The show about nothing ended in May 1998. But in an era when priorities are being re-evaluated, the sitcom has taken on new relevance.
Early in the pandemic, I developed a strange habit. Every night, I’d slip my phone under my pillow and listen to an episode (or six) of “Seinfeld” through a few inches of poly-fill stuffing. Though for anyone who knows me, that inclination probably tracks.
I started watching “Seinfeld” when it debuted on NBC in 1989 and never stopped, watching and rewatching every episode relentlessly on various platforms, reading the scripts in my free time and annoyingly inserting quotes into conversation at every chance. (Apologies to all.)
When the show concluded 25 years ago on Sunday, just days before I graduated from high school, I and my fellow young “Seinfeld” aficionados gathered in front of the TV to say goodbye to Jerry, Elaine, George, Kramer and the many indelible side characters, like Yev Kassem (“The Soup Nazi”) and Marla Penny (“The Virgin”), who denounced them in a courtroom in the show’s polarizing finale. It was technically the end of an era, but for me, it was only the beginning of what would go on to inform every phase of my life.
As it turns out, my strange pillow habit did more than amuse and calm me while I lay sleepless during a profoundly stressful time. In those hours, I started to think about the show differently. Why, as the fabric of society seemed to be fraying, did it seem so prescient? Why did it seem like the four friends — who gleefully, proudly, deftly flouted societal conventions and the rules of traditional adulthood — had long ago tapped into some fundamental truths that, because of the pandemic’s disruptions, many were re-examining?
For the somehow uninitiated, “Seinfeld,” created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, stars Seinfeld as a fictionalized version of himself and follows his shenanigans with his three closest friends: his childhood buddy, George Costanza (Jason Alexander); his former girlfriend turned pal, Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus); and his oddball neighbor, Kramer (Michael Richards). It is regarded as one of the greatest shows of all time.
It has consistently been framed as a comedy about four terrible people, with good reason. Jerry and his fellow misfits lied, cheated and stole. They were petty and shallow. They created a framework for “bad” sitcom characters that shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” would embrace with great relish and success.
But they also presented an irreverent version of adulthood that I had never seen on TV or in life: a playful yet sophisticated world where grown-ups joked and laughed together and didn’t take themselves too seriously, even when everyone around them was being very serious indeed.
Most important, they openly mocked the notion that professional success, marriage and parenthood were the cornerstones of existence. For me, a serious child surrounded by serious adults — a child who was ostracized by those unable to categorize me, and who knew early that established paths to fulfillment would not apply — this revealed loads of possibilities.
“Seinfeld” outright questioned these constructs. In one episode, when Jerry and George are compelled to wonder whether they need to grow up, Jerry gets an explosive rebuke from Kramer: “What are you thinking about, Jerry? Marriage? Family? They’re prisons! Man-made prisons! You’re doing time.” In another, when George bemoans an awkward office interaction, Jerry, self-satisfied, responds: “I’ve never had a job.” (In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Seinfeld said one benefit of being a comic was the ability to reject many facets of ordinary life: “You just don’t feel part of it, and that’s a good thing.”)
This refusenik sensibility is threaded through the entire series, and any attempt by the characters to sublimate themselves to social norms fizzled quickly and often in grand fashion. Particularly professionally, where opportunities and aspirations came and went: Kramer’s outlandish business ventures; Elaine’s fitful career in publishing; George’s corporate self-sabotage; even Jerry’s hope, in the show’s most meta subplot, to parlay his stand-up career into a successful sitcom.
Some of the funniest scenarios specifically skewered the absurdities of office jobs. In one episode, Kramer is mistaken for an employee after using a company’s bathroom and then keeps returning as if he works there. Wearing a suit and swinging a briefcase that contained nothing but crackers, he was a kid playing office; an impostor without impostor syndrome. Elaine’s professional prospects were subject to the whims of unreasonable, eccentric bosses, but her identity was never defined by her career. Instead her jobs and superiors acted as foils for her personality to flourish.
But crucially, after each of their many failures, the characters largely ended up just as they were before: fine, unbothered, unscathed and rarely dejected for long. This certainly had a precedent rooted in reality: When Terry Gross asked David in 1992 if the show’s early low ratings were demoralizing, he responded, “If the show got canceled, it didn’t make a difference to either one of us.”
John O’Hurley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Seinfeld.” Elaine’s professional life was defined by a series of eccentric bosses.Credit…Joseph Del Valle/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal, via Getty Images
When it came to personal values, “Seinfeld” offered a biting departure from the family sitcoms that came before it, like “The Cosby Show” and “Growing Pains,” which were based in the same accepted aspirations as the real world.
Other contemporary series focused on friendships — “Friends,” “Living Single,” “Will & Grace” — still predominantly followed a common trajectory, with career, relationship and family goals a driving force that often ramped up as the shows neared their ends. Instead of relying on the common late-season fallback of someone getting pregnant and having a baby, “Seinfeld” did the opposite, devoting story lines to diaphragms, the Today Sponge and condoms.
Despite the nihilism suggested by its “no hugging, no learning” motto (and by much of the characters’ behavior), “Seinfeld” did exhibit a worldview and priorities that were refreshing and, for me, far more aspirational and inspirational. Not despite the fact that these were flawed people uninterested in perfection, but because of it. Even with their abundant neuroses, they lived in the present, sought fun and were loyal to the tightknit, pretense-free friendships at the show’s heart, the kind where your people know your bad parts and love you anyway.
Today — as cracks in the facade of hustle culture continue to spread; as a growing library of books and articles promote the value of rest and fun; as more people delay or forgo marriage or children — real life seems to be catching up with “Seinfeld.” Even from a less rosy perspective, with the realization that long-held images of adulthood may not be as attainable as before, the show has taken on a fresh relatability, offering new reasons for a little self-deprecating humor.
At the end of the series finale, which was watched by a now unimaginable audience of 76 million people, the gang winds up in jail after that trial in which a parade of character witnesses, many of them wronged by the defendants over nine seasons, attest to their unethical behavior. (For the record, I struggled with the episode — like I do with many sitcom finales — for veering too far from the show’s distinct vibe, the primary source of my affection.)
But if you look at it from a different angle and put some of the silliness aside, you might glean a metaphor about those who don’t stick to the script, choosing instead to shamelessly indulge themselves in a culture that rarely appreciates indulgence without guilt. Theirs was a cell for people who declined to opt in, but at least they had each other.
In a way, my thinking this deeply about it might run antithetical to the spirit of “Seinfeld,” famously known as a show about nothing. Well, OK. In that case, yada yada yada, it turned out to be about pretty much everything.