Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My Neck is One Gargantuan Monkey Fist

Once known as the sitcom about nothing, Seinfeld is now notorious. While millions of viewers once tuned in to watch the seemingly benign banter between Jerry, George, Elaine, and Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld no longer seems to be the vehicle for light-hearted fare. In fact, viewers of syndicated reruns are left with the vexing problem of attempting to decipher one character and actor's subtext—the enigmatic J. Peterman, John O'Hurley: new father, dog lover.

In the Life section of the Monday, December 18th edition of USA Today, this unsuspecting coffee-shop patron encountered a three-column color photo of O'Hurley and his family1—wife Lisa Mesloh (deliciously listed as age 34 to O'Hurley's 52), newborn son William Dylan, and Scoshi and Betty, O'Hurley's white maltese and dachsund-black lab mix (one becomes dizzy with wonder). The photo was capped with the headline "O'Hurley is just doggone happy" and sub-head "Arrival of new baby eases the inevitable departure of a pooch" (3D).

Now, each of us at birth has his or her own burden bestowed upon too slight shoulders, and in a culture that produces astonishing tales of child-cruelty and atrocity2 this may seem to be an overstatement, but William Dylan is on the receiving end of a special degradation—few births are announced as a palliative for the father's hypothetical grief for a soon-to-be-departed maltese. While O'Hurley's childhood dogs were all "disappeared" by his father, O'Hurley bravely states that he will be by Scoshi's side as he approaches the final hydrant in the sky3.

What strikes the reader most about the article is not the cognitive dissonance of statements like "But the dogs are a part of my family, too. I just have to open my arms bigger and hold them all" or O'Hurley's forthcoming children's book (under contract) tentatively titled Before Your Dog Can Eat Your Homework, First You Have to Do It, which features a sage Scoshi instructing young William and is described by O'Hurley as a "'lesson on manhood from a dog to a little boy who barely knew him4'"; no, what really strikes the reader is the incredible amount of real-estate this story and photo occupy in what is presumably a major newspaper.

Granted, this hapless coffee-shop patron sat at a bistro table that was adorned with this discarded Life section, and this patron understands the "artificially sweetened fruitcake5"-type articles one finds in the Life section; thus he knows he brought this onto himself, but O'Hurley (Peterman, for God's sake!) seems to be such an unlikely choice for this type of candy-floss profile that the day took on a surreal quality as if in an underwater dream in which you continue to respire normally and think nothing of it. Considering the smiling faces of the O'Hurley-Mesloh family, posed like any good family who sits still for Sears portraiture (perhaps with a better backdrop), and chewing on my corporate scone, this patron was "convinced [he] was on the receiving end of the oldest baker's grift in the books6."

So this patron prepares to write an essay that positions the O'Hurley story as Exhibit A in his trial of contemporary media, an institution that regularly pulls the bag over the public's collective head and punches it in the collective solar plexus. So I started poking around the web for some research7, only to discover something more bizarre than equating a human birth with a balm for the wound left by a dying dog8.

Many Seinfeld fans familiar with the Peterman character also learned that there was, in fact, a real J. Peterman, an eclectic haberdasher with a flair for the verbose who ran an eponymic store upon which O'Hurley's character was based. It seems that Peterman (the real-life haberdasher) experienced a downturn in his entrepreneurial luck and had to sell J. Peterman (the corporation) to an outside source, who also continued Peterman's (the man's) trend and further devalued J. Peterman (the corporation). Thus, Peterman contacted O'Hurley (Peterman's Seinfeld-ian avatar), who with his own capital enabled Peterman to buy back J. Peterman, of which O'Hurley is now a part owner. While O'Hurley's love of dogs is well documented, his appreciation for eclectic fashions and goods was not, so this whole turn of events seems more like Seinfeld fan-fiction written by a Baudrillardian post-grad.

Or, more coincidentally, this development resonates with a sub-plot in "The Muffin Tops" episode, in which Kramer develops the Peterman Reality Tour9. Discussing the Peterman Reality Tour, the cast debates the rift between reality and fiction with respect to representation:

George: I think I understand this. Jay Peterman is real. His biography is not. Now, you Kramer are real.
: Talk to me.
: But your life is Peterman's. Now the bus tour, which is real, takes people to places that, while they are real, they are not real in sense that they did not "really" happen to the "real" Peterman which is you.
: Understand?
Truly, as George attempts to comprehend and as the coffee-shop patron attempts to reconcile O'Hurley as Peterman as part-owner of J. Peterman, "abstraction is no longer of the map, the mirror, the double, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. [...] It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory" (Baudrillard 1).

Where does this leave the coffee-shop patron? The complex is enough to make him wish for some "White Lotus. Yam-yam. Shanghai Sally10." And more importantly, where does it leave you?

That is the fundamental question one faces when reading a celebrity profile about the birth of a son and a pack of family dogs—what is this supposed to mean to me? Ultimately, you may find the birth of William Dylan less interesting than the strange intersection of O'Hurley and Peterman, and you may puzzle at the overlapping levels of signification in the representations of reality and fiction that are realized when you view O'Hurley's ownership of J. Peterman through the lens of the Peterman Reality Tour w/r/t the Kramer's Reality Tour. But the writers of celebrity profiles and publications that print them rely on your interest; they certainly won over the coffee-shop patron, who spent a large part of his day puzzling over the questions it raised.

Granted, the coffee-shop patron's attention is not perhaps the ideal kind of attention that USA Today hopes a reader pays to its articles, but if this coffee-shop patron were to remember a single advertisement that choked the adjoining columns, then those hopes would be secondary to the reality tour of the newspaper industry. And as Jerry Seinfeld (the character) opines after Kramer asks George if he finally "understands" the premise of the Peterman Reality Tour, the ultimate meaning is "$37.50 for a Three Musketeers" ("The Muffin Tops").

1Perhaps O'Hurley might contact the Cruise-Holmes publicist upon the birth of a second child—William Dylan enjoyed none of the dramatic buildup to international revelation, and he will likely suffer the torment of his meteoric introduction at various Hollywood Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties. And let's maybe not say anything about the money.

2Lately of the microwavable, caged varieties.

3Maybe it's better not to mention the assumptions upon which this statement is based, namely the fragility of one's own mortality, but with specific reference to pets' seemingly innate ability to develop cancers, require extensive surgeries, play in traffic, etc.: i.e. perhaps Betty is first for the slab.


5"Artificially sweetened fruitcake" is a term used in reference to "Perfect Day," the made-for-holiday-TV Rob Lowe vehicle, in a review of same artificially sweetened fruitcake in the selfsame Life section; presumably the editor has either no or an extremely-heightened sense of irony and perhaps a dash of career-suicidal impulse.

6Quotation lifted from Seinfeld, "The Frogger" episode during which J. Peterman/O'Hurley condemns Elaine for eating his $29,000 piece of cake purchased from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor auction.

7Yes, a risky proposition, but a venture that can be successfully negotiated with patience and judgment.

8In bold sub-head, remember.

9This plot-point itself a spoof of the Kramer's Reality Tour in NYC, run by Kenny Kramera, the self-confessed basis for the Cosmo Kramer character on Seinfeld. A handy bit of cashing in.

aStrangely, a recent post on Kenny Kramer's website addresses the "Michael Richards Incident" and explains:
In no way do I condone or endorse what Michael Richards said or did. It is really annoying, and sad, that people are saying that Kramer is a racist. Michael Richards ceased being Kramer eight years ago.I would hope that the public would be smart enough to make the distinction between a character on a show, the person playing the character, and me, the person the character was based oni.
iExactly who is confusing character, actor, and real-life model again?

10Peterman explaining traces of opium in Elaine's urine; has anyone who watched that episode eaten a poppyseed bagel without considering?

The title of this post is dialogue spoken by Peterman in the Seinfeld episode "The Foundation."

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

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