Nine serious medical school students in lab coats gathered around a conference room table at 9:00am on a Friday to talk Seinfeld. Their faces turned toward Dr Anthony Tobia, a 47-year-old with close-cropped brown hair and a goatee, standing at the front of the room scribbling notes on a white board. There, he scrawled the name ‘Brett’ – the boyfriend of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Elaine, who is obsessed with the song Desperado.

Brett, the group deduced, is a narcissist with antisocial tendencies, given his unreasonable demand that Elaine keep quiet whenever his favourite song is on, and his insistence that they cannot “share” the song as a couple. Dr Tobia drilled further: “Why is someone antisocial? What is the underlying reason?” This time, no response from the students. He answered for them: “Poor self-esteem. Unsupportive parents. Bullying. Who else on this show has a similar psychiatric history?”

“Costanza,” another student answered without hesitation.

There was no laughter throughout Tobia’s brisk, half-hour ‘didactic’ – med school’s word for a seminar – on this summer morning. The medical students at Rutgers University in New Jersey rarely earn their degree without diagnosing the characters of Seinfeld along with the real patients they encounter on hospital rounds. As part of their third-year clerkship in the psychiatry department, they spend six weeks discussing this show full of narcissists, obsessive-compulsives and neurotics with Tobia before moving on to surgery, OB-GYN, or other specialties.

Tobia’s is one of several Seinfeld-related classes offered at major universities throughout the United States – and part of a larger trend toward academic classes that take pop cultural phenomena dead seriously. Harvard and Duke universities are among the schools that have offered classes about HBO’s The Wire. Mad Men made the Whitman College course catalogue. Students at the University of North Florida studied Lost; students at Northwestern spent a term on Survivor. Rutgers also offered a course about Beyoncé and feminism.

While many of these professors still find themselves defending their choice to pursue academic study of such seemingly frivolous phenomena, the field of pop culture studies has made huge strides toward acceptance over the last two decades. And they have Seinfeld to thank for pioneering the way. With the show now coming to Hulu on 24 June, it will be easier than ever for professors to “teach” Seinfeld. But it wasn’t always so easy to take the so-called “show about nothing” so seriously.

Something from nothing

Since it’s now hailed as a modern classic, it’s easier to see Seinfeld as a worthy object of study. Its neurotic focus on the minutiae of social customs is comparable to Oscar Wilde’s comedies of manners. It reveals the same problems of being that nauseated the existentialists: the tiniest acts of its characters come together to wreak havoc, sometimes on other characters, more commonly on unsuspecting strangers. And one could argue it has a strong nihilistic streak throughout its run – if it’s about “nothing”, it’s about the nothingness of existence, the futility of it all. Then again, its much-hated finale seemed to flip all of that on its head, punishing its characters for their lack of morals and upsetting most of America in the process.

In fact, when the show was airing on NBC, America loved it so much that they didn’t want to think too much about any of this. That’s how William Irwin got himself in trouble.

When professor William Irwin assembled a book of essays called Seinfeld and Philosophy in 1999, the book’s release garnered a media reaction ranging from dubious to hostile. Its crimes: one count of mixing pop culture with hallowed academia and one count of taking TV too seriously. In a scathing attack in the Village Voice, Norah Vincent argued for a return to times when “scholarship and entertainment were safely segregated”. She wrote, “This dumbing down of the academy is the ultimate capitulation to the MTV mind. Our cultural narcissism has reached such heights that, far from exposing us to the expanse of world culture, the university is becoming more and more bounded in the nutshell of our puttied brains.” 

Writing about the book for Salon.com, James Nestor said, “After reading that even the title of the show holds etymological affinity to German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time(Sein und Zeit in German), one wonders if Seinfeld and Philosophy is merely an elaborate gimmick, an attempt to cash in on a sitcom with mass appeal and crass (book) sales potential. What better way to propel one’s career than creating a buzz and turning hours wasted in leisure into a dissertation?”

Irwin had feared exactly this kind of reaction when he first came up with the idea. But his colleagues responded to his call for submissions enthusiastically, encouraging him to pursue it. Pieces began to pour in: George’s Failed Quest for Happiness: An Aristotelian Analysis, Kramer and Kierkegaard: Stages on Life’s Way, Plato or Nietzsche: Time, Essence, and Eternal Recurrence in Seinfeld.

Irwin proved to be an early proponent of a trend. One that Vincent called “sickening” and “disturbing” in the Village Voice, but a trend nonetheless. Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson had recently founded the Center for the Study of Popular Television, attracting plenty of media attention. (“Liberal arts’ last great hope is to use TV,” he said at the time.) The same year that Seinfeld and Philosophy came out, TV producer Norman Lear funded a new program at UCLA for entertainment studies. Irwin’s next project tackled The Simpsons in a similar fashion and received a warmer reception; by the time his collection about The Matrix came out in 2002, few questioned its relevance or intentions.

Irwin’s small publisher, Open Court, ordered a first print-run of 2,000 copies for Seinfeld and Philosophy, and when Irwin heard that, he was thrilled. In academia, 300 copies could be considered a hot seller. By 2014, Seinfeld and Philosophy had sold more than 50,000 copies, and spawned an ongoing series (85 titles and counting) that featured philosophical musings on pop culture phenomena from Buffy the Vampire Slayerand The Sopranos to Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

Yada, yada, yada

Irwin likes to point out that many other cultural works that are now taken seriously started out as the lowest of the low: cinema, jazz, Dickens. He imagines a time when we look back on Seinfeld the same way. “Whenever you’re doing something new, you’re bound to run into some resistance like that,” Irwin told me.

Now Kelli Marshall uses Irwin’s book when she teaches an entire class on Seinfeld at DePaul University in Chicago, where she also teaches Intro to Film and classes on Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee. Her Seinfeld class tends to fill up to its 30-student maximum very quickly and has an almost unheard-of retention rate.

Students leave the class with a clearer vision of ‘90s history – Marshall provides mini-lessons to help them understand the show’s references to, say, OJ Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran or the lawsuit against McDonald’s for serving too-hot coffee. And, of course, they gain a greater appreciation for Seinfeld and its enduring influence throughout American culture. “We read this article that was just a list of all these terms,” says Erin Uttich, a media and cinema studies major who took the class in 2015. “Like yada yada, or double dip, or re-gift. I was like, ‘Weren’t those just things?’ [Marshall] was like, ‘No, those were things because Seinfeld made them things.’”

And that’s exactly why professors like Marshall and Tobia keep teaching Seinfeld – and, for that matter, other major works of pop culture. These works, if they’re as influential and pervasive as Seinfeld, show us why we say the things we do, do the things we do, think the things we think, like the things we like. Seinfeld teaches us what at least one sliver of life was like in 1990s America: silly, banal, self-indulgent, self-obsessed and maybe even nihilistic underneath it all. It also continues to make us laugh in reruns, showing us the more universal tendencies we share: we’re probably still a little self-indulgent, even more self-obsessed and still questioning what it all means.

And any show that makes us think about all of that – while making nihilism and existentialism fun – can’t really be about nothing after all, can it?

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