Now don’t get me wrong, Citizen Kane’s good. I ain’t one of those classic film haters. I respect its innovations in sound design, cinematography, and narrative structure, but do you get how amazing the 1989 to 1998 television series Seinfeld is?
The NBC sitcom is one of the funniest television shows ever created (and according to some, no less than the best show ever). In terms of laughs-per-minute and the shelf-life of jokes, few shows could even compete with Seinfeld before the modern explosion in television quality this last decade. For nine seasons it created and innovated and made people laugh.
And I’m not sure if people realize how difficult it is to do that. Have you ever tried to write a joke? It’s hard. Telling a joke while you’re eating lunch with friends is easy. Being the funny-guy on a regular basis is more difficult but doable. Yet writing a joke from scratch to deliver to people you don’t know and making it funny enough to appeal to all of them is near impossible. Moreover, while writing jokes is the most important part of writing a good sitcom, there’s even more that goes into the task—check out this video for some of the difficulties of maintaining the most popular show on television for multiple years.
Now there are a thousand reasons we regularly discuss movies like Citizen Kane as the greatest of all time over shows like Seinfeld, but for just a moment I want to put one of those reasons before you: genre bias.
Genre bias is assigning some sort of worth or importance—or maybe even nobility—to art of a certain kind. Typically for movies, we revere dramas, tragedies, and occasionally romance and thrillers over against comedies, action, science-fiction, and other “genre films.” We can see genre bias at play in the Academy Awards—sci-fi/fantasy combined only have two Best Picture winners, horrors have none, and the rom-com hasn’t won since 1934.
And it’s not just those snobbish critics; we do it too. We may enjoy a good comedy more than a tragedy but when asked which is better, Dead Poet Society or the first Hangover, we shuffle our feet and bashfully reply, “Well I suppose Dead Poet Society is.”
We’re trained to value high art from an early age. This sort of training is done explicitly in school as curriculums are filled with tragedies and likely the most recent comedy to reach a student’s desk is The Taming of the Shrew. We’re also trained implicitly through a culture that gives importance to “serious” things.
To an extent, that emphasis makes sense and I’m on board. There’s something to be learned about the human experience in the more noble genres, and done well they can be comparably entertaining. But, to dismiss the obvious skill and achievement displayed in well-executed comedies and inventive blockbusters is nothing short of presumptuous.
I don’t expect an episode of Seinfeld to top AFI’s 100 best movies, but I hope for people to be able to appreciate the craft and mastery of writing displayed in every episode of that show. Nine seasons of brilliance—that at least puts it on par with Citizen Kane.