Conversations about the minutiae of life, a wacky neighbour, and the quintessential New York setting have become common tropes for the modern half-hour sitcom. Sometimes we need to take a step back and remember where this all began; not the very first sitcom, but the one that changed the game forever.
Seinfeld (1989-1998) has too often been described as a “show about nothing,” yet this concept of “nothingness” has been the subject of monumental critical and commercial acclaim. But I don’t really believe that Seinfeld is a show about nothing; rather, it is a show about anything and everything, revolutionising the modern sitcom. When Jerry Seinfeld took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit earlier this year, the truth about “The Show about Nothing” came to light. He rightfully describes that, “The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material.” Of course the discrepancy amongst fans is due to the Season 4 episode, “The Pitch” (4.03), where George and Jerry begin pitching a show to NBC about nothing. The real Jerry reflects on fans describing Seinfeld as a show about nothing: “Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it’s the opposite of that.”
The beauty of the show, and the reason that it attracted an average of 21 million viewers an episode for its final season, is the truth in the dialogue. The four main characters live fairly mundane lives, with regular breakups, work troubles, and most importantly, conversations about the intricate details of everyday life. All good entertainment is grounded in truth, and Seinfeld is as true to life as they come. The “no hugging, no learning” philosophy that co-creator, writer, and executive producer Larry David devised was true and present throughout the entire series. David is often said to have locked heads with the NBC higher-ups over content and creative control; however, he always found a way around their suggestions. Two examples of this are “The Deal” (2.09) and “The Contest” (4.11), the latter being hailed by TV Guide as the greatest episode of television, ever. “ The Deal” sees Jerry and Elaine attempt to maintain their close friendship while also adding a sexual partnership to the mix; this basic story has been used in numerous sitcoms since then. The episode came as a result of NBC executives calling for Jerry and Elaine to become a romantic item in an attempt to grow the audience and create some drama. However, David was vehemently against this notion and refused to cooperate until he once again drew upon his personal experiences. He recalls that a female friend of his created a “deal” with him, in which they would remain friends but also have sex without being a couple. The “wacky neighbour” character that became Cosmo Kramer was originally thought to be too much of a stock character; however, like most aspects of the show, Larry David drew from his real life. He had a roommate named Kenny Kramer who “lived life like a never-ending party.” All of these experiences added to the sincerity of the show.
May 14, 1998. The day NBC was dreading became a reality as 75 million people tuned in to watch the finale of Seinfeld. To fill a void that big is a near impossible task, and the finale itself couldn’t possibly live up to the expectations of so many people. Several shows have tried to replicate the famous formula, some successful, with the majority failing after one or two seasons. Friends (1994-2004) and How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) both focus on a group of friends living in New York, and both developed a large audience over their 9-10 season runs. Where HIMYM differs from Seinfeld however, is that there is a clear “point” to the show; a framing device was established in the pilot (1.01) and came full circle in “Last Forever Pt. 2” (9.24). Seinfeld may focus on a particular arc within a season, but you could watch any episode without context and still become an instant fan.
Seinfeld was a show that could have potentially gone on forever (as long as Jerry and the writing team were up to it), because we never run out of things to complain about, reasons to break up with someone, or issues in everyday life. This behemoth of a show lasted for 9 seasons before Jerry called it quits, a feat that has generally only been matched by sitcoms that have replicated the Seinfeld formula.
25 years on and the show still pulls a cult viewership in syndication. With 180 fantastic episodes, the amount I could write about Seinfeld is limitless. Not all of that would be interesting to read, so I’ll leave you with a quote from the show that epitomises the comedy, timelessness, and truthfulness of the show:
“You’re giving me the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ routine? I invented ‘It’s not you, it’s me’! No one tells me it’s them. If it’s anybody, it’s me!”
– George Costanza, “The Lip Reader”
Melissa Hoon. “Seinfeld: Reinforcing, Rejecting and Establishing Cultural Norms” 2012. Web. 23 May 2014. <http://thesubaltern.com/2012/01/31/seinfeld-reinforcing-rejecting-and-establishing-cultural-norms/>
Jerry Seinfeld. “Jerry Seinfeld here. I will give you an answer.” 2014. Web. 6 January 2014.<http://www.reddit.com/comments/1ujvrg>
“1997-1998 TV Show Ratings” Web. 24 June 2014. <http://classic-tv.com/ratings/1997-1998-tv-show- ratings.html>