By Rob Walker
"Seinfeld" went off the air in 1998, but we are still laughing at Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. This is not just because of pervasive reruns. The characters in the sitcom that was famously “about nothing” continue to have new nonadventures, written by people who had no connection to the show. They occur in the abbreviated form of social media. Modern Seinfeld is the most popular example, closing in on 500,000 Twitter followers; Seinfelt, on Tumblr, is probably my favorite; Seinfeld Current Day is the weirdest, and most meta. In the last few months, post-"Seinfeld" microfiction has become a genre.
Why? It’s easy to understand riffing on and reacting to current popular culture, an amusing and creative way to connect in real time. But while reanimating characters from a 1990s sitcom seems like an odd development, it is actually deeply traditional.
The premise of Modern Seinfeld (which started in December and appears to have been the genre’s first mover) is that the characters exist today, their familiar traits and foibles playing out endlessly against contemporary signifiers: “Jerry convinces Babu Bhatt to open a food truck. The truck is stolen. ‘Kramering’ (bursting into rooms) becomes an Internet sensation,” one recent episode/tweet (tweetisode?) reads.
The creators make a point of injecting the conjectural plots into current events—Kramer at the Oscars, Elaine’s role in a Harlem Shake video kills the trend, etc. This works precisely because it involves characters who are so familiar to so many people that they are practically archetypes, or figures from something like mythology: We can hear, or tell, their stories over and over in infinite contexts.
Seinfelt makes this point even more clearly. Its hypothetical plot synopses are slightly longer, generally darker and far more surreal. In one Kafkaesque episode, George kicks a soccer ball at a child over and over, until both die of starvation. But of course there was a new Seinfelt entry the next day, because George is fundamentally immortal; this story never ends.
Seinfeld Current Day meanwhile, is most easily read as a critique of the genre it pretends to be part of, loaded with bizarre misspellings and plot points that hit precisely the wrong note: “Jalrlat finally confornt Uncle Leo about the abuse” or “Kraner designe racist emoji.” The Daily Dot, which has been the premier chronicler of this trendlet, even to the point of suggesting more potential variations, puts Seinfeld Current Day in the category of Weird Twitter.
All of these examples can be thought of as “digital folklore,” to borrow a phrase from this useful recent interview with Robert Glenn Howard, the director of digital studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. We think of “folklore” as meaning “old stuff,” but really it’s a way of characterizing the stories a culture tells itself about itself, over and over, endlessly remixing familiar tropes in novel ways: “informally shared knowledge that we perceive as connecting us to each other,” as he put it.
To his credit, Howard doesn’t buy the usual clichés about how the participatory activity we see on “the vernacular Web” is a function of technology. “It’s not like we all sat in silence and stared blankly at our TVs waiting for the Internet to show up,” he said. “We have probably always had vernacular webs of communication.”
Agreed. Although in this case, it’s only because so many of us stared at our TVs, absorbing a sublime sitcom meditation on nothing, that this particular corner of the vernacular web is so enjoyable.
Oh, and P.S., here’s a Seinfeld/Web bonus: Spanish artist Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde’s detailed floor-plan schematic of Jerry’s apartment, along with various other sitcom-famous, nonexistent locales.