Identifying for the Jokes

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By Jared Powell
Jared Powell is a junior from Canton, Mississippi majoring in English and Religious Studies. He enjoys watching Seinfeld, his favorite TV show, and is always disappointed when somebody does not understand a reference to the famed sitcom. He one day hopes to become an architect, or maybe an importer-exporter of latex products.

What are the various identities, religious or nonreligious, that an individual can assume? Why do individuals choose to identify with certain categories? How do individuals exhibit or prove their identity to members of the group, or nonmembers? These key questions constantly come up in my classes with the department. During one class, another student mentioned an episode of Seinfeld (Season 8 Episode 19, “The Yada Yada”) that could be related to these questions of identity. In order to defend my self-proclaimed Seinfeld aficionado status, I took it upon myself to rewatch the episode and see what connections I could make.

All of the classes that I have taken in the department have taught me that religious identity, like any other classification, is a complicated issue. Individuals have self-imposed identities, as well as socially-assumed identities, and these do not always fit together. Individuals can also have many identities, and choosing between them is often arbitrary and dependent on a situation. These points in particular can be gleaned from the episode, as seen in this compilation of clips.

The characters identify themselves in many ways: Jerry as a comedian, Whatley as a dentist, and both of them as Jewish persons, for example. They also see no problem in claiming these multiple identities. In fact, they flip-flop back and forth among their many self-identifications to fit the situation at hand. This echoes the view that an individual’s identity is composed of many identities (religious, economic, sexual, etc.). Also, the identity claimed at any particular moment is strategic, and therefore fitted to the context, as seen in the clip. Whatley stands as a specific example of the strategic nature of identification. Within the category “religious” identity, Whatley claims two sides. He is a newly-converted Jew, which justifies his Jewish jokes, and he is a former Catholic which somehow makes Catholic jokes fair game as well. He strategically identifies based on which type of joke he wishes to tell. “He identifies just for the jokes,” as Jerry might say.

This episode can also be used to point out that an individual’s identity is not always outwardly obvious. One cannot rationally assume that Jerry is a comedian just by looking at him, unless he is performing his act. Does this make Jerry not a comedian? Whatley does not “look” Jewish, but does that make him not Jewish? The categories “comedian” and “Jew” are socially constructed based partly on behaviors, but those behaviors are contextual and therefore not necessarily obvious at all times.

The scene with Jerry in the confessional essentially combines my last two points to show that the socially-assumed identity of an individual does not always line-up with the individual’s self-claimed identity. Based on the information provided to him, the priest thinks Jerry is offended by Whatley’s jokes due to his Jewish identity. However, Jerry sets the record straight and points out that he is offended as a comedian. At this particular moment, Jerry has temporarily shed his Jewish identification in favor of an occupational one. The same can be said about the priest. Jerry assumes based on the priest’s clothing, the setting of the encounter, and other contextual evidence that the priest will be offended by Whatley’s Catholic joke. However, the priest is not offended at all by it, and instead seems to take offense from the dentist joke. These ironies are obviously part of the humor of the scene, but it proves a valid point. In any particular context, what we think someone “is” or “is not” does not necessarily align with what that individual actually puts forth for us, and this leads to some humorous encounters for Jerry and the gang.

Although Seinfeld is far from scholarly in production, it is possible to use the show to draw some valid connections to the academic study of religion and social theory in general. This episode can be used to answer some of the complicated identity questions asked in our classes, albeit in a humorous and whimsical way. Next time you catch a rerun of “The Show About Nothing,” pay attention because there might be more there than meets the eye.