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. The semifinals conclude today with author David Lipsky deciding who will go against Cheers for the ultimate title: Seinfeld or The Simpsons. 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.
It was always coming to this: the two big brawlers clomping into the same alley. The two best shows of the nineties. And really, the two best comedies we’ve had. The Stones versus the Beatles. Dashing JFK running against not Nixon but Teddy Kennedy. (The Simpsons is the wild, drunk, bouncing-on-its-head Teddy, the comedy version of Seinfeld's JFK. The rock-jawed features and all internal crumble.) Hemingway said this about Huckleberry Finn: “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” That’s the big fellows: Seinfeld and The Simpsons.
The network era’s last great comedies; the end of that plush ride, before TV flapped out of the habitat, leaving an empty marsh of 30-second spots and block programming, and before the slick midnight drama took over defining the way we see ourselves. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper: They’re Jerry and Homer with the comedy scraped away; me, my family, an assortment of co-workers face stuff together. Maybe the combination of stomach-pincher war and Worst President Ever and the financial slurry (always February but never Valentines) left us too cramped for humor to be central. You stopped thinking, I resemble Jerry. Or, In certain ways, yes, there are elements of Homer to be found in me, I believe. Now it is: I wouldn’t confide this to my wife, but I am Walter White. If the shit finally comes down, when shoulder presses wall, there is nothing I wouldn’t do. (The funny thing about The Walking Dead — what makes it in conception funny — is that it’s the other dramas with the metaphor sheared off. You turn on Breaking Bad and think, That’s me, if everything went to hell. The only way Walking Dead could be more direct was if the sets included pitchforks and sulfur.)
Even our strongest comedies — the Michael Scott Office, Arrested Development, Archer — are compromised, anxious. The central joke is the non-competence of the face at the head desk. (On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon frets about not being qualified for her job. A friend’s consolation: “This is America. None of us are supposed to be here.”) And Louie and Girls take place in a tidal pool of the seventies, a recovery zone of not enough sleep or money and optional showers. It’s wobbly, hangover, bedhead. The Simpsons and Seinfeld are how we looked to ourselves when the sun was still out. It’s why their jokes remain so Olympianly well formed: They hail from a era when the world featured enough time and calm.
Either winner would mean the scores got tallied wrong. And if you accomplished your second growing-up — the adult one of relationships and leases — during the nineties, there’s a statistical Seinfeld loyalty bias that has to be corrected for.
I thought I'd watch each show’s best five episodes. This quickly proved impossible, since after some rickety taxiing and runway work, for nine seasons they’re both pretty much all best episodes. For what it’s worth, my Seinfelds would’ve been the perfectly designed jewel boxes: “The Fusilli Jerry,” “The Bizarro Jerry,” “The Little Kicks,” “The Fatigues,” “The Betrayal.” With The Simpsons, “Mr. Plow,” “Rosebud,” “HOMR,” “Lemon of Troy,” “You Only Move Twice” (the great 007 backdrop show, wherein Homer’s new boss is a Bond villain who speaks in bluff warm management cliché: “My butt is for sitting, not for kissing.” Homer accidentally disposes of James Bond and discovers a sound motivational technique: “Doughnuts — and the possibility of more doughnuts to come.”) I watched whole seasons; it was the happiest I've been in months. A better treat-yourself weekend than shotgunning a drama like House of Cards. Eight hours of House of Cards makes you feel imprinted, like a mattress the show has slept in. Eight hours of Seinfeld or The Simpsons is like being jagged in the head by lightning. You walk outside with clear eyes, lighter tongue, keener mind.
Each show was hunting something radical. The first Seinfeld I ever saw was the season-two classic “The Deal.” (And before we press on, let’s consider the assurance and elegance in those titles; every episode, that doughty the. Right from the start, they were tooling out a high-end, unified product line.) I was straightening a room. Onscreen, Jerry and Elaine were negotiating the marshy ground rules of post-relationship sex. It was such a big jump for TV that I remember the weather outside the window. I sat on the corner of the bed. It wasn’t just the sexual frankness — and no series was ever smoother at showing how to discuss sex in official company. The emotional forthrightness was the thrilling part. This was going to be a show you could use to explain how you feel.
The Simpsons’ agenda was more radical: pure comedy. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld’s co-creators, were former stand-ups. You and a mike at the end of a club. Pressing yourself forward, finding the stuff inside that’s relatable instantly. Fox had decided to make a show out of Matt Groening’s cheerfully dead-end comic strip “Life in Hell”; producers booked talent out of the Harvard Lampoon and from Harvard-equivalent colleges. There’s a photo of the famous early staff: skinny faces, shy eyes, it looks like a reunion of the Backgammon Club.
So what The Simpsons immediately offered was how the world looked to extremely intelligent people in whom high school had perhaps encouraged skepticism and unconfidence. The result is a chaos of noisy, less-intelligent people holding onto authority by bullying and jargon. Cops and doctors are incompetent; the bartender keeps caged pandas. No straight men; everyone is funny. It wasn’t so much an observational show as one written by ear. When Seinfeld does a parody movie title, it’s something like Sack Lunch or Agent Zero. You nod. Pretty good, yeah, that does sound like a movie. When The Simpsons does this, it’s so exact it stops you. A romantic comedy called Love Is Nice. Homer visits an experimental lab named the Screaming Monkey Medical Research Center. The show is so tight, these jokes come within 30 seconds of each other. The comedy of the particular dialect any job and worldview locks you into; it’s something that writing staff hears too. Lisa Simpson provides timely advice to an in-crisis TV producer. “That’s it, little girl,” he says. “You’ve saved Itchy and Scratchy!” A lawyer steps forward: “Please sign these papers indicating that you did not save Itchy and Scratchy.” Hideous space aliens, impersonating the presidential candidates, are unmasked before a startled crowd. “It's true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It’s a two-party system: You have to vote for one of us.” Human crowd-member: “Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.” Alien: “Go ahead — throw your vote away.”
What Seinfeld and David heard with special fidelity were the surprising things their heads said. The inner world, not the outer. George to Jerry: “She just dislikes me so much, it’s irresistible. A woman who hates me this much comes along once in a lifetime.” Jerry to Elaine: “You’re attracted to him because he can’t remember anything about you.” Elaine: “But that’s so sick.” Jerry: “That’s God’s plan. He doesn’t really want anyone to get together.” Jerry meets a woman — she’s more or less a female him — he can finally love, and reports, “I just realized; I know what I've been looking for all these years. Myself. I've been waiting for me to come along, and now I’ve swept myself off my feet.” A few scenes later: “I realized what the problem is: I can’t be with someone like me. I hate myself.”
Both shows heated and decorated our conversations. People crow “Woo hoo!” with the footnote omitted; they’ve forgotten they’re quoting Homer. And his signature “D’oh!” has joined the thumbable, scalloped pages of the dictionaries. Seinfeld gave us re-gift, spongeworthy, close talker, master of my domain, the pop-in, the vault, yadda yadda yadda (the only bad one), relationship george, hipster doofus, the I-love-you return. And a lovely phrase for tears: Jerry swatting at his eyes, his first emotional experience — “What is this salty discharge?” The totalitarian dream of observational comedy. You’d reach back for a concept — sift through the back of your head — and what you came up with would be Seinfeld.
A lot of this was about sex, which goes mostly unexplored in the Simpsons world; it’s an available Springfield good, like Itchy and Scratchy or Duff Beer. (One of The Simpsons best-known lines: “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”) Seinfeld did its part to fell trees and pave valleys for our current porn highway system, the envy of the world. There was “The Contest,” about who could resist masturbation the longest. (It holds the No. 1 position on TV Guide’s “100 Best Episodes of All Time”; accepting the best writing Emmy, Larry David told his audience, “This is all very well and good, but I’m still bald.”) There were men shy about oral sex (“He doesn’t like to do … everything”), faked orgasms (“sexual perjury”), make-up sex (“the best feature of the heavy relationship”), conjugal visit sex (runner-up only to fugitive sex), dirty talk, plagiarized sex moves, the effects of abstinence (bonus for men, detrimental to women), shrinkage. (Elaine: “It shrinks? I don’t know how you guys walk around with those things.”) More viewer loyalty — a sort of Berlin Wall collapse between what matters in private and what matters in public.
The Simpsons, when it covered relationships, sticks to the quick and funny. “Homer,” Marge asks, “Is this the way you pictured married life?” “Pretty much. Except we drove around in a van solving mysteries.” The writers deployed its travel advantage as an animated show: to Australia, to the space shuttle, to the future. It’s compiled an astonishing record for celebrity pop-ins; the Wikipedia page dedicated to the guests — Stephen Hawking, Anthony Bourdain, Julian Assange — reads as weird pop history, an abstract and brief chronicle of the time. And the show, over its decades, has blobbed into every corner, situation, dialect: corporate retreats, environmentalism, many kinds of convention, cruise ships, reality show, cable argument show, Japanese product design. As Seinfeld narrowed to one island, The Simpsons covered the world.
Seinfeld has an overall story; it’s connected to the show’s recurring joke, abrupt genre immersion. Kramer takes a corporate job; Jerry instantly becomes a nagging, ignored wife; Kramer a harried salaryman (“You know this is my crazy time”). The series’ overall story doesn’t happen to either of them; they don’t change, you sit and watch time add meat to their faces. And it doesn’t happen to Elaine, who in later years the series treats with a mystifying hostility. The overall story happens to George. It’s about someone trying — and failing — to leave their tribe. George nearly marries. And as he’s getting engaged, Kramer tells Jerry, “You asked yourselves, ‘Isn’t there something more to life?’ Well, let me clue you in to something: There isn’t. What are you thinking about? Marriage? Family? They’re prisons. Man-made prisons.” The story is about not submitting, in life, to the one particular genre of any single relationship. This is what Larry David understood by ending the series behind actual bars. To never accept the one choice turns out to be the opposite of freeing.
So how do you choose? Seinfeld and David have always claimed that their show was about nothing. This is of course untrue, and it’s the kind of bad map and anti-personnel device artists sometimes scatter behind themselves, to make sure no one successfully follows. Four stories in 24 minutes that curl and twist to the same point; Seinfeld is the perfect sitcom. Which it still feels like. Watch it on DVD, and when it goes to act break, you brace for commercials; the familiar sets, incidental music, laugh track, flat lighting — everything cues you. The Simpsons is The Simpsons, its own thing, and that’s led to live-action Simpsons like Arrested Development and Community, plus animated Simpsons like Family Guy, South Park, as well as Archer, right now TV’s funniest show. And there’s the specter of Jerry himself: He’s become a sideline figure, queerly neutralized by success. You see him on talk shows, on his own Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If time ran backward, would you watch a show about this man?
Both shows were born in 1989; nine years later, Seinfeld tipped over its king, the other show continued to play. I was watching a Simpsons crowd scene and realized I recognized nearly every face; a townscape entirely filled in, populated by stories you know — an amazing thing to have pulled off. (The Simpsons is TV’s longest-running series. Twenty-four years, 523 episodes, 191 hours; by another standard, the math is perverse, since it means more than two decades of full-tilt work by teams of professionals at the top of their fields amounts to only eight solid days. That’s how long it takes to build a world.) In “HOMR,” Homer heads to the Screaming Monkey Research Center with a problem: He’s had his intelligence increased, it’s made Springfield life impossible. On the plus side, he reads more and has bonded with his bright daughter, Lisa. On the debit, he can no longer enjoy town, church, job, bar, movie theater. He’s ejected from Love Is Nice — “Point out your plot holes elsewhere!”— and moans to heaven, “Is there no place for the man with the 105 IQ?” Think what a dark, Harvard joke that really is. He returns home his old self, surgically dimmed, to Lisa’s dismay. She finds a note. Lisa: I’m taking the coward’s way out. But before I do, I just wanted to say being smart made me appreciate just how amazing you really are. Only one show could pull off that tonal shift: meanness defused by humor diluted by clarity and smoothed into warmth. As the Coen Brothers say in A Serious Man, a sad family comedy of their own, “Accept the mystery.”
Winner: The Simpsons
David Lipsky is the author of the books Absolutely American and Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.