Media Circus


Joyce Millman
May 16, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

Maureen Dowd's attack on "Seinfeld" in Wednesday's New York Times was almost as surreal as an episode of the show itself.

Writes Dowd: "A friend of mine rants, 'Why don't the characters just move to penthouses on Fifth Avenue? How can they be playing smart Jewish people hanging out in a diner eating all the eggs they want for $3.99 when they are the most highly paid TV actors of the late 20th century? Why don't they just tie Jerry Seinfeld's compensation to how the Knicks do next year?'" Apparently Dowd's "friend" has never heard the term "suspension of disbelief." I wonder if her friend also has trouble watching the cast of "ER" perform surgery, knowing full well that not one of those people ever graduated from medical school.

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Dowd has some sort of thesis about "Seinfeld" being the last bastion of evil yuppiedom, as proven by greedy Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards and their "breathtaking $600,000-a-week salaries" (actually, that's $600,000 an episode), and she drags in special guest stars to prop up her argument.

She quotes New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier: "'Seinfeld' is the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption." (And all along, you thought it was just a really funny show.) Slate editor Michael Kinsley pops up to offer these thoughts on yuppies: "I think for a little while they were genuinely embarrassed by some leftover '60s feelings that their lives were too full of bourgeois comforts. But now they only have ersatz embarrassment. They don't feel decadent for their consumer-oriented society. They just feel decadent for being so trendy."

Dowd herself tosses the soggy grenade that "George, Elaine and Kramer cashed in at a time when the Thursday show is not as funny as the reruns" (bull!) and goes on to claim "the show is our Dorian Gray portrait" (and she doesn't really mean "our," she means "your," yuppie scum), a "reflection of the what's-in-it-for-me times that allowed Dick Morris and Bill Clinton to triumph with a campaign of 'bite-sized' issues that emphasized personality over party."

Waiter, reality check! "Seinfeld" is no defense or glorification or symbol of yuppie values. It's a satire, a farce, a comedy about people who have no values. Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are self-obsessed, oral-fixated, envious, untruthful, mean -- they're not yuppies, they're babies! They grope around the grand playpen of childish behavior that is New York City, getting into one "Alice in Wonderland"-meets-the Marx Brothers situation after another. "Seinfeld" is as much a "reflection of the what's-in-it-for-me times" as "Rugrats." Actually, "Rugrats" might be more politically aware.

And what's with all the sudden hand-wringing over Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards' salaries? Is this subject really op-ed page screedworthy? Is Dowd or anyone genuinely worried about NBC going to the poorhouse over this? No -- the snotty undertone of Dowd's column is that Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards are only TV stars -- and how could something so insignificant and silly as a TV show dare command so much money? (Of course, if "Seinfeld" were so insignificant, how could it be a reflection of its times?)

"Seinfeld" fans know that Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards are not mere "subsidiary stars," as Dowd calls them; they're integral parts of a well-oiled comedy machine who log as much -- sometimes more -- screen time as Jerry Seinfeld, who receives a cool $1 million per episode. And Seinfeld himself has publicly acknowledged his co-stars' worth. "I am a very bad actor," he admitted, accepting an award for best comedy ensemble at this year's Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony, then went on to pay tribute to his colleagues for the heroic feat of making him look good.

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I defy anyone who has watched "Seinfeld" with regularity over the past eight years and been rendered helpless with laughter by George's over-the top shamelessness and Elaine's delusions of grandeur and Kramer's well, Kramerness, to say that they're not worth the money. "Seinfeld" is completely different from any sitcom, in that every character carries equal weight. They're often all on-screen at the same time. There is no moral center or voice of reason. "Seinfeld" is the epitome of the ensemble comedy, a unit that can't be pulled apart and its sections ranked in order of importance.

Dowd may resent the salaries because it's "only" TV, but after all, isn't TV "only" a business? And NBC, and the show's owner, Castle Rock, which kicked in for some of the salary increase, obviously thought keeping TV's highest-rated sitcom on the air made good business sense. Sure, there will be inevitable us-too cases to come ("Frasier" could be next), but that's not my problem, and it's not yours either.

George, Elaine and Kramer are worth it. Now, could everybody please just shut up and laugh?


The devil is in the Details
Macho man Michael Caruso takes the helm at the hip slacker's bible.

BY CYNTHIA COTTS

at 10:30 a.m. today, James Truman introduced a new man to the staff of Details magazine: Michael Caruso, a 35-year-old swashbuckler with a deep tan who stepped in to fill the warm boots of Joe Dolce, the previous editor-in-chief who had been ousted only a few weeks before.

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As editorial director of Condi Nast, Truman oversees such magazines as Vanity Fair, GQ and Vogue, but the trendy bachelor has always been the spiritual father of Details. It was Truman whom Si Newhouse hired as the first editor of Details in the early 1980s, giving Truman, then an unknown British music writer, complete license to gut the staff and remake the book in his image. In the twinkle of an eye, Details became the hot book for the young, the slacking and the goateed: the antidote to such stuffy rags as Esquire and GQ.

When Truman left Details for Condi Nast headquarters on Madison Avenue, his first replacement was John Leland, a music writer for Newsweek, who was followed within a year by Joe Dolce. Dolce put more celebrities on the cover, but the fact that Dolce is openly gay rubbed some corporate types the wrong way. Recently, word came down that Condi Nast wants Details to be more conservative, more hetero, more like ... well, Esquire.

Enter Caruso, who was employed as editor in chief of Los Angeles magazine until he was precipitously fired in March after little more than a year. (The conventional wisdom is that the firing had nothing to do with performance; the editors wanted fashion and service, while Caruso was going for an edge.) Caruso began his career as an editor and writer at the Village Voice and went on to become a senior editor at Vanity Fair (where his constant flirtation with Tina Brown during meetings left everyone else in the room blushing). His career took a downturn when former Spy editor Graydon Carter took over Vanity Fair. According to staffers, Caruso sulked a lot, openly disagreed with many of Carter's decisions and was finally pushed out in a swirl of bad karma.

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Caruso is renowned for his heavy boasting, his Hemingway-esque love of boxing and poker and his attempts to seduce female writers in midnight editing sessions. "That man is positively Venetian," said a source who asked not to be named. "He's the kind of guy you associate with stilettos and poison rings and people being thrown in canals." Over the years, whenever an editor-in-chief opening was announced, his name would appear on the short list -- often placed there himself, some believe. "He's self-confident, that's for sure," says Truman.

Carping aside, those who have worked with Caruso in an editorial capacity give him a unanimous thumbs up. "On a one-to-one basis, I always found him to be smart, focused, willing to work longer hours to make a story better," says one New York writer. Others remember him delaying a close while he sat in his office reading the prose out loud with the writer. As Truman says of his new hire, "He has a great balance of strong journalistic feature-writing background and also great confidence in the area of pop and style." In L.A., Caruso is said to have sported around town in a black Mercedes 560 convertible. But will he be parking it on lower Broadway when he reports to work at Details on June 9?


Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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