In the third of a series, we visit the office of Sam Sommers, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences.
When Sam Sommers was a student at Williams College in the 1990s, he so treasured his poster of Kramer, the wacky character on the hit TV show Seinfeld, that he carefully rolled it up and brought it to graduate school at the University of Michigan. Moving later to Massachusetts, he rolled it up again and, nearly wrinkle-free, it now adorns a wall of his office wall at 490 Boston Ave.
The poster of Kramer, whose hairstyle and physical awkwardness were his trademarks, gives more than just a hint of Sommers’ interest in the sitcom. He is a walking compendium of everything Seinfeld: characters, individual episodes and the dates they aired. He has seen all 180 shows numerous times, and remembers the intricacies of each episode, with the disparate plot lines that are somehow resolved at the end.
But his Seinfeld mania is more than a hobby. Sommers uses clips from the show to illustrate points in his behavioral psychology classes.
“Seinfeld shows the minutiae of daily existence, and its characters question what norms are acceptable,” Sommers says. Leave it to Jerry Seinfeld, Sommers says, to ponder the pressing question: How many dates are too many to break up on the phone? Or take the episode when Jerry’s friend George Costanza deliberately leaves something behind at the home of a first date, giving him an excuse to return and retrieve it. Sommers uses the clip to show that it’s not necessarily physical characteristics or personality that draws us together, but proximity and familiarity. After all, George thinks that if he does this enough times, the woman in question will grow to like him and consider his visit a second date.
“I don’t show clips to pander or get a laugh,” says Sommers, “but when it shows something with a specific example, it makes the abstract more concrete.”
One of Sommers’ specialties as a social psychologist is race and social perception—so having a poster of Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer, seems ironically appropriate. In late 2006, Richards was caught on video in a racist rant while doing standup comedy, and spent the next year dealing with the fallout. “I wound up adding a thought bubble to the poster that referenced the controversy,” explains Sommers. “I had to do something—suddenly it became almost as if I had a Confederate flag up in my office.”
Marjorie Howard can be reached at email@example.com.