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How 'Seinfeld' Revolutionized The Sitcom

By Saul Austerlitz | Indiewire February 28, 2014 at 12:15PM

An excerpt on NBC's famous "show about nothing" from critic and author Saul Austerlitz's new book "Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from 'I Love Lucy' to 'Community.'"
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'Seinfeld'
NBC 'Seinfeld'

"Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from 'I Love Lucy' to 'Community,'" the new book from critic and author Saul Austerlitz ("Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy") officially hits shelves tomorrow, March 1st, courtesy of the Chicago Review Press. Appealing to TV lovers, comedy enthusiasts and pop culture devotees, the book finds Austerlitz examining the critically underappreciated but eternally popular television genre, beginning with housewife Lucy and working husband Ricky Ricardo and going through to the postmodernism of Dan Harmon's community college show.

Austerlitz examines how the sitcom has evolved through 24 episode from 24 pivotal series, include "22 Short Films About Springfield" from "The Simpsons," "Chuckles Bites the Dust" from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and more. Indiewire's pleased to offer an excerpt from "Sitcom" about "Seinfeld," the "show about nothing," below. Find out more about the book here.

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Sitcom

Seinfeld
"The Pitch"
September 16, 1992
NBC

"See, this should be the show. This is the show." "What?" "This. Just talking." "Yeah. Right... Just talking? What's the show about?" "It's about nothing." "No story?" "No, forget the story." "You've got to have a story." "Who says you gotta have a story? Remember when we were waiting for that table in that Chinese restaurant that time? That could be a TV show."

Balding, bespectacled, frazzled George Costanza (Jason Alexander), he of the grandiose ideas and minimal follow-through, has latched onto a new one: for his best friend Jerry Seinfeld's forthcoming sitcom pitch, he should present the gathered NBC executives with an idea for a show about nothing. Jerry, initially intensely skeptical, soon warms to the concept of nothing: "I think you may have something here."

At the pitch meeting, George steals the spotlight from Jerry, announcing to the dubious execs that "I think I can sum up the show for you with one word: nothing." Following through on his pithy initial summation, George notes that "nothing happens on the show. You see, it's just like life. You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read. You eat, you read, you go shopping." Over the increasingly frantic objections of his partner, George engages in a pointed back-and-forth with one of the skeptical executives: "No stories? So, what is it?" "What did you do today?" "I got up and came to work." "There's a show. That's a show." "How is that a show?"

As it happened, viewers could testify that it was a show, for what George was describing matched, in nearly every pertinent detail, the show we were already watching: "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989–98). George and Jerry's waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant was not just an episode from their lives but also an episode of "Seinfeld": "The Chinese Restaurant," a standout from the show's second season. And so, having introduced an entirely new mode of comedy -- highly stylized, exuberantly mundane -- "Seinfeld" sought to pitch itself, as it were, into the stratosphere with this self-referential thrust. Though self-awareness had been a component of the sitcom's comic arsenal since Lucy and her TV commercial, "Seinfeld"'s version took a deeper interest in the clichés and stereotypes that served as the sitcom's building blocks. None of this was precisely new; Father Knows Best had covered much of the same ground with the episode "Father Is a Dope." But self-awareness was newly highlighted, newly essential to the task of crafting a sitcom.

Seinfeld2

This was the sitcom as Mobius strip: not only does fiction imitate reality, but the fiction within the fiction mimics the fiction as well as the reality. The series would fold in on itself, its characters confronted with doppelgangers, funhouse-mirror versions of themselves. Years before he played Ari Gold on "Entourage" -- but around the same time as his stint as Larry Sanders's head writer on "The Larry Sanders Show" -- Jeremy Piven auditions for the role of "George" on George and Jerry's sitcom-to-be in the episode "The Pilot." Kitted out in ill-fitting sweatpants and bulky glasses, Piven reduces everyone except George to helpless laughter. George balks, seeing no resemblance whatsoever between himself and this pseudo-George. In that same episode, Kramer (Michael Richards) demands the opportunity to audition for the part of Kramer -- after all, who is better equipped to understand the role?

What was this strange thing we were watching? Who had invented it? The questions could be asked of "Seinfeld," but "Seinfeld" preferred to ask it first, interrogating television, and the sitcom in particular, for answers. The show enjoyed undercutting its medium, ridiculing its traditions and its unspoken assumptions, even as it maintained its most basic injunction to entertain. "Don't you hate β€˜to be continued' on TV?" Jerry asks the audience, even as we sat on our own living room couches, watching "Seinfeld" wrap up the first part of its own two-part tale. "If I wanted a long, boring story with no point to it, I have my life."

"Seinfeld" is, in essence, "a long, boring story with no point to it," at least as we generally understand "points." Its plots don't arc; its characters do not develop. The show's unofficial mantra was "no hugging, no learning," and it stuck to it assiduously for its nine seasons. (There were even jackets made up bearing the logo.) Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer never grow, never change, never adapt. They merely are, and their lives are less the stuff of art than accretions of the sort of niggling details art traditionally avoids -- the petty annoyances, minor scuffles, and bits of personal housekeeping that form the barely audible background hum of mundane existence. 

"Seinfeld" is a masterful exploration of minutiae, inspired by (and featuring, in bite-size bursts) star Jerry Seinfeld's pointillist stand-up routine. Alive with taglines, punch lines, and bursts of near-Dada nonsense poetry ("yada yada yada"), "Seinfeld" reinvents the sitcom as an experimental art form, its hyperrealism ultimately eschewing realism altogether in favor of a religious devotion to the oddball. Turning life inside out, "Seinfeld" empties it of all emotional or intellectual content -- all that hugging and learning -- and keeps only the dross, making it into a memorable potpourri of instantly recognizable details. Shrinkage. The puffy shirt. "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Spongeworthy. The Pez dispenser. Fusilli Jerry. Festivus. The Bubble Boy. "Shiksappeal." Mulva. The mimbo. The Soup Nazi. "Serenity now!" "They're real, and they're spectacular." And what of the epic question posed by the series' most justly beloved masturbation-themed episode "The Contest": "Are you still master of your domain?" Daily life was "Seinfeld"'s domain, and it was unquestionably the master there. It may have been about nothing, but that nothing grew until it seemed to include practically everything.

Seinfeld 4

Before we enumerate the many ways in which "Seinfeld" revolutionized the sitcom, it might be wisest to mention the ways in which it did not. The show still had three cameras and a laugh track, an anomaly in the era of "M*A*S*H" and a dinosaur by the early 1990s. It insisted on welcoming the series regulars -- particularly its house eccentric, Kramer -- with deafening rounds of applause entirely not in keeping with the show's aesthetic. "The Larry Sanders Show" debuted on HBO the month before "The Pitch" aired on NBC, and its free-wheeling, single-camera, laugh-track-free style made "Seinfeld"'s style seem positively ancient. 

Perhaps, having decimated so many of the traditions of the network sitcom, "Seinfeld" preferred to preserve some tenuous link to what had come before it, as if to remind viewers who echoed that NBC executive's concern that yes, this is a television show. It is also a nervous nod in the direction of those same executives, providing confirmation that "Seinfeld" was just as interested in crowd-pleasing entertainment as those earlier NBC smash hits "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers." "You don't think I could put asses in the seats?" Elaine huffily asks of her friends in the episode "The Shoes," skeptical of her erotic hold over a waffling NBC bigwig, and the same question could be seen as "Seinfeld"'s silent query. Even as it rewrote the rules for what a television sitcom was -- what it might be -- "Seinfeld" still assiduously devoted itself to putting asses in seats, in a manner that its more acid contemporary "The Larry Sanders Show" never did. One approach was not necessarily preferable to another; but the arc of sitcom history was clearly tilting away from the one and toward the other.

NBC executives had, indeed, approached Seinfeld, a thriving stand-up comic, in the late 1980s and asked him to pitch a show. Seinfeld, whose television experience ran to appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and a guest stint on the "Soap" spinoff "Benson" (ABC, 1979–86) alongside fellow future sitcom star Ted Danson, approached fellow comedian Larry David. Seinfeld and David realized that their joint taste for aimless conversation, like talking smack about the products on offer at a Korean grocer's, had never really been seen on television before. They initially planned for a one-time ninety-minute special following a comedian through his day, collecting shards of material. The show would culminate in the performer onstage, his material inevitably reflecting the course of his day. (The same kernel of an idea would inspire David's first post-"Seinfeld" television endeavor, the 1999 HBO special "Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm.")

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Seinfeld, NBC , Saul Austerlitz, Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Michael Richards, Sitcom







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