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Mistaken First Impressions – Was I into Seinfeld from the beginning? Nope – guess again!

April 16, 2010

For many of us that dedicate our precious leisure time to serve as Authors of the Web Logue (as we are known in this era), there’s a tendency to write about topics that allow a revelation of our self-proclaimed coolness. Since possessing knowledge in a specific topic is no longer looked askance by mainstream society, we keyboard-pounders will let fly with some seriously earnest geekery. Amongst these displays of erudition, the reader will receive (occasionally) subtle cues at our prescience regarding particular cultural touchstones, such as the 15-year anniversary of when we hit the local CD store at midnight to purchase The Bends, or a clever hint that AMC has – wait for it – a quality television expose of the advertising industry – which, of course, we were “into” from the premiere. I am as guilty as anyone of this not-so subliminal braggadocio. So it is only fair that I aim for something that does the opposite. It is time to reveal a few of the sizable contingent of canonical films, bands, TV programs and other items that completely eluded me during the time of their release. Yes, I loved Extras from the first episode. But originally I hated The Office (UK), and advised that people not watch it because I found it to be a little too, um, stationery. Ha ha friggin ha.

To avoid the mistake of disarming unilaterally To enhance the surefire entertainment that awaits, I’ve contacted the entirety of The Brown Tweed Society’s staff, seeking a communiqué about our mistaken first impressions, which I presume they will publish when the topic reaches the highest point on their Idea Queue (look for the tag of “mistaken first impressions”). When I look at my collected holdings, I am amazed at how many originally elicited my indifference, dislike or – in a few cases – absolute hatred. In many cases, I lacked the sophistication or the life-experience to appreciate the subversiveness of Mr. Show; the originality of Seinfeld; the brilliant awkwardness of that aforementioned faux-doc on Wernham Hogg; or the twisted surrealism of Arrested Development. Now, after coming ’round on these amazing examples of when Box shed its Idiot antecedent, I owe my current TV tastes to their excellence. Within my television-viewing oeuvre (can that word be used when denoting consumption as well as creation? Help me out, grammar geeks), every program that I currently watch with any modicum of regularity is an amalgamation of these four programs, with different ratios of each, depending upon the show’s raison d’être.

So here they are – beginning with Indifference…

The Big Lebowski – I have to begin here. Prior to relocating to Humboldt County, Cali to serve a year in AmeriCorps, I finally collected enough cash to move away from the parental home. Time to join with other collegiate types for a summer of Bacchanalia! Without those annoying academic requirements to hamper our social agenda, we were free to communicate in a vernacular largely composed of quotes from Raising Arizona and Fargo. And according to an instrument-rental customer story from Paul the Geek, that motherscratcher WAS Bill Parker. Eight months after my relocation to Arcata, I parked my bike at the historic Minor Theatre to bask in the multitude of quotable lines that I’d casually toss around to impress my new friends. That’s all it takes, right? I have to admit that an hour into the film, I was slightly disappointed, due to the paucity of actual onscreen bowling. I thought the soundtrack was uninspired. I laughed, at most, twice. And I was ready for it to end.

Fast forward five months, and I’m back in Lexington. Paul and Lloyd bring home a VHS copy of Lebowski, and that second viewing hit me harder than the officer’s flashlight when you’ve had a few too many (or so I’ve heard). It’s been among my five favorite films since fall of ’98, and I don’t see that ever changing.

The Wire – During an appearance on the BS Report, Chris Connelly and Bill Simmons reached a consensus that the 2000’s best movies were not theatrically-released films, rather serial dramas like The Sopranos and this one. Each episode of The Wire was cinematic enough to be a great film in its own right. But it wasn’t until winter of 2007 that I gave the show a real chance. Most of my fellow Wire fanatics (most of whom joined the program after a few seasons) can justify their unawareness of the show’s existence because they lacked an opportunity to view HBO with any regularity. Unfortunately, I cannot make that claim, as a grad school friend had premium cable, and invited me to join her household for weekly viewings, which I turned down after s01e02. By Season 5, I’m anxiously awaiting the discs in the mail, angry when that crucial Saturday delivery does not occur.

Let’s move on to Hate:

Seinfeld – This on really hurts to admit. Thanks to MTV’s Half Hour Comedy Hour, a pre-Central network calledThe Comedy Channel and soon-to-die competitor HA!, which all entered the world in 1988-89, I became quasi-obsessed with stand-up comics. I’d love to say I was edgy and cool because I thought Bill Hicks was awesome, but in reality, I also liked Carrot Top and the fat due on Make Me Laugh! that filled his mouth with jello and spit it out on the contestant. Ahh, youth. The Richard Jeni comedy special referenced in that Family Guy episode? Damn right I recorded it, and re-watched it about 40 times. Yet, I couldn’t form an opinion about Jerry Seinfeld as a comic. His pop-ins on The Tonight Show usually went over my head, and not solely due to the aviation-dominated content (get out!), so I completely ignored the first two seasons of the show. Due to our possession of a satellite dish, I watched an insane amount of television in the early 90s, but could not stand Seinfeld. My first encounter with Larry David’s alter-ego was “The Café”, where Elaine tanks an IQ test for George, and Babu provides Bourdain with an easy go-to example for one of Kitchen Confidential’s warning signs of failure. I remember disliking it so much that I actually uttered the phrase, “You guys don’t mind if I flip it over to Major Dad, do you?” (Whoa – Major Dad! Note to my unemployed self – several people were compensated in real money for creating a show that straddled the fence between Shite and a WMD – I guess you can make it in America after all).

A few months later, commercials informed me that Keith Hernandez was guest-starring in a two-part episode, so I decided to give ol’ Jerry another try. I remember a USA Today story where Hernandez claimed to have used cocaine over 1,000 times, so maybe he’d be a little jumpy, which would have brought a few laughs from the misanthrope that occupied my soul at age 17. The next day in the cafeteria, as I crowed about my recent purchase of The Doors Greatest Hits, I told the table to avoid Seinfeld, because it was “just plain terrible.” Like an abused puppy, I kept coming back, watching “The Parking Space” (which was co-directed by Greg Daniels) and “The Wallet”, for the very reasons that justified the existence of “Jerry!” – they were on TV.

Then came “The Contest”. It took a few minutes, but as soon as Kramer announced “I’m OUT!”, I was definitely in.

R.E.M. – Another one that makes me laugh. We all have our milestone moments in our life – first drugs arrest, or your first time bowling. For me, spring 1986 is where it all began,  as my parents allowed me to place a 9-inch B&W television set in my own room. Our mid-level cable package included the usuals – WTBS, MTV, ESPN, and…LA radio stations? I discovered this when I placed a lengthwise slit in the cable, and ran one on the wires to my radio. Where before I was lost in the high-desert radio wasteland (KDUC, a station that dropped Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” because the audience found it too risqué, was about all we had in the realm of “modern” music), I now had access to KROQ, K-Earth 101, the WAVE (automated radio, with extra Kenny G! – yep, I liked him at the time) and KIIS-FM – the big one. With a never-ending synth-fest of mid-80s mall-pop (the very same music I bashed last week!), KIIS was the Alpha and Omega, and after a year of having their heavily-produced pop piped into my brain, resistance was futile. Janet Jackson! Tears for Fears! Expose! Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force! Madonna! Scritti Politti! Prince! The Bangles! Falco! If it had a keytar, or – even better – TWO keytars, KIIS and host Rick Dees made sure you heard it (a lot). While rap artists like Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys (more on them later) and Eric B & Rakim were infiltrating my tape-player rotations, I continued to make Top 40 my format of choice. Did you know that Jody Watley’s debut LP, simply titled Jody Watley, had five Top 100 singles on it? When KIIS interrupted their 130 bpm sugar-high of TR-808 beats and Casio samples preferred by Watley and Co. to add Document’s “The One I Love” to the playlist, I was livid. Many items were broken during my semi-daily dives to turn the dial to the static of 102.6, just to avoid the haunting minor chords. But KIIS was relentless. Soon we were subject to The Cure’s “Why Can’t I Be You” and “Just Like Heaven”, U2’s “With or Without You”, and INXS’ “Need You Tonight”. MTV added a monthly program called IRS is the Cutting Edge, featuring the aforementioned artists, in addition to The Alarm, The Church, and other mopey/jangly moptops, and I absolutely loved it. Jody who?

Forward a year, and my oldest sister, the person responsible for my then-fandom of U2, asked for Green as a Christmas gift. As we drove around Barstow cranking “Stand” and “Orange Crush”, I now had a new favorite band.

Musical artists licensing their music for commercials. This was the most difficult transition of all, due to two massive factors:

1. Knee-jerk moralizing of youth. Within the group of kids I considered friends, there was an unwritten requirement to take a stand on almost everything. Baseball? You had to have one favorite player, and root for one team only. NASCAR? One driver – that’s it. Skateboarding? Either Powell & Peralta or Santa Cruz (this is the Ford Vs Chevy of southern California), and if your favorite skater switched sides, you had to choose a new one (and it couldn’t be taken). After moving to eastern Kentucky, I noticed that many kids based their moralizing on lessons from their religion, which offered a cavalcade of opportunities for taking stands on cultural issues (I was told that MTV / rap / wearing shorts / Sam Kinison / caffeinated soda / heavy metal were – get this – the devil. I maybe get Kinison, but Slayer?) I decided to let Bill Hicks decide my morality, at least in music. Although I would ask of him to spare George Michael’s life (eventually he gave us “Father Figure”, which kinda (?) atones for Wham! – uh, right? Instead of gunshots, his fate could be ditching the Lear Jet in exchange for the 2010-era nightmare of air travel – in your eye, Jay Leno!), I loved the certainty and attitude when Hicks said “You do a commercial – you are off the artistic role-call for GOOD! Case CLOSED!” And as I shed my own pop past (only to partially re-embrace it later), Hicks sealed it by dropping shrapnel over the assembly-line industry that gave us Debbie Gibson and Rick Astley (seriously, people – the RickRoll needs to die like the word “snark” – we already have a perfectly good word  in “sarcasm” – yes we can!).

2. The exemplars of commercialization. Up until the mid 1990s, if you head a song in a commercial, it was most likely an annoying original composition from some anonymous studio hack, burrowing into the recesses of the dumbest part of your brain, never to leave. Imagine an era where “[price] [length of sandwich]” was the rule, not the exception, although most of the purveyors were not malignant rip-off artists like “[deceptively-priced] [document of credit history]”. Malt-liquor commercials employed soul or funk artists, as they shamefully sung the praises of the company that was Bullish on exploiting a particular demographic. Use of pop songs was restricted to established artists, like Michael Jackson, although he changed the lyrics of “Bad” to promote the “coolness” of his newfound love of a second-place cola. Eventually, the quality of artist took a serious hit, as MC Hammer, C+C Music Factory, and other assorted goofballs cast their lot with the Mad Men.

One commercial, and Nick Drake, changed it all.

Following a revision of broadcast ownership ordinances, the independent radio station, featuring DJs that played “whatever they wanted”, became an endangered species. Pay-for-play became far more common, as one conglomerate with 1000 stations became an easy target for record label shenanigans. MTV’s playlists grew ever shorter, and slowly the format changed to accommodate more non-musical programming (although many of the shows, such as The Real World, incorporated a crapload of songs into the background). Outside of college radio, which has a moderate presence within a small age-group, and the rare anomaly like the Twin Cities “Current”, there is no place for an artist that offers music that is (or mistakenly miscast as) an unmarketable product. Enter a few clever ad wizards, and their television-show counterparts. While early-adopters like That German Auto Company and The 3-Letter Clothing Company were digging through crates to find hidden gems (The Marmalade! American Breed!), several TV shows, under the direction of Alexandra Patsavas, were offering independent artists with an outlet for their work. Interestingly, REM were the first artist I remember licensing a block of songs for a TV show, as the March 19, 1989 episode of 21 Jump Street featured three tracks from Green.

We’ve come a long way from George Michael’s embarrassing diet cola ads. Groups like Band of Horses, The Shins, the Raveonettes, Os Mutantes, Jose Gonzalez, Phoenix and Aussie up-and-comers Yves Klein Blue have made commercial breaks a helluva lot less annoying.

Others?

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