The cover of the June 1-7 TV Guide poses the question: "Is Seinfeld the Best Comedy Ever?" implying that it is.
I'm sorry, but no one asked me or others who were taken aback by the show's stunningly heartless season finale this spring.Criticizing the man touted as the comic genius of our times is like reporting that the emperor has no clothes. But in these times when Americans believe the nation is suffering from a values decline of crisis proportion - and many are attempting to fight back - we need to think seriously about the impact of a top-rated comedy show that increasingly is taking nasty to new unacceptable levels.
As long as Seinfeld and friends do quirky shows about the mundane matters of everyday life that we all can relate to - like not being able to find your car in a parking garage - there's no harm.
But going for laughs by being insensitive and downright cruel about serious matters such as the death of a friend, is going too far. It cheapens life.
To young viewers groping for values, the big mouths and funnymen and women on TV are telling them that being flip and callous is cool.
In case you are one of the few who missed it, in the Seinfeld season finale, George's fiancee, one of the main characters on the show, dies suddenly after being poisoned by the glue on the envelopes of cheap invitations to their wedding. Neither George, the cheapskate who encouraged his fiancee to buy the lowest-priced invitations, nor the other main characters on Seinfeld express remorse or sadness over her death. Their only concern is how her demise is going to affect each of them. The final scene is George calling around for a date.
There's nothing wrong with a show having an attitude, which is part of the appeal of Seinfeld and the similar sitcoms it has spawned, but there is no excuse for cruelty or a lack of basic humanity. In many cases, mean-spiritedness in these TV comedies is the problem, not violence or sex.
Creative people bring life experiences to their work, but ageism behind the scenes in TV land is limiting the world views we are offered. To write comedy in tele- vision these days it helps if you are under 30.
The wisecracking gag-writers who wrote for some of the biggest stars and shows around now find themselves unmarketable, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article on the old kings of comedy. It's not just writers who are 60 or 70 who can't get work but those in their 40s and 50s as well.
"The new writers come to the studios fresh out of Harvard or UCLA, and their chief influence has been television itself," the Times reported.
Early television writers had been nurtured by radio, theater and vaudeville, and they drew on life experiences outside the medium to tell stories. The 20-something writers have spent little time as apprentices in the business and very little time having a life present or past that would come close to resembling what most of mid-America would call normal.
A longtime writer for "All in the Family" told the Times that there was a "sweetness to so many of the older shows, a sense that humor was for an entire family."
Think Andy Griffith.
Many of the Generation Xers writing the shows now have a poor opinion of families - based on their own less than perfect experiences as offspring of a generation that tested the limits of individual freedoms.
They are not optimistic about the future and it shows in the characters and comedies they write. Few TV characters - and they're mainly young - have goals, much less a good job or stable relationship.
Perhaps more of America will understand the behind-the-scenes TV world if a particular new series gets picked up. Brandon Tartikoff, the creator of "Cheers," "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show," has a pilot in development about two aging comedy writers - in their 40s - who find two 20-somethings to front for them. The writers train the younger, more "now" guys to pitch their shows, enabling the two older men to keep working behind the scenes. Tartikoff told the Times that the show offers hope of being "both painful and funny all at once."
It's not realistic to turn off the television totally, but sorting through its messages - and there are many - is important.
Just as we should be aware of the processes producing our food and clothing, we also should be concerned with what we consume in the culture.
A lot of junk food tastes good, but a steady diet of it isn't good for you. A lot of clothing may look pretty but we need better ways of knowing if the shirts and blouses we buy are made in a way that doesn't trounce on human rights or harm the environment.
Jokes of all sorts - including those that are racist and sexist - can be funny, but what are the under-the-surface or long-term consequences of that humor?
And what of television comedies that chip away regularly at our sense of right and wrong?