For many years now, Tom Shales, the Washington Post's Pulitzer-winning TV critic, has displayed the kind of obsession with "Seinfeld" that Robert De Niro reserved for a teenaged Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Each new comedy that's launched, it seems, provides Shales with an opportunity for another unflattering comparison with his late, lamented love. As he put it earlier this year, "Every time a new sitcom is announced, some of us, giddy with optimism, wonder, 'Will this be the new "Seinfeld"?'"
The answer, inevitably, is no. Take his review, in yesterday's Post, of "The Bill Engvall Show":
Every stand-up comic in the world would surely like to emulate Jerry Seinfeld, who turned his act into one of the most popular and highly praised sitcoms ever--and himself into probably the richest comic ever. And yet few if any comedians have actually tried to imitate his show. "Seinfeld" was so idiosyncratic, so singular and so--what is the word? Oh yes, brilliant--that even attempting a copy is too difficult.
Bill Engvall, one of today's breed of blue-collar and blue-jean stand-ups, has sensibly tried to follow not in Seinfeld's footsteps so much as comic Ray Romano's.
It's an impressive display of non sequiturship: Ah, the great, inimitable "Seinfeld"; here's a show that doesn't even try to imitate it. Shales hasn't quite finished, though, adding later:
Guess who does show up, though: Steve Hytner as Bill's friend Bob Spoonerman. Hytner is much, much better known as Kenny Bania, the achingly unfunny comic who was one of many nemeses to Jerry on "Seinfeld." Nothing Hytner is asked to do on "Engvall" is remotely as funny as things he did on "Seinfeld," of course; his voice seems lower and his face jowlier. In fact, he's really quite unremarkable in this new context, but he stirs happy memories.
Indeed, it often seems Shales would prefer to be left to his happy memories than to engage with anything that's actually on the air. Since "Seinfeld" was cancelled in 1998, Shales has cited it in a remarkable 79 articles. (Compare that to a mere 18 mentions of "The Simpsons," which has actually been running, albeit at quarter-steam, all those years.) Shales has described "Seinfeld" as "the most successful and acclaimed sitcom ever"; "one of the most popular and highly praised sitcoms ever "; "It may have constituted a 'great era' all by itself"; "the last great sitcom of the age of the sitcom"; and "the last really funny TV show"--a tidal wave of praise that would be less overwhelming if not for the fact that all these quotes appeared in the last 14 months, many years after the show went defunct.
Nor is Shales's admiration limited to the show itself. In a review of Jerry Seinfeld's sold-out comedy concert at the Kennedy Center in 2005, he allowed that "this visit consisted of the same material...that he delivered during his last Kennedy Center gig a year ago." But he nonetheless found Seinfeld to be "unmistakably the master of his domain"; "a comedy giant unspoiled by nearly unimaginable, arguably insufferable success"; "The Maestro"; and "a philosopher-comic with the defiance of Hemingway, the wit of Wilde, the eloquence of Malraux and the memory of Proust."
The memory of Proust? At least now I know where to turn the next time I can't find my car keys.
Yes, "Seinfeld" was a pioneering sitcom that helped make possible much of the TV comedy that has followed. Yes, it was very funny. (Though for my part, I find its relentlessly shticky humor holds up rather disappointingly in reruns.) And, yes, sitcoms haven't kept pace with the extraordinary array of quality dramas that have appeared on television in the last several years.
But the world of TV comedy didn't end in 1998. To cite just two examples, we've since been treated to "The Office" (which is superior to its British progenitor in almost every way except for the--slight--stepdown from Ricky Gervais to Steve Carell) and the cruelly cut-short "Arrested Development," which gets my vote for the funniest live-action comedy of all time. And of course there have been plenty of other, more modest successes: "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the initially fresh but fast moldering "Scrubs," etc. Just don't try to persuade Tom Shales.
On the upside, though, Shales's lament in yesterday's Post appeared directly beneath a column announcing (among other things) that "Jerry Seinfeld will guest-star on the season debut of '30 Rock'." The review nearly writes itself.