October 4, 2021
Seinfeld, the ’90s sitcom that ingrained in our culture such indelible expressions as “These pretzels are making me thirsty!” and drew our attention to such social conundrums as, “Is soup a meal? Can you double-dip a chip? Can you re-gift a gift?”and raised social awareness about shrinkage, invented a Festivus for the rest of us, and … yada, yada, yada, is now streaming on Netflix.
The show was initially pitched to NBC by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld as a day in the life of the titular comedian. He’d see his friends, George Costanza (Jason Alexander) and Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and his neighbor, Kramer (Michael Richards), while coming up with material for his act.
Few misnomers are as egregious as the fact that Seinfeld was a show about “nothing.” Quite the contrary. By the end of its 10-year run, Seinfeld had satirized every possible social convention; it was a show about everything. I often say that nearly every social situation we find ourselves in has an appropriate Seinfeld reference.
The sitcom covered every issue from race to religion to JFK conspiracies to O.J. Simpson to abortion and homosexuality (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” ). Nothing was too risque or ribald for the writing duo Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. And everything they did was tasteful.
While Seinfeld’s fashion and VCRs and answering machines remain relics of the ‘90s, the show’s stories remain timeless. In its seventh season, it tackled the AIDS epidemic. In a clip that has been shared endlessly to deride the absurdity of social media cancel campaigns, a group of street toughs bellow at Kramer, exclaiming, “What do you mean you won’t wear the ribbon?”
As our culture has progressively shed its taboos, it has also lost its appreciation for subtlety. Today, in film and television, most jokes are honed to the crude sharpness of plastic spoons — for audiences the writers presume to be even duller. Seinfeld was one of the few shows that respected its audience enough to make us think about what was being conveyed.
In one episode titled “The Contest,” George Costanza’s mother catches him pleasuring himself. He proceeds to challenge the group to see how long they can go without doing the deed. It is a testament to the genius of Larry David’s writing that every uncomfortable facet of the situation is communicated without any character ever once mentioning the deed by name.
Most sitcoms, such as Friends, rely on writers neatly packaging setups and punchlines for their characters to snipe at each other. In Seinfeld, much of the humor is derived from the situations the characters are in and how relatable they are to us.
Through its seasons, Seinfeld tackled the frustration of trying to reserve a rental car, getting a table at a popular Chinese restaurant, getting ripped off at a car dealership, having your shirt ruined by the dry cleaner, being stuck in an uncomfortable party, yada, yada, yada — you get the idea.
What also set Seinfeld apart from other sitcoms was how the stories and jokes were intertwined. Much like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, in Seinfeld, episodes are composed of chains of coincidences that comically arise at different points.
And then there’s the casting. One of the great underappreciated marks of Seinfeld was Michael Richards’s unrivaled genius in physical comedy. In one scene, when he is denied trying to pay for calzones with change, Kramer goes off script, pretending to speak Italian and walking out tapping his foot on the counter.
In another unscripted scene, trying to balance a board game, Kramer hilariously uses his foot to clear newspapers off Seinfeld’s table.
And then there’s the bus story. You can see Seinfeld and Jason Alexander fighting to hold their laughter as Kramer narrates his escapades, trying to get a severed toe to the hospital and fighting off a bus hijacker.
While shows such as Friends tried to make their characters seem relatable, which was why its trio of female leads were all different stereotypes of women, Seinfeld insteadcreated situations that were relatable. Its characters were deeply flawed and selfish, and the show made no effort to conceal them. “Just remember,” George once told Seinfeld, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
And despite admonishment from critics that Seinfeld was too male-centric, its female lead, Elaine Benes, is one of the strongest characters ever put on television. “I’m a little scared of her,” George once said of Elaine. Throughout all her relationships on the show, she is always the one wearing the pants and calling the shots. “She’s too bossy,” complained one of her exes. Unbound to any trope, Elaine confidently danced with no rhythm, fought her way up the corporate ladder, and always stood up for herself.
The magic formula behind Seinfeld was the marriage of Larry David’s writing and Jerry Seinfeld’s precise observational comedy. Together, they made the Beatles of sitcoms, lampooning the myriad absurdities that permeate our everyday lives.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner