Seinfeld in Tel Aviv: A Show of Sophisticated Misanthropy Disguised as Stand-up Comedy

He may be most famous for creating a sitcom about nothing, but the genius of Jerry Seinfeld is telling people that life is meaningless and still getting them to laugh at the absurdity of their lives

Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher
Jerry Seinfeld performing at the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv, December 30, 2017.
Jerry Seinfeld performing at the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv, December 30, 2017.
Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher

Just like at Jerry Seinfeld’s Tel Aviv concert two years ago, this time too I wondered whether the hugely appreciative audience really understood what the U.S. comedian was throwing at them.

Seinfeld’s act is one of spectacular misanthropy. Right off the bat, he declares that all people’s lives are meaningless, that life in general sucks, that it’s too long, a huge waste of time, a foolish way to pass the days until death arrives, and that boredom is a basic existential condition.

The concert itself was described as simply a meeting of people who felt they had to be there because they felt bad in the place where they were before, and that in no time they’d be feeling bad where they were now. For Seinfeld, people are slaves to the absurdity that they themselves create. This message is conveyed clearly and powerfully.

Still, many of the levels of Seinfeld’s humor are implied. He won’t actually say the F-word, but that’s where his basic worldview is at. The sated Westerner, the butt of Seinfeld’s jokes, is a pathetic creature who can barely get himself out of his house, and the height of his ambition is to eat at some restaurant everyone’s calling the hottest in town.

Seinfeld doesn’t want to eat at that restaurant. He doesn’t want to hear the waiter tell him what the specials are. All that hype is a sign of idiocy. He defines contemporary man as a means of carrying a cellphone from place to place. The cellphone’s mobility is the goal and the person is merely serving it. That’s what a person is worth to Seinfeld.

In every corner of popular culture, people are looking for comfort, kindness, praise, empowerment and a positive attitude. It’s what they’re looking for on Facebook and TV shows, in books and films. The world of stand-up comedy is refreshing because a work of art can be presented here that’s not a pacifier. And yet it’s amazing to see how, for the past few decades, a global audience of millions has enjoyed Seinfeld’s sophisticated misanthropy.

In Tel Aviv, he didn’t give anybody a break either. His view of humanity is cold and cruel, merciless. Human beings are ridiculous, and the most important thing is developing techniques to cut them off in the middle of whatever they’re saying and to escape without hurting their feelings. Because they get excited; they get excited about nonsense, about a new restaurant, a special dish. And Seinfeld curbs their enthusiasm. He rises above their stupidity.

Seinfeld’s views on marriage are also devoid of compassion. His warm-up act, Mark Schiff, told a lot of jokes about married life. Both comics presented exactly the same picture of domesticity: The man as dishrag; a doormat stomped on by a critical, judgmental, controlling woman who sets the rules at home. But for Schiff, this is a warm, familiar, stereotypical picture – a well-worn cliché that has become a social ritual. He makes clear that he loves his wife.

Seinfeld, however, is cold. His pictures of married life show the man as the object of unending humiliation – not only by his wife, but also by his children. They hardly notice he’s alive. And they don’t need him.

Seinfeld compares the husband to a balloon that’s lost its helium and drifts aimlessly, unwanted, around the house, sinking downward, tied to a slack string, representing his flaccid phallus and lack of manhood. From the moment of their birth, the purpose of children is to take his place.

For Seinfeld, the human condition is similar to that presented by the late Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.

Like all the great comedians, Seinfeld isn’t actually funny. He has a phenomenal talent to make people feel like he’s joking about the trivialities of life, the small moments, about nothing. When in fact what he’s really telling them is that everything is nothing. Under the thin veneer of Seinfeldian humor lies an abyss of serious depression.

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