Writers are imperfect, writing is seeking perfection

JANUARY 27TH, 2016 — POST 023

One of the more memorable late-season episodes of Seinfeld is The Comeback. In the opening scene, George is humilated at a work meeting by a pithy remark to which the entire table erupted into crippling laughter. Basically, George was chowing down on provided shrimp waiting for the meeting to begin when another at the table, Reilly, said

George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.

George’s drive home vibrates with impotent rage (his trademark) when he has an ephiphany: the perfect line in response. But, now the moment’s gone. Now there’s no line to respond to.

The engine of this episode works because this is a universal desire. Not like love, or security, or acceptance, or success. This is a universally wretched desire (and what more could we want from Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld) to be able to return to an imperfect moment and make it perfect, to come out on top where we took a boot to the teeth. This, as far as I can tell, is what writing is about. Everyone can stew on a better way they could present to the world, a more perfect means of expressing what’s in their head than fumbling through speech in real-time. A writer is the person who thinks they’ve found exactly that more perfect means.

Of course, the moment George gets back to Jerry’s, the story is recounted. Like everyone has done at one point or another, George slips in his “perfect” line as if it were part of the story, as if it really happened. But we know it didn’t. And George knows it didn’t. So Jerry knows it didn’t. At this point, George is no less enraged, and no less impotent. He remains just like everyone else: powerless to actually be any better, to ascend beyond the guy who can be felled by insult in a group of people, to have the perfect shroud of his imperfection that resides in his head made manifest.

This is the before-state of a writer. Given what we’re able to summise from interviews, from the rest of Seinfeld, from Curb Your Enthusiasm, some semblance of this situation almost certainly happened to Larry David. But unlike most who just have to let that impotent rage diffuse and become diluted overtime, Larry wrote a sitcom episode about it. He just couldn’t sit still with the evidence of his imperfection. He needed to make it right.

And so did George. Through a stroke of fortune, the “Ocean Called” guy Reilly is going to be at another meeting, and one that through barely-justifiable means George will be able to attend. Everyone else in the room will be different to before and George is convinced he’ll be able to bait Reilly into saying the line again, springing the trap, and setting the stage for George to triumphantly deliver the line that will let him taste revenge and redemption where he was left last time tasting only shrimp.

It’s at this point George becomes a writer. Sure, he might not have written anything yet, but his intention to seek perfection despite his imperfection is there. More importantly, his conviction is there. Because, in all honestly, the “perfect comeback” line doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.
Yeah? Well the jerkstore called. They’re running out of you!

See? Not particularly inspired. And as Elaine points out, “They don’t really have jerk stores.” But George has the line just like the writer has the idea. His conviction and his intention are exemplary of the writer and all he needs to get on a plane, to bring a huge platter of shrimp for the meeting, and to chow down eagerly in front of Reilly and wait.

And Reilly takes the bait. And just like he imagined it, George slowly rises from the table, lets the laugh Reilly got subside, lets the pregnant pause gestate before “jerk store” fires across the table.

…Only to have Reilly retort

What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best seller!

But George is a writer now, George has just written as he put out into the world what he believed the perfect shroud of his imperfection. So he can’t stop. He hurls back another, albiet utterly tactless, line. The room is struck dumb. But what could you expect when you use a line you got from Kramer?

It really doesn’t matter in the end whether the line worked or not just as it doesn’t matter if every word written is good or not. What matters is the trying. The show needs George to lose at the end because, well ultimately, he’s required to rubberband back into his initial state so more episodes can mine his neuroticism for comic effect. But even if we laugh at him for the quality of the line, or for even pursuing this, there’s a part in everyone who respects it. Everyone watching can recall a moment where they wished for a second shot at perfection that George has so expertly crafted for himself.

Everyone has this impulse. Writers do something about it.

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