Over the holidays I had the great pleasure of watching the Seinfeld reunion story arc on the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s about to disappear from Comcast OnDemand, presumably to traipse off to the increasingly less-profitable domains of the DVD. But not only did the perfect reanimation of Seinfeldian celebration of nothing get around the impossible task of going home again, it made Curb glow in a way I never quite got before.
Jerry Seinfeld’s role inside the HBO show hewed to Curb’s central premise: that the “actors” improvise rather than read scripted lines. The situations are prepared, but not the actual interplay. In so doing, the onus shifts from the writer to the performer. For Larry David, whose persona and comic style is to set up some premise and then toy with his victims the way our cats play with a mole in the bathtub, this produces an expected effect of comic competence but not brilliance.
Comic actors fare reasonably well in this laboratory, especially well when they are playing themselves as do the Seinfeld cast. Comic actors as they are, they find their attitude as “themselves” then riff off of their characters to inform the elements of their essence. Kramer once again rockets through Jerry’s door as if suspended in mid-air, while the others lock in as though ten minutes, not years, have passed. At this point, the experiment is already successful. Now the question: what to do with it?
Slowly the surprising answer emerges with Seinfeld himself, never the most convincing actor as much as the exacting Chief Technology Officer of Comedy. His performance, now as then, on the show within the show is acceptable, a kind of George Burns turn that sets the stage for the action that swirls around him. But then there’s the revelation, as Seinfeld the improviser in the “real” reunion scenes achieves this incredible smile-glint limber comic feel that transcends everything he’s done both on the show and in stand-up. His interrogation of Larry’s endless bullshit is miraculous in its relentless massaging of a revolutionary comic platform.
These scenes, and they emerge subtly over the course of the season’s episodes, are so inspired that they make the job of making the reunion show itself hold up almost trivial. Of course, everything from the sets to the cameos by Newman and the read-through and the sub-plots involving the Curb regulars, it’s all blended together perfectly. But rising above that is Seinfeld with this gleam in his eye as he realizes (in a documentary feature about the filming) that something has been invented that moves ahead rather than just honor the past.
It’s as though The Beatles reformed somehow and it worked, although a good case can be made that Abbey Road was just that. Watching Mick Jagger duet with Bono on a U2 song at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert is another example of this magic, as he transforms a blues balled into something that hangs timeless in midair. Avatar in 3D is yet another gathering of technology and creative force that reaches an unexpected grace in even the simplest moments. So many glimpses beyond the usual in any year are the mark of something fundamental going on.
Despite the noise of those who disparage social media while trying to milk it, the network keeps expanding as if in the aftermath of some Big Bang we are so close to we can’t perceive it directly. Is it really so difficult to recognize how completely realtime devices have altered how we live? The brilliance of Avatar is the underlying message that if we can model how advanced reality will look and feel, we are essentially creating it at that moment. The computing devices used to render those scenes are soon to be reduced to silicon and rendered on hardware directly, thereby making science fiction science fact.
But the thrill of technology in and of itself does not begin to speak to the power of the network. Realtime is just a word to represent the visceral charge we get by seeing the needle dance when we post and someone responds. There’s a joy in collaboration, the moment when something more basic and common to the players infuses the work with a sense of something bigger than ourselves. The nod of oh, you saw that too. The eyes going cold with anger or distant with resignation. The boundaries of friendship torn away to reveal a simple energy where even the tumult is less important than the struggle to retain whatever friendship is or has been.
The idea of the iSlate or whatever the Kindle has unleashed is a good one, perhaps a game-changer for the people who make stuff to read, watch, and listen to. For us as the entertained, it is probably an iterative point along the march to the location-aware router that matches the screen to the environment and the content to the affinity-based priorities of our filters. John Borthwick’s analysis/hunches about the economic factors on the Gillmor Gang is informed with experience, leverage, and an awareness of the ongoing conversation about these issues.
During the show, I usually don’t have time to monitor the chat room, leaving that to scan later. When Mike Arrington switched topics to Avatar, a few grumbles surfaced from those who think movies, politics, or anything but hardcore API talk is a mistake. The question of what the show is or is trying to accomplish has always been difficult to answer, but with the convergence of computer, phone, and tablet now underway, the answer has never been more interesting. Everybody is asking the same question: VCs, app developers, once-relevant leaders of the technology revolution, even Dave Winer. Is this show biz or no biz, it’s getting boiled down to.
Borthwick wears a number of these hats simultaneously, so it’s great fun to ask him the same old questions and see what happens. Is RSS dead? No, it’s just moved into the background. Does it have an economic model? No, Twitter doesn’t have an economic model. How do you establish the authority model that Bit.ly uses to rank relevance and quality output? You’ll need to watch the show or at least that part to get the nuances of his answers. But what comes through in realtime 3D is that some of us are very excited about what these surfaces are enabling. As we wind down to the last hours of this dreadful enthralling year, let’s give thanks to the men and women who struggle to humanize technology and have some fun doing it.