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Why Laughing at the Seinfeld 9/11 Spec Script Felt So Wrong and So Right

Lately there have been a few things coming together and making me wonder about the long shadow of 9/11.

I just finished re-listening to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which is an exhaustive take on Osama bin Laden, from his birth through his misadventures to his almost inexplicable eventual success and post-9/11 scurrying to Tora Bora. I hadn’t really planned to listen again, but I was looking to save some money on Audible and I found myself re-interested. It’s a really good book.

Coincidentally enough, the day after I finished, I traveled to New York City for work and found myself walking the streets of midtown Manhattan on a beautiful, sunny summer morning — which set off some 9/11 PTSD. I do remember that I used to think that I would never be able to enjoy a picture-perfect day again after 9/11. That didn’t bear out. But on this day, with thoughts of all the loss it set in motion in the back of my mind, it was unsettling.

Anyway, while in the N.Y. office, a tweet alerted me to a spec script, written by comedian Billy Domineau, for a Seinfeld episode that would take place soon after 9/11.

I understand that, for many people, it will always be too soon for a comedy to tackle 9/11. I, evidently, am not one of them. The familiar, venal, narcissistic oeuvre of Seinfeld punctured this balloon of unease I was feeling and created some needed and transgressive space, maybe for the first time ever, around this incomprehensible tragedy. Today, I listened to the first cultural tackling of 9/11, Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. It’s important and I appreciate it and it has some uplift, but it hangs heavily on this listener.

Not so, this faux Seinfeld. That all the members of the gang would feel, in different ways, aggrieved and put out by the disaster — oh my. I cringed at first, then I laughed — hard.

So why?

First off, laughing at the script isn’t laughing about 9/11. It’s laughing at these familiar, unlikable (but somehow charming in their awfulness) characters as they react to it. All comedy is about the reaction, not the thing itself, right? Humor — even the darkest stuff, about cancer and sexual dysfunction and dead babies (OK, maybe dead baby jokes are just about dead babies) — is about how we cope and live, not about how we die.

And Seinfeld was a show that loved doing shows on things that you weren’t allowed to do shows about — The Contest, Susan’s death, etc.

For me, the script reminded me that Seinfeld was set in a time that was peaceful, prosperous and pretty good, a time when a comedy about the petty self-interest of a group of friends was just that. Back then, we laughed about a bunch of naked narcissists. Fifteen years later, much of it spent fearful of and acting out against threats, real and imagined, we’re damn close to electing one president. The Seinfeld script made me realize how hard and humorless the past 15 years have been — that the most popular, buzziest TV show now isn’t a sharp-and-loopy comedy “about nothing” set in the contemporary Big Apple; it’s a blood-soaked drama about the lure and danger of power in the wrong hands, set in a world that, while fantastical, harkens back, not forward.

I don’t know what to make of all of this — except that I really, really, really need more laughs. I’ve grabbed beers twice in the past week with an old friend and a recent colleague and laughed a lot while catching up. During the same time, the angina that has been a near-constant companion over the past month has largely gone on hiatus. Coincidence? Who knows.

What I do know is that laughter is a way to change our perspective, to shorten the long shadow that living in a world that includes suffering and hate and death casts so it becomes less fearsome, more manageable. It’s cathartic. And if there’s one thing that this interminable national season has made clear is that it’s time for some heavy-f’ing-duty catharsis. We have hardened as much as a people should ever harden. We are constricted, sclerotic.

It’s time for a season of softening. For a good belly laugh.

So as I head out of town with Virginia for a week’s vacation, with a healthy dose of great friends on the itinerary, my intention is to laugh — long, hard, perhaps inappropriately at times.

And maybe watch some Seinfeld re-runs. It’s time.

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