Television sitcoms come and go but only a select few can leave a lasting impression, both during its initial run and years after their finale. From I Love Lucy, to MASH to Cheers, the American sitcom does indeed have a rich history of comedic excellence; but of course, there’s perhaps no show that’s exhibited its unprecedented staying power better than Jerry Seinfeld’s and Larry David’s masterpiece about nothing Seinfeld.
May 14th marks the 20th anniversary of “The Finale”, the two-part concluding episode of the show still consistently ranked as among the best of all time. From inauspicious beginnings to a now widespread global following, the success of Seinfeld continues to permeate many aspects of our pop culture. Not bad for a show that last aired 20 years ago! (though syndicated reruns have certainly led to its lasting power, including streaming on Hulu and CraveTV, for an estimated revenue of close to $3 billion!) In fact, it may be safe to say that more people have watched the show on re-runs then during its original airing.
But why has this show “about nothing” managed to keep our attention not just during its run but two decades later? Seinfeld’s and David’s brilliance lay always with the steadfast idea of moving away from the traditional sitcom formula. In focusing on the trivial everyday matters of life, Seinfeld created a world relatable to many of us.
Who hasn’t waited for a table at a restaurant? Who hasn’t experienced the different seating classes on an airplane, gone through a regrettable dating relationship or struggled to find work? Who hasn’t had a bad experience with baked goods (the Black and White cookie) or been embarrassed publically (the Puffy shirt?) Who hasn’t…. you get the point. But even if one can’t directly relate to the situation at hand, the plausibility of all the scenarios make us appreciate them.
We were in a grocery store and talking about the different products on the shelves. And we were making each other laugh. Then we both realized that this is the kind of dialogue we never really heard on television, or even movies, for that matter.
– Larry David on how the (now) trademark sensibility of Seinfeld was developed
This is a show about life or “nothing”; it’s real and it’s spectacular! And into these scenarios insert great one-liners and you’ve got a winning formula for long-term success. Whether it’s “Spongeworthy”, “Shrinkage”, “Master of Your Domain”, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”, “Yada Yada” or “No soup for you” and more, Seinfeld’s quotability ranks highly as a reason for continued resonance.
The genius of the show’s concept and writing stands in its ability to transcend time; sure some situations, references, and technology are definitely from the ’90s, but the majority of the show’s humor is truly timeless. The episode “The Chinese Restaurant” for instance (a prime example of the show’s existential philosophy) remains as significant and timely as it did in 1991. Or the much debated “The Limo” where our gang unwittingly encounters a group of neo-Nazis, who would think it would have just as much importance in today’s world? And of course the acclaimed “The Contest”, whose central premise can never really age.
Even less significant episodes like “The Wallet” or “The Soul Mate”, have bits that show the ever-present relatability and sense of timelessness. Unlike shows like MASH or even modern hits like The Big Bang Theory, Seinfeld’s stories aren’t tied to a specific group of people (army surgeons or physicists) but everyday city folk and their daily experiences. Hence even after all this time off the air, the show is like new because it’s profiling everyday life.
Technology has changed as well as some social trends, but the act of meeting for lunch at a cafe or having a bad date will always be the same. Indeed many online accounts have sprung up with the idea of promoting “What if Seinfeld was on the air today?” This show “about nothing” is then ironically about an actual very important something: us.
While the show became noticeably more slapstick and absurdist towards the end, it always held to the truth that the more banal, the better the story. George’s insecurities, Kramer’s eccentricities, Elaine’s confidence and Jerry’s indifference may possibly be found in each of us, and through their daily escapades, we see our daily escapades. In Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the minutia, and trivialities are further expanded in a creation that rivals Seinfeld, but of course, it owes its success to the mold laid down by the audacious and experimental show that NBC nearly pulled the plug on.
As it continues its record-breaking run on syndication new audiences will continue to be exposed to the Seinfeld phenomenon, as old fans can rejoice at the everlasting presence of this landmark work of television.
With catchphrases, merchandise, re-runs, and constant everyday scenarios to remind us, Seinfeld has rightfully become a staple of North American popular culture. Its style and brilliance shined bright in the past, but it is the enduring luster that has solidified its place in history. 20 years after “The Finale” and there is still nothing like it on TV. No matter how much time passes, the human condition (with all its beauty and flaws) will never change; for as long as we experience the daily little joys and pains Seinfeld will be there ready to leave its mark.