Uncle Leo: “who do you think he calls when he has trouble with those high powered city hall types?”
Jerry: “Mickey Mantle?”
It’s telling that in “The Pony Remark” in season two of Seinfeld, the ironist ultimately runs aground on an old-country sincerity from which, his contemptuous sophistication can’t protect him. Even more telling, while Seinfeld might make fun of his Aunt and all she represents, it’s important to note that she has much more power over him than he has over her: not only does the remark in question not actually kill her (her husband emphasizes that she forgot all about it, and was much more upset “about the potato salad”), but her death is staged (in a very self-conscious way) as a haunting primarily experienced by Jerry.
It is, in other words, a much more interesting text than one would expect it to be. You can view the show in its entirety on youtube, or you can read my adapted wikipedia synopsis at the end of the post. Or we can just start with Vincent Brook’s argument — taken from his Something Ain’t Kosher Here: The rise of the “Jewish” sitcom — that the episode expresses a quasi-genocidal death wish for Manya:
“When Jerry drops a remark disparaging of people who had pet ponies as kids, Manya, a pony owner in the Old Country (out of necessity, not privilege), takes offense, storms from the table, and dies a few days later. Jerry is made to feel guilty for his ‘lethal’ pony remark, whence the episode’s macabre humor; yet the moral in terms of ethno-spatial identity is clear. In its violent rejection of Manya, Seinfeld has driven descent-based ethnicities (and their legacy of privation and self-sacrifice) off the face of the earth, and literally off the air. There is no place for traditional Jewishness in the hedonistic Seinfeld world, “The Pony Remark” vociferously proclaims.”
For Brook, Seinfeld is a polemical target in his critique of what he calls (in his introduction to You should see yourself: Jewish identity in postmodern American culture) the “tenuous, largely inferred, and increasingly “virtual” nature of Jewish television.” For him, the “persistent dilution cum denial of Jewish identity” in shows like Seinfeld is not only a “cause for concern” but is occasionally (and quite explicitly) equated with self-loathing and symbolic holocaust. He’ll talk about a Jewish “tradition of multivocality,” but it’s clear that while Judaism is welcomed to contain multitudes, the notion of it being contained as part of a postmodern American multitude is the cause for the skeptical, critical tone of both titles.
This is part of why his reading of the episode is so willfully terrible, I think. Brook is quick not only to accuse the show of crypto-genocide (as in the argument that it has “driven descent-based ethnicities…off the face of the earth, and literally off the air”), but he’ll go so far as to actually call it “ethnic cleansing” that Jerry’s West 81st street neighborhood is represented as overwhelmingly white. And in service of this argument, he’ll completely misread both the tenor and the vehicle of the episode.
For one thing, as I’ve already said, there is precisely nothing “lethal” about Jerry’s remark, for not only does Isaac’s dismissal of his apology indicate how irrational Jerry’s sense of guilt is, but this is the entire point of the episode, that Jerry himself is unable to free himself from a sense of guilt which she represents. In other words, Brook isn’t wrong that Jerry toys with violently rejecting Manya; even though Brook exaggerates Jerry’s vehemence, everything from the joke in the stand-up bit (the fact that all New York Jews must move to Florida when they hit their sixties; “It‘s the law”) to the consistent jokes at Manya’s expense is the kind of ethnic humor which has exactly the opposite of reverence for its subject. Yet Jerry’s over-familiar fatigue with the caricature he sees her as is also counterbalanced by her basic opacity to him: he is wearily familiar with her persona, after all, but his clumsy remark comes about precisely because he has no idea what makes her tick. It is because the “Old Country’s” reality is such a fairy tale to him — because he takes it so un-seriously — that it never occurs to him that she might have actually had a pony, that such a fairy-tale idea might actually be real. The fact that he was hating a real thing, in other words, never occurred to him (but which he is made painfully to realize).
The show is full of examples of Manya’s opacity to him, in fact; we laugh at his scornful “I met this woman; she is not traveling to any other dimensions” at the cost of overlooking the fact that this Polish immigrant has traveled farther and adapted more than he ever would or could. And the fact that her husband is moving to Phoenix (not Florida!) is both an implicit rebuke of Jerry’s attempt to make them fit into a caricature (especially since Isaac thinks Manya would have liked it) and stands in sharp contrast to Elaine and Kramer’s obsession with apartments over the course of the entire episode. It is the young secular generation that is obsessed with land and territory; Manya is the hybrid subject.
Jerry’s realization, then, is a function of Manya having been made real to him. The refrain “who figures an immigrant is gonna have a pony?” expresses the his in the possibility of the creature (a pony-riding immigrant) whose reality the funeral makes inescapable. Nothing is more real than a funeral. But this means that what Brook reads as a violent rejection is actually precisely the reverse: a sudden explosion of guilt stemming from having accidentally wished for something that then happened, but whose reality he did not (until that moment) fully understand, and therefore could not have really desired. In other words, Brook not only radically oversimplifies a very complex moment, but he inverts it, taking to be a symbolic genocide (the desire without the act) what is actually a deeply felt guilt for an act that was actually never committed. Jerry, in fact, has to believe in Manya’s ghost for the simple reason that without it he has nothing to hang his guilt on (something Elaine sadistically baits him with in the final moments of the episode). He has to invent the idea that he killed her, in other words, to have a story onto which he can sublate his sense of both ethnic and generational betrayal.
I find it somewhat typical of this kind of argument that the clarity of moral that Brook finds in Seinfeld has to rely on such a straw man, the same sort of evil-ironist Seinfeld that Jed Purdy took as symptomatic of all manner of ills in For Common Things, but one which is completely absent from this particular episode. And while I sort of sympathize with what people like them are trying to do, it’s symptomatic that Brook attacks the all-embracing irony of what he sees as Seinfeld’s postmodernist ethos by very basically misreading what makes it work; in a general way, an ironist only funny if they take the thing they are ironizing very seriously, and this very episode is funny precisely because it laughs (instead of crying) at the loss which Brook is trying to blame on him. Uncle Leo can be the caricature of elder Jewishness on which so much American Jewish humor hinges — and Jerry’s “Mickey Mantle” crack is subtly mean-spirited for (lightly) implying a failure of Americanism — but Manya’s victory over Jerry is the same as the mother in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” a display of power and priority all them more important for being unintentional. She didn’t interrupt his softball game (in Mantle’s own outfield position, un-coincidentally) or make him commit all those errors; rather, it was his belief that she did. But if the polemicist cannot note the joke behind the fact that Sharon Besser was the best and worst moment of his life then how can he be expected to connect Jerry’s intense cynicism with the fact that the episode hinges on his superstitious belief in something obviously unreal?
(From wikipedia’s plot overview (here), the episode goes basically like this:
Jerry’s parents visit Jerry on their way to the 50th anniversary dinner of their second cousin Manya and her husband Isaac. His parents persuade him to go and during the dinner he remarks, “I hate anyone who ever had a pony when they were growing up!”, to which Manya reacts angrily because she had a pony when she was growing up in Poland. Jerry tries to apologize, but Manya gets even more angry and leaves the table. After the dinner, Jerry receives a phone call from his uncle Leo, who informs him that his great-aunt has died. Jerry and his friends speculate as to whether his comment may have been a factor. The funeral is held on the same day that Jerry has a softball championship, and he has difficulty deciding whether to go to her funeral or to his game. When he ends up going to the funeral, he apologizes for his the pony remark but Isaac informs him that Manya was much more upset about the food and had forgotten about what Jerry said. When it starts to rain Jerry realizes that the game will be postponed, but he plays unusually badly and they lose. The following day, after the game, Jerry, George and Elaine discuss the lousy way Jerry played softball. Elaine states she wonders if Manya’s spirit put a spell on him.)