30 Years of Seinfeld: All Hail the “Lord of the Idiots” George Costanza

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30 Years of Seinfeld: All Hail the “Lord of the Idiots” George Costanza

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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n the eleventh episode of Seinfeld’s sixth season after George unintentionally lands Jerry the company of two women, he asks his friend, elated, “Don’t you ever just get down on your knees and thank God that you know me and have access to my dementia?” That is George Costanza for you. His plans don’t end where they are supposed to, but he finds his little, bittersweet destinations in them anyway. George doesn’t take himself any more seriously than the people around him. On the show, he described himself as “lord of the idiots”. His friend Elaine calls him “slow-witted”, Kramer called him “spineless”. Jerry, perhaps the only one who understood George called him “duplicitous”. Played by Jason Alexander, George Costanza hit TV screens exactly 30 years ago. For every self-regarding, ripped male Adonis on television, George’s consistency with incompetence and failure has served as the grounding tug of middle-age realism.

Costanza, named after one of comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s friends and based largely on the show’s co-creator Larry David (who called himself a “loser”) is a man down on his luck, his wits and pretty much anything else fate can snatch from you. George stumbles into situations, more than he ever pursues them. He is unlikeable, undependable, all heart and mouth without the head and the hair. He doesn’t have his friend Jerry’s (Jerry Seinfelds) charisma, his friend Kramer’s eccentrically charming worldview, or Elaine’s zeal for life. George is a handwritten note you write to yourself and forget because you move onto more interesting things. He is the kind of character who needs the lens of observation, rather than empathy to emerge. And that is what Seinfeld, a show presumably about “nothing” did. It centralised a total bum, a man out of his depth with the world and perennially on the brink of farce.

It is now unthinkable that in the shadow of pristine, likeable ensembles like Friends, Seinfeld demanded the world to deal with the rough-cuts of manic sub-mediocrity, the kind that repeatedly manifests in everyday life. George can’t get women to like him. When they do, he can’t trust them enough. George can’t get work. If he gets any he can’t keep up. In every equation, variables of George’s failings changed according to his paranoia and anxiety. The only constant was the inevitable evisceration of love, lust, prospects, faith and hope. Even George’s parents didn’t like him for the cynic he is. “My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be,” he tells Jerry. But even when that life is flipped for the better, George cannot handle the expectations, the shift from his comfort zone of a participating underdog; a zone within which he can set the bar comfortably low. All because he knows who he is. 

Life is about survival for most. Key to that survival is an empirical estimation of the heights you can hit, the targets you can chase and the potholes you are better off not trying to leap over. Through the nine seasons of the show, George failed at pretty much everything he tried. Even his attempt to save the high-score on a frogger machine, that could have become a synonym for salvation, goes up in flames. George accomplishes nothing, but he doesn’t particularly yearn for anything either. He survives, and to him, like perhaps most of us that is all there is to life; that all there is going to be. He moves from one anxiety attack to another, constantly reminded and comforted by the mediocre built of his instruments. Perhaps it is just better knowing your distance from the sky than knowing the chances of you becoming a star.   

He is unlikeable, undependable, all heart and mouth without the head and the hair.

We live in a world where we are bombarded with cosmetic perfection. We have been raised on heroes and we are suckers for a good rags-to-riches story, however temporary. It, therefore, stresses us that we never match up to these silver-foiled narratives of distinction. Our salaries are never enough, our savings, our partners, our houses, even our history at times. Our aspirations arrive before us, like a prefix you cannot shake. And we spend lifetimes petrified about never crossing certain socio-political bars. To George none of that mattered. It was okay for him that he wasn’t as magnetic, as talented, as successful or as motivated as people around him. It was okay to be paranoid, inept or thoroughly flustered by the complexities of life. Not that he didn’t try, but whatever George did to gain, he lost. Whatever he tried to protect, he had to surrender. 

A couple of years ago when I left a cushy IT job, I realised I wasn’t cut out for the suit, its length and breadth I couldn’t find comfort in. There was a certain joy to giving up, not on yourself but on an aspect of life, a puzzle that you could neither bring yourself to solve nor take pleasure in.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld in carving a character like George was that he was mindful of his place in the world. He didn’t try to become Jerry. In the event that that seemed likely, George felt out of his element, uncomfortable that life would suddenly turn around rather than flip him over like it had been doing since birth. “I feel like my old self again. Neurotic, paranoid, totally inadequate, completely insecure. It’s a pleasure,” he tells Jerry. His antics may have been for comedy but George’s life was rife with failure, a perpetually closed gateway to better pastures. Pastures whose elusiveness never forced him to closet his grief or feed on it. George’s shell may not have reared oysters inside it but it did cultivate grit, the kind that is groomed in last-chance-salons. He was perpetually on the brink, but only he could manage living there, survive nonetheless, scraping through, making do, manoeuvring as needed. That is what life is like, isn’t it, because there is more George in each of us than there is Jerry.

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