that somehow devolves into an argument about whether every coincidence is equally coincidental or whether there are big coincidences versus small coincidences. They reach an impasse, and Rava fires Elaine as her editor. 

And then of course there’s George, the pseudo-Sisyphic figure who drops the statue again, at which point the episode ends. The abrupt ending renders all of the dramatics, efforts, hostilities, and broken relationships completely meaningless. The narrative returns to its initial point with respect to the broken statue in George’s life, just like Sisyphus’ rock returns to the base of the hill, rendering its entire journey meaningless. 

In this episode of a show about everyday life, we see absurd characters, absurd actions, absurd accusations, absurd questions, and ultimate meaninglessness abound. Thus, this episode can be viewed either as an ordinary and non absurd depiction of life, or as one proliferated with absurdities, or as both of those options. In this way, the non absurd and absurd inform each other: the non absurd becomes absurd and the absurd non absurd in a show that is seemingly “about nothing.” 


References: 

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Vintage International 2018

Seinfeld, “The Statue.” Season One, Episode Six

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