A few days ago, I published a post about an episode of Will & Grace, the premise and script of which were pretty stigmatizing to the mental health community. I broke down the plot points and dialogue that were particularly harmful, and attempted to explain the episode’s flaws within the context of the portrayal of mental health in comedy. Tonight, I do the same with an episode of another great show from the same era: Seinfeld.
All things considered, Seinfeld just might be the greatest cultural icon, ever. Like I said in my previous post, it changed the face of situation comedy. But, like most art from decades past, reveals some signs of being the product of a different cultural landscape. I bring you the season seven episode, “The Gum,” which aired December 14, 1995.
About two minutes into the episode, we find out that Lloyd Braun, a childhood friend of George’s (Jason Alexander) and one of Elaine’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) many ex-boyfriends, has experienced a “nervous breakdown,” and had an extended stay in “an institution.” Kramer (Michael Richards) has now taken Braun on as something of a personal project. He urges his friends to support Braun and treat him as though nothing as happened.
While Kramer over-indulges Braun out of misplaced friendly concern, George is fascinated with Braun’s mental state, taking a certain degree of joy in it. He wears a smile as he tells Elaine, “they had to lock him up.” Elaine is now worried that she was an impetus in Lloyd’s episode.
Jerry, like always, is content to stand back and quip about everyone else’s reactions, rather than actually get involved. He mocks George and Elaine with some typical mental illness jokes.
The plot thickens when George runs into another childhood friend, the lovely Deena, and tells her about Lloyd: “Speaking of crazy, did you hear about Lloyd Braun?… He’s completely bonkers!” It turns out that her grandfather had a similar experience. George becomes very concerned upon hearing this, because that same grandfather is working on George’s car as they speak.
Throughout the remainder of the episode, comedic mishaps lead Elaine to inadvertently hit on Lloyd several times. Kramer continues to over-protect Lloyd, comforting him with “you’re not crazy.” George experiences a series of coincidences involving a cashier on a horse and a car fire, confirming Deena’s concerns that he’s exhibiting the warning signs of a nervous breakdown. George objects, saying that he doesn’t belong in “the nut house,” but Deena is entirely sure that there’s something wrong when she catches him wearing a King Henry VIII costume. She runs away from him, and the storyline closes.
Unlike the Will & Grace episode in my prior post, this one doesn’t come across as a blanket condemnation of people with mental illness. Actually, Lloyd Braun and the grandfather character are both portrayed as likeable, rational, and intelligent, three qualities often eschewed in media portrayals of mental illness. On the negative side, Lloyd is shown socially inept and unintuitive, a far cry from his former self as portrayed in the season 5 episode “The Non-Fat Yogurt.” To be fair, he was being portrayed by a different actor this time (the original actor was not available for filming), but there was a vast disparity in the way the character was written and depicted. This signified to the viewer that we are to believe that people who have experienced mental health difficulties have major personality changes that are perceptible even after recovery. This is, it should go without saying, not the case.
Most of the jokes in the episode rely on the audience sharing certain beliefs about people with mental illness. For example, when we see George’s reaction to finding out that retired mechanic ‘Pop’ has had a nervous breakdown, the audience laughs because they, like George, are afraid that a mentally ill man will certainly damage his car.
The stereotype that people with mental illness are incompetent is, as you know, still around today. We see it in places like this 2009 ad online gambling ad, where a group of psych hospital patients, shown as childish and erratic, can’t even make it through a game of poker.
The premise of the episode also relies on the assumption that there is reason to be socially uncomfortable around people who have experienced mental illness. Actually, mental illness isn’t technically the issue at play; it’s the hypothetical concept of “mental imperfection,” that most people are in perfect mental health and that those who aren’t are lesser, when in reality, we all struggle with our mental health in some way.
All four main characters, possibly excluding Jerry, behave differently around Lloyd than they would around anyone else, because of his supposed mental imperfection. They actually exhibit pretty common reactions to a friend with mental illness: Elaine’s needless guilt, George’s schadenfreude, and Kramer’s over-protection are all archetypes for the way people really do often behave in that kind of situation. The episode almost seems to want us to believe that these are the right reactions.
Impressively, the episode is actually really funny, and as such serves as a light look at stigma in our world. Now that general understanding of mental illness is somewhat more nuanced than it was 1995, I wonder what this episode would look like it had been made today.