25 Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of the ‘Seinfeld’ Premiere
1. Seinfeld premiered 25 years ago as The Seinfeld Chronicles. I remember this because I was watching. It was a hot summer and I was at my grandparents’ house in northeastern Pennsylvania. Because there was little else to do, I often read TV Guide like a magazine. (Why it took me another two decades to start writing about television is a question for another day or my therapist.) This made me a savvy enough viewer, even then, to realize it was strange for a new sitcom to be premiering in July. And I was properly disoriented by what I saw. It wasn’t that the rhythms of that pilot were particularly unique — watch the opening scene now and it feels positively Jurassic, with the slow declarations and the cheerfully theatrical reactions to every tepid zinger. What felt strange about the show, from the very first moments, was that it appeared to be in no particular hurry to get anywhere or do anything. There was something about a girl (there was always something about a girl), but her identity, her arrival, her very existence all seemed secondary to Jerry and George’s conversation about laundry and decaf coffee.
2. I can’t pretend that I loved it or thought it was genius. I was 12. What did I know about laundry or decaf coffee?
3. The other memory I have about watching Seinfeld at my grandparents’ house in the summer of 1989 was that I was convinced that Jason Alexander was a guest star. Whatever TV prejudices I had at that point — most of which were formed by obsessing over The Cosby Show and Family Ties and wondering if Misfits of Science was ever going to come back for a second season (still waiting!) — were cemented enough to reject out of hand the notion that a character so needling and nebbishy could ever be a regular on a series that was supposed to make you laugh. I was operating in a world in which even supporting, punch line–delivering roles tended to look like this. Sitcoms in the ’80s weren’t the place for squeaky wheels. They were comfort machines, built to soothe as much as to entertain. It was possible to see a PG version of George’s furious impotence, his bottomless appetite, in the teenage sons on otherwise wholesome family shows. (Lest we forget, Mike Seaver’s BFF was named Boner.) But to see it, roiling and raging, inside a nominal adult? This wasn’t comedy. This was terrifying.
4. Now that I am myself a nominal adult, I think of George as more of a documentary.
5. No matter the blood relationship between the characters, the vast majority of successful American sitcoms have always been about family. Cheers, the greatest comedy of the ’80s and the show that Seinfeld would replace, both literally (9 p.m. on Thursdays!) and culturally, was essentially about the comforts of home. Viewed through the wrong sort of lens, it was actually a show about asocial alcoholics. But the Charles brothers never gave us that version (thankfully!). Instead we were charmed by the good-natured ribbing and togetherness of a group of mismatched weirdos who never got drunk and only made sense together.
Seinfeld, by contrast, was about four borderline sociopaths who weren’t afraid of the world or unsure of their place in it. Instead, they endured it. Together, yes, but not out of any particular esprit de corps. Jerry and Elaine and George and Kramer were united mainly because they looked out the window and saw annoyance and social faux pas massing like storm clouds. They hung out because going to the movies alone is weird. They were friends because you never knew when you might need someone to give you a ride to the airport. The best part about Cheers was that everyone knew your name. The best part about Seinfeld was that they couldn’t be bothered to remember it.
6. The leap from a cast you wanted to spend time with to one that made you grateful for the glass screen that kept you apart is still being felt today. While Mike Schur still makes exceptional sitcoms in the Cheers model — forget Indiana, it takes real ability to make an NYPD station house look warm and appealing — the dominant model for TV laughs is more Sinister Six than Justice League. It was a running joke on the late, lamented Happy Endings how ruthlessly myopic the six friends were, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is about to enter Year 10 of cheerful, occasionally sadistic depravity. Even Modern Family, the closest thing Internet-scarred millennials have to a consensus sitcom, is often vicious in a way that would make even Larry David blanch.
7. And don’t get me started on dramas! I think Matt Zoller Seitz was right when he wrote that Jerry and George helped pave the way for Tony and Walter. TV’s slow transition from telling stories about pleasant people whom you liked to showcasing unpleasant people whom you loved to watch is what sparked the artistic revolution we’re still enjoying to this day. “No hugging, no learning” could have been pinned to the wall in the writers’ room of everything from The Wire to Game of Thrones.
8. But back to that adult thing for a second. Do you know how rare that is these days — a comedy about adults who don’t act like children and who also don’t have them? Seinfeld was boldly, often absurdly serialized: Kenny Bania returned with the regularity of a supervillain; Tim Whatley provided Bryan Cranston with his first opportunity to play a strangely appealing monster. And yet the Seinfeld brain trust never allowed its core four to change in any of the ways that society and stressed-out writers often expect them to. So more than no hugging or learning, there were also no marriages or kids — exactly the sort of things that can goose ratings and relieve story-generating pressure, at least temporarily. This raised the level of difficulty considerably — do you realize how hard it is to teach an old Farfel new tricks? — but paid off in a way we’re unlikely ever to see again. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were different from nearly every sitcom protagonist before or since in that they were fundamentally comfortable with who and what they were — it was the rest of the world that couldn’t figure it out.
9. For that reason, some people remember them as being overly sour or smug. But here’s the thing that’s often overlooked: To watch Seinfeld was never anything less than a pleasure. It takes serious skill to constantly be cutting and yet never draw real blood. Seinfeld and David got plenty of grief for their increasingly callous characterizations, the nadir of which wasn’t the finale so much as it was George’s reaction to the death of his fiancée (“Huh!”). But what was always underreported was the infectious glee that helped cut through all the acid. The writing on Seinfeld was so crisp, so elegant in its farcical construction, so euphoric in its love of language that it made misanthropy seem downright delightful.
10. Seriously — watching all four cast members in the opening scene of “The Contest” is like sitting in the queen’s box for the Wimbledon doubles final. At one point, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is so excited about what’s coming next that her jaw literally drops with happiness.
11. Oh, Julia. I’m happy that we, as a society, are now willing to openly celebrate what was so obvious a quarter-century ago: She is the finest comedic actress of multiple generations. Acting teachers always talk about the importance of “presence,” but Louis-Dreyfus, with her wide-eyed gusto, looks downright tickled to be there even if “there” happens to be a one-bedroom apartment with a rabid New Jersey Devils fan. It’s no surprise that Louis-Dreyfus has had the best post-Seinfeld performing career, because she was always the show’s best performer. The only difference between Elaine Benes and vice-president Selina Meyer is a cursing thesaurus and the nuclear codes.
12. Speaking of Julia, this remains one of the greatest line readings of all time.
13. Bee Movie aside, I’ve really admired the choices Jerry Seinfeld has made in the 16 years since his show went off the air. He never pretended to be an actor, so why keep trying to act? Instead, he does stand-up and does what he wants — probably not in that order. That said, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is both reliably terrific and deeply fascinating, particularly for the Seinfeld completist. The episode with Larry David is an opportunity to eavesdrop on the closest of friends — who knew that Larry IRL was actually an ascetic, tea-swilling weirdo? The episode with Michael Richards was less entertaining but much, much more interesting. Richards is clearly a complicated guy and every bit an actor in all the ways that Seinfeld isn’t: There’s the neediness, the lack of an off switch. But there’s also this intense, almost tactile gratitude that he exudes toward Seinfeld for all of the opportunities (and, sure, all of the money). You sort of forget that, in the moment, these guys weren’t making a classic sitcom. They were going to work, with all the pettiness and intimacy that implies.
14. For a show that was set in New York — for a show that just might be the most New York thing ever committed to film, despite being shot in the heart of Studio City, California — Seinfeld always got two key things insanely wrong. One, no one drives. Sure, maybe Jerry “private car garage” Seinfeld thinks nothing of gassing up the Porsche just to make a run down to Zabar’s. But ordinary Upper West Siders? Come on. Not when parking places are more valuable than marble ryes. And the other thing? The restaurants! Manhattan real estate is expensive. Not even in the relatively affordable ’90s did restaurants look like airplane hangars draped in satin:
15. OK, three things: There are no Jews in Queens named “Costanza.” But I guess getting American viewers to accept a leading man named “Seinfeld” was achievement enough.
16. Still, it was the accurate hyperspecificity of a certain kind of Manhattan Jewish life that made Seinfeld so impossibly funny: the noshing, the kibitzing, and above all else the kvetching. (This applies even when the show left New York City behind. “The Pen” is one of my favorites because of the way it captures the insular insanity of elderly expat life in South Florida.) I didn’t think jokes like this would fly in Albany, let alone Alabama, but Seinfeld was popular everywhere. The ratings aren’t remotely comparable — not unless you feel comfortable comparing animal crackers to actual animals — but in its own goyish way, Louie carries on this celebration of NYC minutiae today with its odes to garbagemen and appetizing stores. Familiarity doesn’t create comedy. Honesty does.
17. I really do think it’s important, though, to consider Seinfeld as the worthy inheritor of a great tradition of 20th-century Jewish comedy, one that runs from Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows to his disciples, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen, and all the way through Curb Your Enthusiasm, where it’s currently idling in the parking lot of a Palestinian chicken restaurant.
18. (And after you’re done watching the David and Richards episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, be sure to dial up the Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner one just to see the way the two legends kvell over their younger, richer devotee.)
19. I find that as time passes Seinfeld sort of resists the 10-best list. It was always more than just catchphrases, and the ratio of winners to stinkers is almost absurdly high, especially if you snip off the unformed first season and the uneven last. It’s the sort of show that you sink into no matter when you tune in, creating a mishmash of memories as to when, exactly, the Junior Mint was dropped into a surgery patient and whether it was before or after the encounter with a Salman Rushdie doppelgänger named Sal Bass. The general gestalt begins to matter more than specific scenes. And sometimes the best bits really did stretch across multiple episodes, like the entire Season 4 story line about Jerry and George being paid by a hapless NBC (led by Bob Balaban doing a dead-on impression of one Mr. Warren Littlefield). With that said, and with respect paid to all of the expected greats (“The Chinese Restaurant,” “The Puffy Shirt,” “The Hamptons”), here’s my personal top four:
20. “The Deal,” a.k.a. the one in which Jerry and Elaine decide that since they aren’t getting any anywhere else, they might as well get it from each other. This single-handedly atom-bombed TV orthodoxy, in which sex was often holy, occasionally profane, but always status-altering. For the show, it was a necessary recharge of a chemistry that was then able to power the rest of the series without ever once being revisited. (See above about adults.)
21. The aforementioned “The Pen.” Because of the co-op board, the pull-out couch, and, above all else, “STELLAAAAA!”
22. The equally aforementioned “The Contest.” Because it’s a filthy minuet that never once drops its mask of propriety. And because of “I’m out.”
23. “The Boyfriend.” I love this episode so much: Vandelay Industries, not driving people to the airport, the extended JFK parody that is now probably more familiar than the actual scene in JFK, the second spitter, Keith Hernandez’s great Keith Hernandez impression. To me, this was the quintessential episode of Seinfeld for the way it built great towering castles of absurdity, then connected them with ridiculously ornate bridges. Seinfeld and David weren’t satisfied with just spinning a yarn. They had to loop it back around and around again and leave you doubled over in a perfectly ludicrous knot.
24. Though this list was inspired by the anniversary of Seinfeld‘s start, what’s most inspiring about the show these days is the way it ended. No, not with the much-derided finale — which, 16 years on, doesn’t really seem all that much sillier than any other series finale — but with the finality with which it went away. These days, when content is king and the demands of the audience far outweigh its size, nothing ever really dies. Community will likely still be trucking in its 11th season, not out of any creative imperative but because Yahoo has money to spend and Twitter has hashtags to fulfill. Seinfeld, by contrast, went dark for good in 1998 and stayed that way, leaving its legacy both unimpeachable and, as James Poniewozik wrote last week, largely unrepeatable.
25. And yet as much as I want to use this piece to lionize Seinfeld as the last great show to well and truly go away, I can’t. Because, if you think about it, the reverse is true. Seinfeld ended in 1998, just as DVDs were beginning to make both reruns and nonserialized storytelling passé. Its popularity guaranteed it an insanely lucrative syndication deal, meaning old episodes were running nightly in most markets — something that continues to this day. Somewhere on your Brobdingnagian cable grid right now, a man with a mustache is refusing to serve Elaine a bowl of delicious mulligatawny.
Two years later, Larry David brought his shtick to HBO with Curb Your Enthusiasm, which offered a more highly distilled and tart version of Seinfeld‘s beloved vinegar. (It was also Curb that, with its seventh season, provided the all-time best non-reunion reunion. Everything about Larry’s fictional Seinfeld special was perfect, both in its conception and execution and also in the fact that it wasn’t actually real and we didn’t have to see enough of it to be disappointed in any way.) “Double-dipping” and “low-talking” are moving into their third decade of usage. The Jerry-George Super Bowl commercial was the most watched ad of 2014.
Maybe the reason that Seinfeld was able to go away so cleanly was because it has never, for a second, truly gone away. The actual broadcasting of the show was secondary to its vibrant and eternal afterlife, one that grows ever stronger with the publication of celebratory think pieces like this one. You can sift through popular TV comedies of today and maybe find strands of Seinfeld here and there — in the shrugging Semitism of The Goldbergs, perhaps, or the genial loathing of The League. But it’s interesting to note that the lasting influence of Seinfeld isn’t in the shows themselves, it’s in the medium. Seinfeld didn’t necessarily make TV smarter, funnier, meaner, or more sponge-worthy. Through its omnipresence, Seinfeld helped make TV eternal. And that is definitely not nothing.