‘Seinfeld’ at 25: Five reasons nothing is everything
LOS ANGELES — “Seinfeld” had nothing to say — and that was its genius.
Other groundbreaking series make a point of stressing their inventiveness, practically shouting, “Look at me!” “Seinfeld,” on the other hand, blissfully took a Festivus pole to sitcom conventions, with unsympathetic characters, defiantly provincial New York interests and intricate plotting mechanisms — and never called attention to itself.
In fact, there was so much right about the show that it eventually became TV’s No. 1 program and one of the most lauded sitcoms ever.
In the 25 years since “Seinfeld” premiered on July 5, 1989, as “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” it has worked its way into pop culture — its catchphrases still repeated, its plots still recounted, its shocking revelations about writer John Cheever and pitcher Roger McDowell still gasped about.
But enough yada, yada, yada. Here are five things that made nothing into everything:
1. No hugging, no learning. In general, pre-“Seinfeld” sitcoms included heartwarming laughs, sympathetic “aws” and lessons learned. But there were no social niceties for Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer. The quartet was so narcissistic that, when George’s fiancée, Susan, died after licking defective wedding invitation envelopes in the seventh season, George and the gang shrugged and continued with their lives.
Few sitcoms have dared to follow in its coldhearted footsteps, but there are exceptions, such as “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Community” and “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz makes the point that “Seinfeld” also paved the way for our recent bounty of coldhearted dramas.)
2. Four in one. Pre-“Seinfeld,” most sitcoms were classic cases of simplicity: one major plot, perhaps one minor plot, play them out in 22 minutes and turn on the applause sign. “Seinfeld” sometimes had four plots — one for each primary character — and would put them together so Jerry’s girlfriend with the real breasts (Teri Hatcher) would cross paths with Elaine in a steam room. Or aspiring hand model George would burn himself with the iron being used to smooth out Jerry’s puffy shirt.
In those days, not many serialized dramas would dare attempt such plot juggling, never mind comedies. It’s still more the exception than the rule.
3. New York, New York. “Seinfeld” made the Big Apple the center of the sitcom universe. Suddenly it seemed like half of NBC’s schedule was making ends meet in Manhattan — “Friends,” “Caroline in the City,” “Mad About You,” “The Single Guy,” “Will & Grace” — while ABC and CBS added to the mix with such shows as “The King of Queens,” “Spin City” and “The Nanny.”
New York was so prominent on ’90s TV schedules that one ABC show, “It’s Like, You Know” (created by “Seinfeld” writer and producer Peter Mehlman), made hay out of the concept of a New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles. (Incidentally, for all its New Yorkiness, “Seinfeld” was shot at a studio in L.A.)
4. Heavy meta. Other sitcoms had been self-referential — George Burns and Garry Shandling regularly broke the fourth wall in their programs — but Jerry and his pals took meta-ness to a whole new level. Season four, in fact, was literally about a show within a show as Jerry and George pitched NBC “a show about nothing” called “Jerry” that bore eerie similarities to “Seinfeld.”
However, for all of “Seinfeld’s” quotation marks, it often used real people and brand names. There really is a J. Peterman catalog, New York’s American League baseball team really is the Yankees and those are real cereal brands on Jerry’s shelf. However, Vandelay Industries is still fictional — we think.
5. Sponge-worthy catchphrases. Few shows have produced as many popular quotations as “Seinfeld.” You’re probably reciting them now: “No soup for you.” “Master of your domain.” “Yada yada.” “Shrinkage.” “Look to the cookie.” You can leave more of them in the comments … unless you’re a low-talker. In that case, you’ll have to speak up.