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How ‘Seinfeld’ Revolutionized The Sitcom

How 'Seinfeld' Revolutionized The Sitcom

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.


“The Pitch”
September 16, 1992

“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.

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 ‘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.

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.”)

Later, Seinfeld and David came up with a similar sitcom idea, about two stand-up comedians much like themselves who used their mundane adventures as source material for their comedy. Both ideas were eventually scrapped — ninety minutes was too long for the special, and Seinfeld and David did not want to pepper a twenty-two-minute sitcom with two separate stand-up acts. But the kernel of both — the link between the boredom of the everyday and the keenly honed observation of stand-up — became the fulcrum on which “Seinfeld” turns. They pitched the series to NBC — reportedly, the phrase “a show about nothing” was never uttered — and the network tentatively agreed to take it. NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, himself Jewish and from New York, worried that “it’s too New York and it’s too Jewish” but had the patience to leave “Seinfeld” on the air as it found an audience.

The show began as a midseason replacement in 1989–90 called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” In the pilot episode, instead of Elaine, there was a wisecracking waitress at Monk’s. And George was more of a romantic guru, a successful real-estate mogul who belted out show tunes and dispensed relationship wisdom to Jerry. (It is hard to imagine the George of later seasons offering up any of his favorites from “Les Miserables” — or even having enough interest in the world beyond his testicles and his hairline to attend a performance of the show.) Soon enough, George was the Costanza America grew to love, observing in mock-professorial fashion that “I know less about women … than anyone in the world.” And after auditioning the likes of Megan Mullally and Rosie O’Donnell, David and Seinfeld happily settled on Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the role of Elaine.

The first two seasons of the show are decidedly uneven, but “The Chinese Restaurant,” from the end of the second season, is a hint of where “Seinfeld” planned to go. Jerry, George, and Elaine head to their favorite Chinese joint for dinner and proceed to … wait. George attempts to commandeer a pay phone to call his girlfriend, Elaine moans about her hunger pains, and Jerry fails in his attempts to bribe the maître d’. Jerry offers Elaine 50 dollars to grab an egg roll off some elderly patrons’ table. As soon as they leave the restaurant, too hungry and frustrated to wait another minute, the maître d’ calls their table. End of episode. There are no interruptions here, no breaks in the action, none of the compressions and elisions native to the sitcom. It is television comedy unadorned and unafraid. By the time of “The Pitch,” written by Larry David, George is offering up this very incident — an anecdote from his life or an episode from our “Seinfeld” life — as the epitome of what his “Seinfeld”-esque series will feature. 

There are, functionally speaking, two stand-up comics on “Seinfeld.” There’s Seinfeld himself, less an actor than a comedian parachuted into the war zone of television, his voice ascending into its whinier upper registers when he is inevitably agitated, and there is Alexander’s George Costanza, a lightly disguised version of the phobic, disheveled, hyperarticulate David. George is socially maladjusted, romantically inept, and professionally incompetent, a connoisseur of diminished expectations whose list of potential conversational gambits with women begins and seemingly ends with “How I’m good at going in reverse in my car.” He and Jerry are joined by their two compatriots and partners in crime: wild, magnificent Kramer, his tangled shocks of hair an exact correlative for his personality, prone to such flights of fancy as rebranding himself as an underwear model or designing a coffee table book about coffee tables; and Elaine, a tightly bundled mass of neuroses, given to slugging her friends (“Get out!”) and ditching her boyfriends for not being “spongeworthy.”

Transforming Larry into George was not the only sleight-of-hand trick the series played; “Seinfeld” is, at its core, about the self-absorbed lives of four lightly disguised neurotic New York Jews, their sensibilities transmogrified into more generic Manhattan personae that likely fooled no one. The Gentile backstories and non-Semitic last names — Benes? Costanza? — are hardly convincing evidence, given the show’s recurring interest in mohels, babkas, marble ryes, Chinese restaurants, and South Florida. And what Italian in the history of the world has ever asked his host at an impromptu screening of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” as George Costanza does, “So, anything to, uh, nosh?”

One is reminded of the brilliant cold open to the fourth season of 30 Rock, and NBC network exec Jack Donaghy’s suggestions for making their show within a show more marketable to mainstream America: “We’ll trick those race-car-loving wide loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda yet!” For nine seasons (including five in the top three of the Nielsen ratings), “Seinfeld”‘s brand of Jewish Manhattanite propaganda was one of the most popular shows on television. 

To fully grapple with the miracle of “Seinfeld,” we must turn our attention to perhaps the most perfect of its 180 episodes, written by David and airing later that same fourth season. In “The Contest,” as in every “Seinfeld” episode, the ineluctable, intermeshing gears of comic fate are set into motion by an improbable sequence of events. George is caught in an embarrassing position by his mother while flipping through a copy of Glamour magazine at his parents’ house: “I didn’t know whether to try and keep her from falling or zip up!” Humiliated, George pledges to never pleasure himself again — a pledge his friends believe him highly unlikely to fulfill. After all, as Jerry observes to Elaine about men in general, “We have to do it. It’s part of our lifestyle.” Elaine pleads to be included in the bet, arguing that it is best compared to shaving: just as men shave their faces, women shave their legs. (“Not every day,” Kramer sagely observes.) 

And so a four-way competition is established, with the last one to stay master of his — or her — domain declared the winner. The contestants are faced with an array of unprecedented erotic trials: a naked woman in the apartment across the street; the stunning nurse sponge-bathing an equally stunning patient in the bed next to George’s mother; the temptation of Jerry’s girlfriend Marla, the prudish virgin (played by Jane Leeves, later “Frasier”‘s Daphne); and for Elaine, the sight of John F. Kennedy Jr. on the mat in front of her at the gym. Contestants drop, one by one. Kramer spots the nude beauty, retreats to his apartment, and returns, slamming his hundred dollars on the counter and shouting “I’m out!” — hand saucily posed on hip. 

That night, Elaine, George, and Jerry toss and turn in their beds as Kramer sleeps the sleep of the satiated. A few days later, Elaine strolls in, calmly removes the cash from her wallet, and announces defeat, murmuring a new name to herself like a mantra: “Elaine Benes Kennedy Jr.” George and Jerry are reduced to shouting at each other about matters of deep import like socks and coffee, their sexual frustration transmuted into a crabby “Odd Couple” dynamic. The episode doesn’t reveal which of the final two contestants wins the wager — though George will claim the following season that he was the victor. The true champion, however, is Kramer, who is spotted by his friends in the naked woman’s window across the street, waving, at episode’s end. Jerry, on the other hand, loses a girlfriend in the bargain; horrified to learn of Jerry’s bet with his “perverted friends,” Marla the virgin storms out — into the arms of John F. Kennedy Jr.

The miracle of “The Contest” is that, following network strictures, no one ever says the word “masturbate.” Instead, “Seinfeld” provides its own brand of instantly understandable jargon. George is “king of the county”; Jerry is “lord of the manor.” Everyone is (at least temporarily) “master of their domain.” Divergent subplots — George getting caught in the act, Elaine’s run-in with JFK Jr., Jerry’s girlfriend’s prudery — are brilliantly woven together, with each unexpectedly bouncing off the other in a game of high-stakes comic ping-pong. 

If there is a platonic ideal of the “Seinfeld” episode, it is the foursome encountering a new patsy and promptly proceeding to destroy their lives. Babu the Pakistani immigrant, his restaurant dreams destroyed by Jerry; the Bubble Boy, his protective sac trampled; George’s girlfriend Susan’s father, whose beloved cabin is burned to the ground with one of his own cigars, and whose secret homosexual relationship with the novelist John Cheever is exposed; Poppie the restaurateur, whose pro-life abortion views doom his flourishing pizza business. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are like roving assassins of others’ well-being, their modus operandi the uncovering of others’ secret shames.

An inordinate amount of the series is set in those receptacles of the tragically mundane: trains, buses, dry cleaners, coffee shops, restaurants. Over the course of its nine seasons, “Seinfeld” develops an urban cosmology akin to that of “The Simpsons,” with its four central protagonists surrounded by a roiling scrum of memorably quirky supporting characters like Jerry’s Uncle Leo, who makes a habit of fishing discarded wristwatches out of the trash and shoplifting books; George’s hideously neurotic parents (played by Estelle Harris and the inimitable Jerry Stiller); New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner (voiced by Larry David himself as an update on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”‘s petulant, mostly absent Alan Brady), with a taste for calzones and a tendency toward ranting; and above all, Wayne Knight’s gleefully odious postman Newman, who serves as Jerry’s neighbor and all-purpose nemesis. Knight is the inspiration for the most cutting greeting in the history of television: Jerry’s gritted-teeth “Hello, Newman.” The show’s grubby realism is borne of these eternally recurring, unshakable presences. They are emblems of an entire world of nagging, harassment, and petty hostility, which are “Seinfeld”‘s preferred methods of interaction.

This penchant for unveiling and shaming extends to their own lives; “Seinfeld” is devoted to the ritual humiliation of its own featured characters. In “The Raincoats,” Newman busts Jerry making out with his girlfriend during a screening of Schindler’s List, to the eternal chagrin of his fretful Jewish parents. Jerry, unable to understand Kramer’s “low-talking” fashion-designer girlfriend at dinner in “The Puffy Shirt,” accidentally agrees to wear a career-damaging ruffled shirt for an appearance on the “Today” show. Jerry and George are wrongly exposed as gay lovers by an intrepid college reporter in “The Outing,” reducing them to increasingly unlikely disavowals of homosexuality and pleas for tolerance: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” (“My father’s gay!” George blurts out.) In “The Implant,” Jerry schemes pathetically in order to determine whether his girlfriend (played by future “Desperate Housewives” star Teri Hatcher) has had a breast job. She discovers his ruse and memorably kisses him off: “They’re real, and they’re spectacular.”

Much of “Seinfeld” is turned over to its star’s observation of contemporary phenomena, passing judgment on the minute questions of propriety to which it — and only it — turns its attention, like the world’s quirkiest advice column. Who controls a parking spot — the car backing in or the one pulling in? What is the appropriate amount of time to surreptitiously glance at a woman’s cleavage? Is it permissible for a man to steal another man’s signature move in bed? Is cinnamon the “lesser babka”? Seinfeld’s stand-up turns on such points of etiquette, and the show itself functions as a dramatization of the issues enumerated in Jerry’s routines.

“Seinfeld” is, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cheers” before it, a show about single people in a big city, but unlike those will-they-or-won’t-they soap operas, it is abundantly clear that there will be no happy endings on “Seinfeld.” “The idea,” Jerry tells Elaine early on, attempting to sell her on a no-strings-attached sexual relationship, “is to combine the this” — his hands rapidly dance between the two of them in a speed-walking maneuver, indicating the back-and-forth of good conversation — “and the that,” jerking his thumb backward to point at the bedroom. Peter Mehlman, soon to be a writer on the show, watched this scene being filmed and decided that this moment, with its judicious depiction of a quintessential human conundrum, was “the greatest single scene in the history of sitcoms.” Yet the entire crux of “Seinfeld” is that, like Jerry’s beloved Superman and Kryptonite, there is no genuine combination of the this and the that that does not result in calamity. During a stand-up tour after the episode aired, Seinfeld polled audiences about whether they wanted Jerry and Elaine to wind up together. He returned to the show convinced that the characters would have to be kept apart, and the intimation of their friends-with-benefits bliss was unceremoniously dropped.

“Seinfeld” is a show about the eternality of small annoyances, and its fundamental tone — speedy, easily agitated, fundamentally shallow — could never be altered by marital bliss. The show about nothing feints at something before pulling back, taunting us for even considering the possibility of maturity and responsibility for these characters. “What in God’s name are we doing?” George cries out at the start of the seventh season. “We’re like children — we’re not men!” Jerry and George pledge to become responsible adults but prefer bickering about who may or may not have reneged on their agreement to settle down than actually, you know, settling down. Jerry meets the perfect woman (played by Janeane Garofalo), his identical twin in every quirk of their shared personalities, and rashly proposes marriage before reconsidering: “I can’t be with someone like me! I hate myself!”

Would we prefer emotional honesty? In another episode, Jerry cries over the latest in his interchangeable array of here-today, gone-tomorrow girlfriends, experiencing something new. “What is this salty discharge?” he wonders, rubbing at his wet eyes. “This is horrible. I care.” The new, emotionally open Jerry is a much improved human being. What he is not, as he well knows, is himself. “Sure, I’m not funny anymore,” he excuses himself, “but there’s more to life than making shallow, fairly obvious observations.” Not in the world of “Seinfeld” there wasn’t. Emotion would only have clogged the pipes.

Even George’s impromptu engagement to Susan (Heidi Swedberg) is merely a dodge, an extended jab at the very notion of maturity, audaciously unraveled by her unexpected death from licking defective envelopes for their wedding invitations. (Taking a page out of “MTM”‘s “Chuckles the Clown,” her unexpected death is played primarily for laughs.) Girlfriends and boyfriends are dismissed for reasons so patently ludicrous even the characters themselves must admit their inadequacy. One fails to place an exclamation mark after a phone message announcing a friend’s new baby; another is dismissed for liking an annoying commercial for Dockers pants; a third bites the dust because Jerry failed to remember her name, which he knew rhymed with a female body part. (Was it Mulva?) “So essentially,” Elaine wonders in “The Soup Nazi,” “you chose soup over a woman?” “It was a bisque,” Jerry mutters in his own defense. It is, as Elaine diagnoses Jerry, a disorder rapidly heading toward outright dementia: “So now you’re finding fault at a subatomic level?”

“Seinfeld” was so popular, and so thoroughly unlike what had preceded it on television, that a legion of imitators were introduced over the next few seasons, each hoping to capitalize on its enormous success. Its television shadow was long enough to encompass other near-legendary shows that emerged in its wake. One pictures legions of television executives — close kin to Bob Balaban’s fictional NBC president Russell Dalrymple — throwing telephone handsets at their underlings, demanding they be brought the next “Seinfeld.” There would be no next “Seinfeld,” but there were numerous imitators and impersonators that sought to capture some fleeting measure of the original’s quirky magic. 

“Ellen” (ABC, 1994–98) began life as “These Friends of Mine,” a title so generic it could have been pressed into service as an alternate name for “Seinfeld” — or another show debuting that same season on NBC, “Friends.” Eventually, “These Friends of Mine” would be renamed after its star, but it would remain a show about aimless Gen Xers sipping coffee and getting into low-impact scrapes. Star Ellen DeGeneres was, like Seinfeld, another stand-up vet with a charmingly frictionless affect, as if she had just been awoken from an afternoon nap, and a fondness for observational humor. 

“Ellen” honors “Seinfeld”‘s commandment to elide all emotional content but never connects with audiences until the landmark “The Puppy Episode.” Ellen comes out as a lesbian through an experience of the very kind “Seinfeld” is least interested in — a genuine encounter with another human being (played by Laura Dern). “Seinfeld” deflects uncomfortable sensation with humor and aimless chatter; “Ellen” mostly fails to entertain, but on this one occasion, it succeeds by rendering homosexuality less “not that there’s anything wrong with that” than another matter for pointed observation. Ellen comes out to her friends, and Joe (David Anthony Higgins) offers his congratulations, then turns to the others: “OK, pay up.” This landmark moment in television is also an opportunity to revisit “Cheers”‘ fondness for relationship-themed betting.

Then there is “Everybody Loves Raymond” (CBS, 1996–2005), with Ray Romano stepping in for Seinfeld as the designated straight man surrounded by eccentrics and paranoids. In this case, the oddballs are all members of Raymond’s family, living next door to him and his wife (Patricia Heaton) and doing their best to spoil their version of middle-class Long Island bliss. This being a CBS show, the entire mood of “Raymond” is less subtle, less devoted to wordplay, and more aggressively normal than “Seinfeld” could ever have been. And yet, something of “Seinfeld” lingers in the Kramer-esque convolutions of Brad Garrett as Raymond’s police officer brother (who had played Jerry’s hectoring mechanic in the “Seinfeld” episode “The Bottle Deposit”), he of the gangly limbs and gravelly voice, and the persistent nagging of Doris Roberts and Peter Boyle as Raymond’s irrepressible parents. It is as if Morty and Helen Seinfeld had left Florida to move in with Jerry and refused ever to go home. 

“The King of Queens” (CBS, 1998–2007) made so bold as to hijack George’s dad, Jerry Stiller, to play star Kevin James’s rambunctious father-in-law. The gap between Frank Costanza and Arthur Spooner is so minimal as to be unnoticeable, with King functioning, as a result, as an off-license spinoff of “Seinfeld.”

NBC, meanwhile, attempted to recreate the magic time and again, usually with more heart, mostly to indifferent results. There was “The Single Guy” (1995–97), in which Jonathan Silverman’s urban ne’er-do-well is surrounded by a passel of quirky friends, including Dan Cortese, who had memorably played Elaine’s “mimbo” boyfriend. Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt’s Paul and Jamie are like a kinder, gentler Jerry and Elaine on “Mad About You” (1992–99), its aura of Manhattan madness like “The Thin Man” without the mysteries and the martinis. Reiser and Seinfeld even appear to be related, with Jerry’s Uncle Leo also Paul’s Uncle Arnold, as documented in the “Citizen Kane”-flavored episode “Citizen Buchman.” Paul and Jerry are each anxious Jewish men, their fragile equilibrium rattled by the meddling of others. Like Jerry, Paul spends much of his time fending off the well-meaning interventions of his relatives. Like Jerry, Paul’s female companion — his wife, in his case — is an outsider to his neurotic Jewish world, a blatant case of mainstream-skewing “shiksappeal.” 

The two shows share a fascination with the brusqueness of New York living, where even a pregnant woman’s trip to the hospital (as in “Mad About You”‘s “The Birth”) could become a squabble over which expectant mother was first in line for the delivery room. And yet, there the similarities mostly end. Reiser is never the transformational figure Seinfeld was, and his show exists in a lower, less daring register than its inspiration. The entire tone of “Mad About You,” its fascination with the relationship dynamics between Reiser and wife Helen Hunt, is downright mushy in comparison with the acerbic “Seinfeld.” It would be “Seinfeld,” in fact, that would have the definitive last word on the show, when George, having proposed marriage to Susan in “The Engagement,” is doomed to a lifetime of snuggling in bed while watching “Mad About You.” Hell is Paul Reiser.

Above all, there was “Friends,” which numerous critics immediately labeled as a “Seinfeld” knockoff, but which parlayed its predecessor’s only-in-New-Yorkness and quirkiness in a less abrasive, more conventional package. “Friends,” easily the most successful of the “Seinfeld” acolytes, and the only one to match its popularity, borrows its New York setting and its gang-of-friends dynamic (and “Mad About You”‘s quirky waitress Ursula, played by series regular Lisa Kudrow), while ignoring its “no hugging, no learning” aesthetic and its astringent brand of comedy. Could anyone imagine Elaine and Kramer commencing a romance, or George fathering a baby with Susan? “No hugging” gave way to the roundelay of bruised hearts that was “Friends”‘ bread and butter (about which more in chapter 17). 

While most of “Seinfeld”‘s imitators celebrated the ordinary, none could capture the comic audacity of its relentless pursuit of the prosaic, or its expert juggling and intertwining of initially divergent subplots. Given that the only show that has ever approached “Seinfeld”‘s sophistication is its quasi-successor “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” one might presume that this particular form of multistranded sitcom genius is reserved for Larry David alone. 

By the latter third of its run, “Seinfeld” was somewhat exhausted by its own commitment to mundanity, even as it continued to occasionally turn out classic episodes and discover untapped nodes of absurdity in new secondary characters such as catalog mogul J. Peterman (John O’Hurley), Elaine’s boyfriend Puddy (Patrick Warburton), and George Steinbrenner. Larry David left the show after the seventh season, and “Seinfeld” became, in the words of one David associate, “more postmodern.” “I can’t spend the rest of my life coming in to this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutiae of every single daily event,” Elaine moans. Jerry responds by immediately launching into a story about his trip to the bank. The self-referentiality of “The Pitch” is returned to time and again, if on less inspired terms, with Elaine turning Kramer’s meandering stories into sellable material for the J. Peterman catalog, and Kramer peddling the Real Peterman Reality Bus Tour (a play off a similar endeavor by the supposed real-life inspiration for Kramer). 

Instead of happy endings, or some “Mary Tyler Moore” huddle of friends, “Seinfeld” decided to go out the way it had come in: rubbing against the grain of the medium that had borne it. Larry David returned to pen “The Finale,” “Seinfeld”‘s last episode, which is generally considered to be a textbook example of a disappointing conclusion to a beloved television series. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are flying to Paris on NBC’s private jet after a new executive expresses interest in Jerry and George’s long-discarded sitcom pitch. “Do you think this is the plane that Ted Danson gets?” George wonders, still concerned about his place in the sitcom hierarchy. (In “The Ticket,” the episode after “The Pitch,” George insists, “I can’t live knowing that Ted Danson makes that much more than me.”) The plane hits some unexpected fierce turbulence, and George has a confession to make, thoroughly reorienting our understanding of what took place in “The Contest.” This is “Seinfeld”‘s deepest concern, the truth that emerges when its characters appear to be headed toward an imminent and fiery death: who did or did not secretly cheat during a masturbation contest some five years prior. 

During an impromptu layover in Massachusetts, the quartet are arrested for standing by idly and cracking jokes while a man is being held up at gunpoint. “This time,” proclaims the district attorney arguing their case, “they are going to be held accountable. This time, they are the ones who will pay.” 

“Seinfeld” is setting up a belated reckoning for its criminally negligent protagonists, allowing the real world to have its revenge on these clinicians of narcissism. Their victims — the Bubble Boy and Babu and the Soup Nazi and the puffy-shirt designer and Marla the virgin — return to testify to their callousness and cruelty. But even this audacious narrative gambit — a sitcom’s characters on trial! — has no effect on the four defendants. We close on them locked into a lone jail cell, the camera receding down a long hallway as Jerry and George discuss the placement of shirt buttons. Astute viewers would remember this as the very first conversation from the very first episode of what was then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” “Seinfeld” was a closed loop; we ended exactly where we began.

Audiences were furious, and Larry David’s next series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” would devote an entire season to, in effect, apologizing for having left fans in the lurch. But “Seinfeld” had always been about upsetting sitcom viewers used to bland comfort. Its final act was merely the last twist of the knife, reminding audiences that sitcoms no longer existed merely to please them. The joke was on them.

Like the stars of “M*A*S*H” or “Cheers,” the “Seinfeld” foursome were weighed down by the burden of their success. How do you top having starred in the defining sitcom of its era? Jerry Seinfeld wisely opted to mostly leave television behind, honing his stand-up act, writing an animated film, and producing a documentary on comedians. He also made a memorable appearance on the third season of “Louie” as Louis C.K.’s backstabbing rival for a late-night talk show host job. Julia Louis-Dreyfus put together the strongest resume of the “Seinfeld” stars. After the short-lived “Watching Ellie” (NBC, 2002–03), she rebounded with a strong guest run as Jason Bateman’s love interest and foil on “Arrested Development,” and a popular if undistinguished CBS series, “The New Adventures of Old Christine” (2006–10). Louis-Dreyfus went on to win an Emmy as the star of Armando Iannucci’s HBO series “Veep” (2012– ), playing an underutilized vice president desperate for some political traction.

Jason Alexander, perhaps the most acclaimed performer of the “Seinfeld” quartet, struck out with each of his next two sitcom efforts, “Bob Patterson” (ABC, 2001), about “America’s #3 Self-Help Guru,” and “Listen Up” (CBS, 2004–05), costarring “The Cosby Show”‘s Malcolm-Jamal Warner. “The Michael Richards Show” (NBC, 2000), reteaming Richards with a team of “Seinfeld” writers, was also a bust. “Seinfeld” was a gilded prison, shackling its stars even as it feted them. The only roles they could truly be suited for, as their triumphant guest run on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” would prove, was as their “Seinfeld” personae.

Find out more about “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘Community'” at Saul Austerlitz’s website.

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