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sitcom smackdown

The Best Comedy of the Past 30 Years, Quarterfinals: Sex and the City vs. Seinfeld

Vulture is holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 18. Today is the final match of the quarterfinals, with author Yael Kohen deciding between Seinfeld and Sex and the City. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket, which has already veered from our critics' choices. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.

There’s a certain breed of single woman that still classifies herself according to one of Sex and the City’s four single-gal archetypes: Charlotte (the romantic), Miranda (the alpha career girl), Samantha (the sexpot), and, of course, Carrie (the so-called everygirl who was a combination of the other three). I loved Sex and the City when it was on HBO from 1998–2004; as a single twentysomething, I tuned in every Sunday night to see what crazy scenarios the women would find themselves in. For me, the show said something particularly true about the way the search for love and the process of dating seem to contradict one another. Unlike Seinfeld, whose characters tossed off relationships without a hint of scarring, Sex and the City was weighted with real-life, ego-crushing humiliations. And yet, who was the TV character I secretly wanted people to think of when they met me?  Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes. She was funnier than any of those big-city brunchers. 

Before now, that was the closest I ever got to comparing Seinfeld and Sex and the City. The humor on the two shows and the New York their characters inhabited seemed to operate in disparate spheres. That had something do with the shows airing in different decades (Seinfeld ended its nine-season run in 1998, the year SATC began), and something to do with SATC having the freedom to show sex, thanks to pay cable. But when looked at broadly, the shows do, in fact, reveal commonalities, at least superficially. Seinfeld and SATC both center on four thirtysomething single friends. They all slept around — with more people than was culturally acceptable — and spent the next day dissecting their partners and sexual escapades (in inspired euphemisms, in the case of Seinfeld, and with shocking explicitness in the case of SATC). Both shows memorably tackled masturbation (Seinfeld’s “contest” episode versus SATC’s “Rabbit”), the perils of talking dirty in bed (Jerry’s: “You mean the panties your mother laid out for you?” versus Miranda’s “You just love a finger in your ass”), and threesomes (George, who suggests one in a ploy to break up with a girlfriend, versus Charlotte, who considers one to please a dream guy).

Each show has a recurring conceit: Jerry Seinfeld, who plays a stand-up comedian modeled on himself, often starts and ends an episode with a relevant snippet of his act; Carrie Bradshaw, who is a columnist for a local paper (just as Candace Bushnell wrote the “Sex and the City” column for the New York Observer), “couldn’t help but wonder” aloud as she types her weekly essay on an iBook. While Seinfeld introduced perhaps more catchphrases into the American vernacular than any other show in history, Sex and the City did the same in its own way, transforming once-elite brands like Manolo Blahnik or the Magnolia Bakery into household names with mass appeal. Of course, the most obvious similarity is that they both take place in New York City — and not in the generic version of the city used by most Manhattan-set sitcoms, like Friends, which seemed to take place here simply for the instant urban hipness the name implies. Seinfeld and Sex and the City were written with a level of specificity that made real New Yorkers wonder if anyone outside the city could truly ever get it. In the case of Seinfeld, that insider-y level of detail came to life through its characters — the kinds of locals who talk like Jews even if they aren’t — and the “only in New York” situations they often found themselves in: George’s daylong feud over a parking spot, Elaine’s frustrating loss of a 212 area code, and (controversially) the Puerto Rican Day Parade. It was about the idea of New York and the frustrations it provides, so it never mattered that it looked like it was shot on a Hollywood lot, which it was. Glamour had nothing to do with Seinfeld’s Upper West Side world, where people spend their Saturday nights with Chinese food and a movie because they aren’t cool enough to be sipping cosmos at Bungalow 8. But on SATC, New York was a character, and one that you needed to fall for as hard as Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte had. The show painted Manhattan with the glossy sheen of the moneyed metropolis it was fast becoming, staying as on trend as these fantastically chic women with their glamorous jobs: sex columnist! PR exec! gallerina! So naturally the real estate had to evolve, too: Samantha leaves her stodgy Upper East Side building for a sprawling loft in the gentrifying meatpacking district; Miranda ultimately leaves Manhattan, in the final season, for a Brooklyn brownstone. The show was shot all over the city and was an integral part of New York’s popularity, even creating mini tourist industries in Lower Manhattan.

The differences between the shows are, of course, more obvious and dramatic, from the brand of humor each used to the number of cameras employed (SATC was a single-camera series at a times when multi-camera was still de rigueur) to the aesthetic of the local diners where the ensembles met to the now-abrasive roar of Seinfeld’s studio audience. Sex and the City began as a bawdy sex comedy, but eventually transformed into a more poignant examination of the search for love and all the bullshit of dating that gets in the way of finding it. The show felt most like a sitcom during the lighter and funnier first three seasons. Admittedly, a lot of the laughs came from how shocking the language sounded. We forget, but women “didn’t talk that way” back in 1998, at least not on TV: modelizers, Mr. Pussy, and anal sex all got hilarious play. But by the fourth season, Miranda is pregnant, Charlotte is struggling with infertility and divorce, Carrie is breaking up with Aidan after his proposal, and the show is transitioning from a fizzy romp to an epic will-they-or-won’t-they soap opera. Friendship, not marriage, becomes the most important relationship in the women’s lives. It’s not that the show didn’t have laughs anymore (Miranda on motherhood is classic), they just weren’t as important.

That kind of feel-good, friends-to-the-end attitude was, of course, what Seinfeld was defiantly against — even if, ultimately, these four pals were friends to the end. Creators Seinfeld and Larry David had no interest in sentimentality or the deeper issues that sitcom writers like to hang a plot on. There were parents, neighbors, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and co-workers, but they existed as comedy fodder for the four main characters to kibitz and bicker over endlessly, along with the now-legendary minutiae that fill our lives and obsess us: forgetting where you parked your car in a mall garage, or getting stuck in coach when your best friend is in first class, or even debating the hierarchy of toes. (“The big toe is, after all, the Captain of the Toes,” Jerry tells George.) Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer famously never grew; they weren’t searching for life experiences or true love or babies. (They didn’t even want to see babies.) As the show went on, the characters became more absurd, less like the real people they started out as and more like caricatures. But to the end, it was their overreactions to the small things, and their underreactions to life’s big events, that made us laugh. That and the fact that their pettiness inevitably smacked them in the ass. They are all, essentially, screw-ups, even Jerry, the successful comedian. And as played by Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards, they became the masters of their screw-up domain. (Stout, balding, nebbishy George Costanza is still, for many Americans, the prototypical loser.) As witty and clever as the writing could be, so much of the comedy came from the expressions and mannerisms of this peerless ensemble.

I can’t imagine anyone other than Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, and Kristin Davis as the friends on Sex and the City; they, too, comprise a perfect ensemble. But what struck me when I was comparing the shows was the debt their characters owe Elaine. She may never have been trendy or fashionable — she rocked loafers with white socks! — and she didn’t hang out with New York’s elite, but Elaine certainly dated and bedded as many men as Charlotte, Miranda, or Carrie. (“The Sponge” is named after Elaine’s desperation to buy a last supply of discontinued contraceptive sponges; it spawned the word sponge-worthy — as in, is a guy worthy of the last of her vanishing sponges?) The difference was that Elaine’s single status didn’t define her, nor did her sex. That’s partly because Seinfeld gave Elaine more to do; we saw aspects of her life that existed well beyond dating and relationships (jobs at Pendant Publishing and the J. Peterman catalogue, quarrels with Chinese deliverymen and the Soup Nazi) — but also because of the way the brilliant Louis-Dreyfus played her: She’s as assertive, opinionated, intelligent, neurotic, easily pissed off, emotionally superficial (in “The Stall,” she wonders how long she needs to stay with a boyfriend after he mangles his face in an accident), and, most important, as hilarious as her three male friends. So while never becoming the prototypical single woman, à la Carrie Bradshaw (Seinfeld was allergic to the emotional issues that would require), I’d argue that Elaine is still the funniest and ballsiest representation of a single white female on television. (Liz Lemon, who is often compared to Mary Tyler Moore, is another child of Elaine Benes.)

By the end of its run, Sex and the City felt more like a drama with funny moments than a comedy. The writers were more interested in moving us to tears than making us laugh. In that last episode, when Mr. Big finally tells Carrie “you’re the one” under the starry Paris sky, the writers took only tiny stabs at making it funny. Seinfeld, by contrast, never came within a mile of earnest. Its goal was comedy all the way. The show’s humor got as dark as a network comedy could get (recall “The Invitation,” in which George inadvertently kills his fiancée by buying cheap envelopes with toxic glue), but its irreverent focus on comedy — caricature, slapstick, buffoonery, et al. — prevented it from ever becoming bleak. In fact, thanks to them, failure has never been so captivating: We fall down, we get up, we fall down again, and never, ever learn a thing — other than another way to laugh about it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

WINNER: Seinfeld

Yael Kohen is the New York–based author of We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.