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’s battle, the last of the first round: Essayist Carina Chocano compares two generations of comedies about New York stand-up comics: Seinfeld and Louie. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.
Before I pit Louie against its obvious comedy progenitor, Seinfeld (a drinking game based on spotting their similarities would be fairly lethal), I need to reveal a preexisting condition, which is that my relationship with Louie got a little intense and obsessive for a while, and it’s still fresh, and it still haunts me, so the thought of exposing its raw, quivering underbelly to the steely-spiky carapace of Seinfeld’s cultural domination freaks me out.
It’s natural to feel protective of Louie, I think. The show operates (in direct contrast to Seinfeld) from a place of almost excruciating vulnerability that all but demands overidentification. You either don’t like/get it, or you find yourself unable to locate the membrane that separates you from it. Some of this is achieved aesthetically: Louis C.K. writes, directs, edits, scores, and stars as a version of himself in every episode, and as a result the show could not be more personal or auteurishly intimate. Ironically, the unprecedented (I’m pretty sure) level of control C.K. wrested from FX may be a direct result of his experience making Lucky Louie for HBO. The latter show was a meta-sitcom that tried to upend standard sitcom conventions while adhering to them, which is what Seinfeld did for almost a decade ten years earlier, back when it still felt fresh and relevant. (Seinfeld also revolutionized the form with its multiple story lines, blowing up the six-scene template, setting the stage for giddy, spinning pancake platters of narrative like 30 Rock and Arrested Development, and introduced more memes and catchphrases into the culture and the lexicon than possibly any other show, ever.) But poking at the carcass of a bygone art form lo these many years later feels not-so-fresh, which is why Seinfeld, despite its obvious and dazzling brilliance, feels very much like an artifact of it’s time, while Louie feels like it was hauled in, still thrashing, on a trawler this morning.
That’s the thing: Beyond aesthetics, the gulf between Louie and Seinfeld is actually epochal. Each show is so consummately of its era, and the moments they reflect are so fundamentally different, that comparing them feels a bit like a metaphysical exercise. If Seinfeld was the spirit animal of that Arcadian Eden, the nineties, then Louie is its Miltonian compliment: It’s Seinfeld after the fall. Despite their many and obvious similarities, what has shifted — radically — is our frame of reference. Just as Louie could not have existed without Seinfeld, Seinfeld could never have envisioned a world in which Louie was conceivable. It’s the unbroken line of descent, the obvious natural progression from one to the other that makes the historical disruption between them really pop.
Maybe it’s best to start with the shows’ parallels. Seinfeld and Louie are quasi-autobiographical comedies about and written by stand-up comedians who live in New York — Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K., respectively (failed comic Larry David co-created Seinfeld). Both protagonists mine their experiences and their daily lives for material. Both use moments from their stand-up routines to frame each episode thematically. Both are single and date in an aimless, desultory way. Both have female best friends who at one time were more than friends, or might have been more than friends, or are women the comedians wish were more than friends. Both are likable and immature and spend a lot of their time puzzling over the incomprehensible, exasperating, and far too often soul-crushing actions of others.
Now the differences: Seinfeld’s characters obsess over trivialities at the expense of what matters, while Louie can’t get through breakfast without confronting terrifying existential questions. Seinfeld is shameless; Louie is steeped in shame. Seinfeld shuts down feelings as a way of staving off death; Louie is thoroughly eschatological, awash in abjection and horror at the thought of growing old. It’s right there in the theme song, Reggie Watts’s reworked, more pessimistic version of the classic Hot Chocolate hit: He’s gonna cry and then he’s gonna die. Compare that to the blithe, zippy Seinfeld theme, the musical equivalent of water bouncing off a duck’s ass — in stereo!
Seinfeld was famously described as a show about nothing, but it’s probably more accurate to say that it was a show about nothingness, about the utter insignificance, triviality, pointlessness, and emptiness of life. It was the most nihilist show ever to appear on television until then, and probably since. I’m not just talking about the oft-cited “no hugging and no learning” part, a jab at the schmaltzier sitcom conventions of the day. I mean that it was dedicated to negating pretty much everything people associate with meaning and happiness. What made Seinfeld so transgressive was that, when confronted with the impossibility of human connection, it shrugged its shoulders and poured itself a bowl of cereal. It’s not just that there is no sentimentality on Seinfeld: There is no love. Jerry and his trio of friends — Elaine, George, and Kramer — break up with people like it’s nothing, like time won’t pass. The lightness, the zingers, the catchphrases, and the laugh track diverted our attention from the radical bleakness of this. That the show pulled it off (for nine seasons, most of them as one of Nielsen’s top two network shows)? It’s really nothing short of amazing.
Louie, on the other hand, is a show about everything; about the unbearable too-muchness of life. Whipsawed between his urges and his ideals, his crankiness and humanism, Louie struggles to figure out how to live (and raise his children) the right way in a world that rewards living wrong. Louie’s unflagging alertness to the existential conundrums of being human is exhausting. Every day he confronts his mortality, bumps up against his limitations, and faces the disorienting, terrifying effects of time. He is our perpetual witness to the grotesque and the ecstatically beautiful. How can he reconcile the bag-clad homeless guy giving himself a rudimentary bath on the subway platform as a beautiful young violinist plays nearby? Or the heroic kindness of his good Samaritan neighbors, who come to his aid when his pregnant sister wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, her suffering abruptly cured by a five-alarm/false-alarm fart? (It’s worth noting that the fart isn’t given the last word, nor does it snuff out the beauty from the moment.) He can’t. And it’s his ability to see and contain both that makes his shitty, middle-aged life beautiful, even sublime. For a show about a bald and sweaty masturbator who gives his daughter the finger behind her back after she tells him that she loves her mommy more, it’s deeply, almost single-mindedly moral. So a lot of the time it’s not funny ha-ha. It’s probably — how’s this for a ringing endorsement? — as sad as anything you’ve ever seen.
Seinfeld’s characters are famously, aggressively callous and indifferent to the human condition. What consumes them is the minutiae of everyday life, which speaks to their privilege and their dangerous insularity. Their lives are lived in such a carefree, a-historical, inconsequential bubble that even their neuroses — maybe especially their neuroses — seem buoyed by the economic and social stability of the nineties. But if Seinfeld’s characters were oblivious, the show itself was not. It reflected an especially blithe, blinkered, hubristic moment in America with mordant insight, and in its way suggested that it couldn’t last. The much-maligned finale, which saw Jerry and his friends jailed for “criminal indifference” and locked in a cell No Exit–style, felt unsatisfying at the time, but looking back it feels almost prescient. As he hands down his sentence, the judge says, “Your callous disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built.” And, indeed, whether or not their callous disregard (or ours) had anything to do with it, the world changed dramatically within a few short years.
Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were never burdened with big questions. They were simple creatures, guileless somehow, even at their most conniving. In fact, with their big teeth, springy hair, furrowed noses, and eyes both doelike and beady, they resembled nothing so much as a bevy of cartoon woodland creatures, ageless and sexless: a weird rabbit and his friends, the demented woodchuck, the rabid chipmunk, and the deer in the headlights. They implicated us in their sociopathic misanthropy, and we loved them for it. We reveled in their nihilism because it let us off the hook — which is just the kind of thing that would make Louie’s brow crumple. Personally, I like Louie better — at least I like Louie better right now, in this moment, knowing what I know. It’s as Zeitgeist-y as it’s possible to be in this far more fragmented moment. Would I have liked it as much back when Seinfeld ruled supreme, would I have liked it more? It’s impossible to say, really. We were all a lot lighter back then, psychically, spiritually, and otherwise. Plus, this smackdown is genre-specific, and it seems to me that there’s no doubt that Seinfeld is the culmination of the genre, whereas Louie may have moved beyond it entirely, into a post-sitcom era. Can we really even call Louie a sitcom? I have my doubts, unless the situation is that one day you’ll be dead.
Carina Chocano is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine. She recapped Real Housewives for Vulture. She lives in Los Angeles.