The seminal TV show of the 1990s started out as nothing special at all. It was a show about nothing, but it quickly turned into something. Stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld built his entire act on those little things we all do every day, which may not strike you as funny, but they are when you think about it. It was when he got together with Larry David, a cynical, grumpy comedian with Saturday Night Live experience, that Seinfeld struck gold.
The show they created for NBC featured Seinfeld as himself, a stand-up comedian in New York. Three friends were invented for him. One of them was based on David himself, a real estate agent named George Costanza (Jason Alexander) who had known Jerry since he was a kid. Another character was Kramer (Michael Richards), Jerry’s somewhat bizarre neighbor, who was based on a real person named Kenny Kramer who lived in the same building as David. And then there was the woman whose job it was to bring a feminine touch to this group of people. Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was Jerry’s former girlfriend; the two of them had managed to build a friendship after splitting up, which was quite a big deal considering how many girlfriends and boyfriends who made appearances in one or a number of episodes and then never were seen again.
In the beginning, these characters were all friendly, genial people, but even then you could sense that there was something wrong with them. Soon it turned out that they were pretty selfish, that they were unable to sustain romantic relationships because they would always find some stupid reason to end them, and that they had a tendency to become obsessed by small things, failing to see the bigger picture. They were never truly happy, and I believe the viewers connected with that. It was easy to empathize with people who always failed to realize that the current situation might be good if they only put up with its minor negative aspects.
Minor characters made an indelible mark
Kramer made Richards a big star and audiences loved his knack for physical comedy. But my favorite was George, this embodiment of Larry David. George was always the loser, the kind of person who would always find the glass half-empty. He also had a ruthless streak; he would take advantage of anyone and anything if there was something to gain from it. One brilliant idea the writers had was to complement this character by introducing his parents. Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris were absolutely hilarious in those parts, a constant source of embarrassment to a person who already had so much going against him.
Seinfeld, on the other hand, was no actor and that was obvious, but it didn’t matter. Watching him just observing the rest of the cast as they were doing their thing, barely being able to hold back laughter, was great fun. His character was in fact pretty interesting; here was a guy who could be equally callous as George, but also had a childish streak, idolizing Superman and usually seen eating cereal out of a bowl.
Over the years, several other very memorable characters appeared, some of them making an indelible mark. There’s the Soup Nazi. There’s Babu with the Pakistani restaurant. There’s Susan whom George accidentally poisoned. There’s the Bubble Boy. And there’s Newman, the guy Wayne Knight played, a cowardly, mean-spirited mailman who became Jerry’s nemesis.
The show stayed bright and inventive throughout its run – and most importantly, very funny, even after David’s departure. It was a very New York kind of experience… but apparently there lives a cynical little New Yorker in a lot of people all over the world.
Seinfeld 1990-1998:U.S. Made for TV. 180 episodes. Color. Created by Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David. Theme: Jonathan Wolff. Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine Benes), Jason Alexander (George Costanza), Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer), Wayne Knight (91-98).
Trivia: The original pilot episode aired in 1989.
Emmy: Outstanding Comedy Series 92-93; Writing 91-92, 92-93; Supporting Actor (Richards) 92-93, 93-94, 96-97; Supporting Actress (Louis-Dreyfus) 95-96. Golden Globe: Best Comedy Series 94; Actor (Seinfeld) 94; Actress (Louis-Dreyfus) 94.
Quote: “Do you ever get down on your knees and thank God you know me and have access to my dementia?” (Alexander to Seinfeld)
Last word: “Larry [David] runs into a guy like me who just expects to succeed at everything. There were two keys to the show. Our sense of humor is combustible together. There was no idea he would have that I couldn’t immediately get onto and say, ‘Yeah, then we’ll do that and then we’ll do that.’ We’re very combustible together. The other thing, equally as important to me, absolutely, if not more important, is we shared a relentless work ethic, both of us. There was no effort that was spared, no effort was too much, we were working Saturday, we were working Sunday, we were working Tuesday night… This thing is going to be right. This script is going to be right before we turn those cameras on. But he, of course, always expects disaster and I always expect glory.” (Seinfeld, Parade)