A show about nothing.
180 episodes of 30 minutes duration. NBC. 1989-1998
Probably the most influential and successful US situation comedy of the 1990's, Seinfeld began as a pilot about a standup comic who used his own life as the basis for his material. But thanks to a brilliant cast and top-notch writing (and a refusal to play by the rules), Seinfeld defined its decade much as I Love Lucy epitomized the 1950's and All In the Family reflected the 1970's.
In its eight-year run, no one on Seinfeld learned from their mistakes or grew emotionally. ("No lessons, no hugging" was the rule of co-creator Larry David). In fact, the show delighted in poking fun at institutions usually considered "politically correct": disabilities; sexual practices; religion; bodily functions; ethnicity and racism. Yet the show managed to get big laughs out of each one. Seinfeld also created a vocabulary of its own. "Soup Nazi"; "Sponge-worthy"; "Shrinkage"; "Giddy-up"; "Master of my domain"; "Yada Yada" and "Not that there's anything wrong with that"--these and other phrases came from the lips of comic Jerry Seinfeld, his former lover and friend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) , neighbor Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) and childhood buddy George Costanza (Jason Alexander). Not bad for a group of neurotic New Yorkers.
Real-life comedian Seinfeld (whose first major TV role was a messenger boy on the first season of the comedy Benson) got together with writer Larry David to create and write the pilot of the show, which was originally called The Seinfeld Chronicles. NBC nearly passed on the show--the network's late entertainment president, Brandon Tartikoff called it "too New York, too Jewish." Test audiences were split. But the show had a true believer in Rick Ludwin, the network's senior vice president for specials. Ludwin actually took money from his own department's budget to fund four more episodes. (The pilot first aired on July 5th, 1989; the four additional episodes aired between May and June 1990.) The shows did not do all that well in the ratings, but Seinfeld--the name was shortened to avoid confusion with a short-lived ABC series called The Marshall Chronicles--began airing as a midseason replacement in January 1991.
By the 1992-93 season NBC was no longer at the top of the ratings. Even worse, the cast of NBC's only top-ten hit, Cheers, decided to end the show's run. NBC gambled and slotted Seinfeld behind Cheers in midseason. The move worked, as Seinfeld cracked the top ten. By the fall of 1993, Seinfeld inherited the coveted Cheers timeslot (Thursday nights at nine), and became the network's biggest hit. A year later, Seinfeld was the cornerstone of a night NBC now trumpeted as "Must-See TV" (along with Friends, ER, and a slate of mediocre comedies that did well only because they aired after Friends or Seinfeld.)
Jerry, George and Kramer were together in the pilot, but Elaine (Jerry's former lover and still good friend) was not brought in until the second episode. By 1991, "Seinfeld" began finding a rhythm and honing it. Some critics called it "a show about nothing" because most episodes did not have a major plot point as so many comedies do. Instead, "Seinfeld" dealt with small situations (the gang waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant; looking for a car in a crowded shopping mall while carrying a room air conditioner; or even Jerry handing Elaine a Pez candy dispenser, which causes her to break up during a recital featuring George's new girlfriend who was performing a piano solo). Those events brought the best of the worst among them--Jerry's neurotic need for perfection; Elaine's sometimes overwrought enthusiasm; George's selfish, sometimes dishonest streak; and Kramer's wacky yet unique viewpoints on life and love. And the four leads were as selfish as any TV character had a right to be. Outsiders (girlfriends, boyfriends, parents) do not seem to be allowed in the clique; one will easily sell out the other for personal gain or gratification--not to mention what "Entertainment Weekly" once called a "pathetic whiff of desperation about their need for one another."
Significantly, none of the four main characters were married, leading to a rash of US "singles" comedies such as Friends, Ellen, The Drew Carey Show, and Suddenly Susan. Yet in Seinfeld, there is an obsession with sex and relationships between men and women. Jerry is known to have dumped a number of women for such "flaws" as "man hands"; not tasting his pie; wanting to share toothbrushes; and even for having a strange laugh! George pines for a woman, yet treats her like trash when they date. Elaine and Kramer seem to have no problem getting dates, but for the most part, the relationships do not last long. And there's plenty of talk about sex--or more accurately, a lack of talk. In one famous episode ("The Contest"), the four bet each other who can go without self-gratification the longest (and nobody even uses the "M" word). In another episode ("The Mango"), Elaine admits to Jerry that she "faked it" a number of times while the two were dating, prompting Jerry to ask Elaine for another shot. Yet another episode ("The Switch") has Jerry trying to get dumped by his latest girlfriend so he can date her roommate. And in "The Beard," Elaine tries to convert a gay man. (Jerry: "You think you can just get him to change teams? When you join that team, it's not a whim. He LIKES his team. They're only comfortable with THEIR equipment!")
While there were only four main characters on the show, a long cast of supporting players combined to give "Seinfeld" its spark. Among them are Barney Martin and Liz Sheridan, who played Jerry's parents Morty and Helen Seinfeld. George had to deal with the squabbling Frank and Estelle Costanza (played to the hilt by Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris). There was Wayne Knight as Jerry's foe and rival, mail carrier Newman; Elaine's boss, clothing retailer J. Peterman; (John O'Hurley); her boyfriend (and Jerry's mechanic) Puddy (Patrick Wartburton); and Susan Swedberg as Susan, George's girlfriend and fiancee who dies from licking cheap wedding invitation envelopes. George later learns that Susan was rich, and he was forced to head her trust fund. As for Jerry, a long string of girlfriends came and went--including such actresses as Jane Leeves (Frasier); Courtney Cox (Friends); Teri Hatcher (Lois and Clark); and Debra Messing (Will And Grace).
The engine that drove Seinfeld (next to Seinfeld himself) was co-creator Larry David, who based George Costanza on his own life. His scripts captured "Seinfeld" at its best. But in 1996, David decided to quit the show. Seinfeld then became executive producer, and the show continued its winning ways (even though by this time, critics thought the show had lost some of its spark). By the fall of 1997, Seinfeld was making one-million dollars an episode; his costars were pulling in half-a-million each. But after nine years and more than a hundred episodes, the workload was getting to be too much. Around Christmas 1997, Seinfeld met with NBC executives (and their superiors at parent General Electric), and told them the 1997-98 season would be his last. The news hit NBC hard; the network hoped it could talk Seinfeld into doing one more season so it can start grooming a successor for the Thursday at nine slot. (Because of its popularity among viewers 18 to 49 years old--a group advertisers paid a premium to reach--"Seinfeld" was generating a reported 200 million dollars a year in advertising revenue for NBC.) But Jerry Seinfeld was firm. The show would end, even though the network enticed him with a record five-million an episode.
And end it did, on May 14th, 1998, with a one-hour and 15-minute episode (preceded by a 45-minute "clip" flashback episode). It begins with Jerry and George's TV show being accepted by NBC as a series. The gang celebrates by flying to France (in NBC's private jet), but plane problems force them to land in the small town of Latham, Massachusetts, where they are arrested for not helping a robbery victim. A trial takes place, where characters from the gang's past testify against them. George, Jerry, Kramer and Elaine end up convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. (The last scene has Jerry doing his standup routine in front of his fellow prisoners.) The final episode was watched by an estimated 76 million Americans, a good figure in a multichannel world, but far below the record for the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983, which drew about 105 million viewers. Still, the last episode was good enough to make Seinfeld the top-rated series of the 1997-98 season--one of only three US shows to end their runs in the number-one slot. (The others were I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show.)
These days, Jerry Seinfeld makes few TV appearances (aside from an occasional standup gig on HBO and in March 2001 on Late Show With David Letterman. He has also starred in very funny commercials for American Express.) Michael Richards was the first of the Seinfeld gang to get a television series. The Michael Richards Show, was a sitcom featuring Richards as a private detective. It premiered in the fall of 2000 on NBC, but critics hated it, and low ratings forced it off the air this past spring. The other Seinfeld stars could be getting new series as early as the fall of 2001. Jason Alexander has a pilot for a new sitcom for ABC, about a motivational speaker who has trouble in his own life. And Julia Louis-Dreyfuss could return to NBC in a new sitcom co-created with her husband, television producer Brad Hall.
After he announced the end of his series, Jerry Seinfeld told "Time" magazine that television "is like a flyer somebody sticks on your windshield. Who gives a damn what's on it? It's iridescent wallpaper. Sometimes I think people just like the light on their faces."
At least in Seinfeld's case, the light was a lot brighter.
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