It is twenty years since Seinfeld left our screens, Getintothis’ Andy Holland investigates the show’s continued appeal and picks ten of its defining moments.
In the 1990s in the UK, Seinfeld had a cult, rather than mainstream following, due to how the show was scheduled, usually between 11 and 12 o’clock on Friday nights, BBC2. Unless there was snooker on.
Another factor that may have been off-putting to some British viewers was that Seinfeld felt like a very American show, with a lot of in-jokes aimed at New Yorkers specifically. But to those of us who became avid viewers of the show, those in-jokes were part of its charm.
The show was based around Jerry Seinfeld, who essentially played a version of himself, a modestly successful stand-up comedian (in reality he was already very successful by this time and rather famous).
He was joined by three co-stars who played his ‘friends’; Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, and Julia Louis Dreyfus as Elaine Benes. The premise of the show was that it ‘about nothing’, but it quickly became apparent that it was about everything.
That is not to say that Seinfeld dealt with ‘issues’ like politics, inequality, war, and so on. If it did any of that it was strictly by accident. The show was more concerned with the petty, day-to-day tribulations of modern day life, dealing with social conventions; queuing, eating out, going on awkward dates, attending parties, feigning interest in other people’s newborn babies, engaging with others.
Seinfeld explored the moral minefield of modern life in a way that a sitcom had never dared before. This was a theme of Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy and his obsessions were more than amply shared by Larry David, who co-created the show. David’s alter-ego in the show was George Costanza, the most neurotic character of them all.
Of course, Larry David was to take all of these themes much further with his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, but they are all there in Seinfeld too, in fact some of ideas were later recycled for Curb. The weird antagonism towards dry-cleaners is shared by both shows, for instance, the dislike of casual niceties, the obsession with rules.
Seinfeld has been called a very ‘post modern’ show. This is perhaps because the main characters in the Seinfeld universe exist in a sort of moral vacuum. All of them seem to do things without ever considering the feelings of those around them.
The four ‘friends’ frequently go out of their way to undermine and sabotage others. They gleefully enjoy other’s misfortune, are frequently jealous, and take offence for the smallest of reasons.
This made the show revolutionary, particularly for the time. At the time it began airing the highest comedy in the ratings was the cosy Cosby Show. Even the contemporary show that the Seinfeld writers most admired, Cheers, ultimately had a sentimental streak (‘Everybody knows your name…’).
Seinfeld was never remotely cosy. The rule of the show was that there were no hugs, and the characters must never, under any circumstances, learn from their mistakes. The foursome gleefully lived in a moral vacuum, seemingly with no conscience or concern for the consequences of their actions. The moral ambivalence of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer was heroic, almost
To commemorate the show and celebrate the brazenness of the foursome, a look back at their finest – or lowest – moments, depending on how you view things, seems appropriate.
1) He took it out.
During The Stand In’ Jerry sets Elaine up on a date with a friend, Phil. All goes reasonably well until it turns out that Phil has rather a unique way of ending a romantic evening.
2) The sea was angry that day, my friends.
’In The Marine Biologist, Jerry bumps into a woman he and George went to school with. The woman asks about George, who she remembers as ‘such a goof off’.
At this point in Seinfeld, George is unemployed and living with his parents in Queens, so Jerry covers for him by claiming that he is currently working as a marine biologist. He then gives the woman George’s telephone number.
It turns that George always had a crush on the woman (Diane) but he is less than happy with Jerry’s choice of lie, since George likes pretending to be an architect, called Art Vanderlay.
3) … By the way, they’re real, and they’re SPECTACULAR!
Seinfeld often featured actors who went on to have a lot of success in other shows later. The Implant’ featured future Lois and Clark – Further Adventures Of Superman and Desperate Housewife Teri Hatcher playing Sidra, Jerry’s girlfriend. Coincidentally, Jerry’s obsession with Superman is often referenced on Seinfeld, but Hatcher had yet to play Lois Lane.
Within moments of meeting her, Kramer tells Jerry that Sidra’s breasts are implants. Kramer, even more than the other characters he was shown to have no filter at all; he’d say anything regardless of whether it might hurt people’s feelings.
Jerry responds to this by becoming obsessed with finding out whether Sidra’s breasts are real or not and talks Elaine into having a steam-bath with her to check.
During the steam-bath Elaine falls over and grabs Sidra’s breasts to break her fall, at which point she concludes that they are real.
4) I broke The Covenant Of The Keys!
The perennially unemployed (or barely self-employed) Kramer constantly steals food from Jerry and makes use of his apartment as if it is his own. Jerry’s tolerance of this finally breaks down in ‘The Keys’.
5) Eric the Clown put it out with his big shoe.
In episodes prior to the The Fire’ George seemed to be having – for him – a healthy relationship with a woman and had even built up a rapport with her child. Of course, this couldn’t last.
During a party being thrown for the child, George gets into an argument with the clown, played by John Favreau, because he thinks that Eric is a poor name for a clown. He uses Bozo The Clown as an example of somebody using an appropriate name. Eric has never heard of Bozo, which annoys George who believes that Bozo is part of every clown’s heritage.
Shortly after, a small kitchen fire breaks out. George immediately panics and flees the house, knocking over women, children, and disabled people in the process. A fireman asks him, ’How do you live with yourself?’ and George replies, ‘It’s not easy.’
6) No soup for you! NEXT!
One of the most memorable episodes of Seinfeld was The Soup Nazi. It was based on a real place in New York called Soup Kitchen International, which was run by a Persian soup vendor, Ali Yaganeh, whose soup’s excellence was only matched by his foul temper. This led to him earning the nickname ‘the Soup Nazi’.
In Seinfeld the character is called Yev Kassem. Kassem insists on soups being ordered in a brisk, orderly fashion, and won’t tolerate any chit-chat, or signs of indecision. Payment has to be made with the order. If any of these rules aren’t followed he yells ‘No soup for you!’, briefly pauses and shouts, ‘Next!’.
Kramer encourages his friends to try the place out and outlines the Kassem’s rules for them. Kramer believes that Kassem is a genius and is more than happy to deal with his eccentricities; Jerry also goes along with them because the soup is so good.
George makes the mistake of asking for bread with his soup, which annoys Kassem, who demands two dollars for it. George complains that other customers received theirs for free and Kassem responds by putting the price up to three dollars. After George continues to complain, Kassem shouts ‘No soup for you!’
Elaine is the only one of the four who refuses to abide by the rules, since she finds them ridiculous.
In The Junior Mint’ Jerry is dating a woman whose name he cannot recall. The only thing he does remember about is that it rhymes with a female body-part. He decides that Mulva is the most likely name.
8) I come home and find my son treating his body like an amusement park…
The Contest’ became both legendary and notorious, with some states refusing to show it. After George is caught by his mother ‘treating his body like an amusement park,’ the four friends bet decide to bet on who could refrain from masturbation for the longest.
As a consequence of catching George in the act, his mother had a minor accident. She is in hospital and George guiltily visits her. While he is there, however, he becomes distracted by an attractive nurse giving an even more attractive patient in the next bed a sponge-bath
Jerry is in a relationship with Marla, The Virgin, played by Jane Leeves (who later went on to play Daphne in Frazier), and so he is struggling to keep it together.
Kramer perversely watches a naked female exhibitionist in an apartment across the street from Jerry’s. Jerry desperately tries not to, despite Kramer insisting that Jerry’s youthful self would admonish him for wasting the opportunity.
Elaine has the hots for John Kennedy Jnr, who is working out at her gym.
The writers knew that the episode would be a difficult one to get away with and so they used creative language in the script rather than refer to masturbation, directly.
9) Who leaves a country packed with ponies to come to a non-pony country?
The Pony Remark was based on a remark Larry David actually made once. The episode begins with Jerry’s parents, Helen and Morty, staying at his apartment. They are in the city because they are to attend the 50th Anniversary Party of Helen’s Polish immigrant elderly cousin, Manya. Jerry doesn’t know her but he is guilted into attending the party by his mother.
Jerry doesn’t want to go so he talks Elaine into coming along as moral support. Once there, however, the two are split up and Elaine, to both of their consternation, is put at a smaller table with the children.
During the meal Helen brings up the subject of racehorses. Jerry then makes a sarcastic remark about horses in general, which prompts Elaine to join in about ‘kids who own ponies’. Jerry then emphatically remarks that he hates anybody who had a pony when they were growing up.
‘I had a pony!’ Manya suddenly reveals to thunderous silence. Jerry hastily tries to apologise but the whole evening has been soured.
When Manya dies later night, Jerry wonders to his friends whether his remark was responsible.
10) Let me ask you, had she been exposed to any kind of inexpensive glue?
In another controversial episode, The Invitations, George and his fiancé, Susan, are shopping for wedding invitations. George insists on buying the cheapest available, much to Susan’s annoyance. This decision has unforeseen and tragic results, when Susan dies due to the toxicity of the cheap glue on the envelopes.
George seems more relieved than sad when receiving the news. To make matters worse he tries to use the tragedy to get a date with Marisa Tomei.