How ‘Seinfeld’ Heralded Today’s Obsessive, Neurotic, and Inescapable TV Culture

There’s a reason Seinfeld has aged so well: It’s all around us.

Some TV shows blur the line between fiction and reality so acutely it’s hard to know where one stops and the other begins. In many ways, Seinfeld is the apex of this phenomenon, which Jennifer Keishin Armstrong documents in her new book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. The author got an object lesson in her own argument last month when Kenny Kramer — Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s former neighbor and the real-life inspiration for the same-named character on the show — crashed her book party.

Armstrong had interviewed Kramer for her book, published last month. When she invited him to the launch party and didn’t hear back, she didn’t think much of it. At the event, held in the basement of a Brooklyn bookstore, Armstrong introduced a Seinfeld clip in which Kramer gives a bus tour, explaining that the plot was based on Kenny Kramer’s Seinfeld-themed New York City bus tours. Then she heard a noise.

“I hear someone coming down the stairs, sort of mumbling, and my first thought was, who is this jerk coming down the stairs and making a big ruckus in the middle of my presentation?” Armstrong recalls. “It’s him. We had not planned this at all. I was like, ‘Kenny Kramer, ladies and gentlemen.’”

Like Kramer tumbling into Jerry’s apartment, Seinfeld continues to barge into our lives nearly two decades after the show went off the air. Intricately interlocking plots; eternally flawed characters; recurring details that reward close viewing — Seinfeld has left its fingerprints on so many of the most popular and critically acclaimed series of the past decade. And as anyone who’s flippantly referred to their significant other as “schmoopy” can attest, Seinfeld created an intra-series mythology that spilled beyond the bounds of the show itself and into the real world. There’s a reason Seinfeld has aged so well: It’s all around us.

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Our relationship to TV has changed so rapidly it’s easy to forget it wasn’t so long ago when a touring exhibition of a show’s costumes and set pieces would be reserved for the outrageously geeky. Now, such an event is just another item on our overflowing pop culture calendar, right next to Arrested Development bar trivia and a Transparent panel discussion at South by Southwest. These days, if you’re not obsessively, zealously dedicated to a TV show — dressing up as your favorite character for Halloween; tumbling down a Reddit rabbit hole to analyze the latest plot twist — you barely qualify as a fan.

This was not the case when Seinfeld premiered (as The Seinfeld Chronicles) in 1989. Fox had launched three years earlier in an attempt to upend the domination of the Big Three broadcast networks — NBC, ABC, and CBS — and had just premiered its breakout hit, an animated series called The Simpsons. Cable channels like HBO, MTV, and CNN were just beginning to expand their original programming to compete with the networks. Netflix was but a twinkle in Reed Hastings’ eye.

At the time, NBC was home to two of TV’s most popular shows, The Cosby Show and Cheers. It wasn’t much of a risk for the network to commission a pilot starring rising standup Jerry Seinfeld, produced with his friend, writer and comedian Larry David. The episode tested poorly, but as Armstrong reports, NBC execs liked it enough to sneak in a four-episode order. Rather than develop the show through the comedy department, the suits decided to produce it using the network’s budget for late-night and specials, cancelling a two-hour Bob Hope special to make way for four episodes of what would soon be renamed Seinfeld.

Developing early episodes of Seinfeld through this neglected backwater worked in the show’s favor. The executives in charge of the show were Rick Ludwin, who oversaw NBC’s late-night and specials division, and Jeremiah Bosgang, a newbie at NBC assigned to work for Ludwin. Ludwin was an early advocate for Seinfeld, and as Armstrong writes, he “impressed upon Bosgang the importance of empowering David and Seinfeld to make the kind of show they wanted to make, even when the network didn’t understand what the producers were doing.”

With the support of executives who allowed them creative freedom, and away from the glare of the spotlight, David and Seinfeld were able to make the show they wanted to make, on their own terms — a situation that mirrors the breakout success of many series in the post-broadcast era. As cable channels and streaming services continue to splinter the TV market, some of the most exciting shows of the past several years have snuck onto our screens through unexpected avenues: Orange is the New Black on Netflix, Louie on FX, Outlander on Starz, Mr. Robot on USA, UnREAL on Lifetime. Both HBO and Showtime passed on Matthew Weiner’s pilot about an enigmatic ad man in 1960s New York, so in 2007, Mad Men ended up on AMC, a network that was just beginning to get into the original programming game. Like Seinfeld, Mad Men was a visionary series that emerged from the shadows to become TV’s most buzzed-about series.

The early, under-the-radar development of Seinfeld isn’t the only factor that led to the show’s distinct voice. Larry David was notoriously exacting with his writing staff, demanding they dredge up their pettiest real-life experiences for the show — and then replacing most of the writers with a whole new staff for the next season.

But what really set the show apart from other hit sitcoms of the 1990s was David’s insistence that the four main characters’ plotlines converge at the end of each episode in a symphony of comic happenstance: Kramer practicing his driving skills by hitting golf balls into the ocean, for example, merges with George’s attempt to save a beached whale — its blowhole blocked by one of those golf balls — after he’s lied about being a marine biologist. “The golf ball and the whale shouldn’t end up together,” Armstrong says, “but they find a way to make that happen.”

For “a show about nothing,” Seinfeld is firmly structured and highly conceptual. Early reviews compared it to Roseanne and The Cosby Show — comedies based on the standup material of their eponymous creators — but both Roseanne Barr and Bill Cosby spun their jokes into family sitcoms. And while broadcast networks in the ’90s banked on “shows about spoiled young singles bonding,” as TV historian Tim Brooks has written, sitcoms like Friends and Ellen lacked the caustic quality of Seinfeld, which David and Seinfeld decided would abide by a now-famous cardinal rule: “No hugging, no learning.”

With its edgy material and acidic tone, Seinfeld helped pave the way for a wave of programming in the early-to-mid 2000s that we now recognize as “Golden Age” television. Anti-hero sagas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Shield, and Californication may not appear to have much in common with a sitcom about four nebbishy New Yorkers. But Seinfeld’s immense popularity proved to network executives that audiences could get on board with a show that didn’t necessarily end with a lesson and a group hug — and characters that reveled in their flaws instead of working to overcome them.

There’s darkness at the heart of Seinfeld: Strip away the bright lighting and studio audience laugh track and you could be watching any one of the half-hour comedy-drama hybrids (Louie, Girls, Togetherness, Transparent) that have now taken the sitcom’s place at the top of the TV comedy pyramid. Frankly, TV today could use a little more hugging and learning: the success of lighter fare like Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Master of None suggests audiences have had enough of broody anti-heroes and dark twists. (When even the saccharine world of Archie comics is reimagined as a dark dystopia, maybe it’s time to say uncle.)

What makes Seinfeld so groundbreaking isn’t just the material; it’s the platform. As Saul Austerlitz, author of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, points out, The Larry Sanders Show — about the host of a late-night talk show — was also a self-reflexive TV comedy with an edge. But that series,which premiered a few years after Seinfeld, aired on HBO, not NBC. It was “radical in its own right,” Austerlitz says, “but also had an audience of 14 comedy cognescentis who enjoyed it.” At Seinfeld’s peak, nearly 40 million viewers were tuning in every Thursday night.

In many ways, Seinfeld was a cable comedy that miraculously thrived on a broadcast network. Sure, the characters couldn’t swear or make explicit reference to sex, but the ways in which the writers worked around the limits set by broadcast standards resulted in some of the show’s best catchphrases: Elaine must determine whether her potential paramours are “sponge-worthy” when her favorite birth control product is discontinued; in “The Contest,” maybe the best-ever Seinfeld episode, the foursome compete to determine who is “master of their domain”; “yada yada yada” is a clear reference to the bedroom portion of a successful date; “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” is a pitch-perfect expression of liberal political correctness circa 1993.

“To me that’s a huge part of why [Seinfeld] is so successful and continues to be,” Armstrong says. “It gives us ways to talk about this stuff. I don’t think you want to go to work and be like, ‘I won a masturbation contest.’”

Seinfeld is a cable comedy in sitcom clothing. When people ask Armstrong what she considers to be the next Seinfeld, “my usual answer is, ‘It’s basically HBO.’” The cable giant is not only home to TV’s most popular series, Game of Thrones; it’s also home to a raft of Seinfeld alumni, including Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Clear History), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep), Seinfeld writer David Mandel, now Veep’s showrunner, and Silicon Valley executive producer Alec Berg, a former Seinfeld producer. (Armstrong likens Veep to “Seinfeld in the White House.”)

Most of all, Seinfeld sowed the seeds of our current TV landscape in its devotion to world-building — a term used to describe the development of a fictional universe, usually reserved for geekier exploits like superhero comics and sci-fi or fantasy novels. The internet gave rise to fan sites where viewers congregate to decipher the latest power struggle on Game of Thrones or swap Lost theories; years earlier, Seinfeld rewarded close viewing before we had the means to parse every minute of every episode of a given show. “It managed to pull off the trick of feeling as if there was an entire world that went on in the absence of our watching,” Austerlitz says. “That is in part because of how closely and lovingly people watched it. I don’t think The Cosby Show or Cheers or Friends had an equally large mythological world to engross yourself in.”

Even when Seinfeld was on the air, enterprising internet users were beginning to document its every move in an early example of online fandom: In Seinfeldia, Armstrong tracks down Adam Rainbolt and Dave Antonoff, who started the web page “SeinFAQ” after Netscape Navigator, released in 1994, made it easier to build online communities. What began as a message board became a detailed repository of the world of the show: Its many references to food, the song that plays on George’s answering machine, the characters’ job histories. Antonoff even taped every episode on VHS, which only a superfan with a lot of time on his hands could do. It wasn’t so long ago that if you missed an episode of a show — even your favorite show — you might never see it.

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A New York Times review of Seinfeld’s 1998 finale unwittingly forecasts how our TV-viewing habits would change in the following decade. “The endless frenzy about the end of Seinfeld has certainly exaggerated its impact and importance,” wrote Caryn James, the paper’s first chief television critic. Today, all it takes is a new set photo or a bit of casting news to generate the kind of “frenzy” James decried in the reaction to TV’s number one show going off the air. She goes on to describe the series’ penultimate episode, a clip show that relied on the audience’s intricate knowledge of Seinfeld’s world: “It was a compilation of punch lines without the jokes. Elaine dancing and Kramer dropping a Junior Mint into the open body of a surgery patient were scenes viewers recognized without explanation.”

Unlike its ’90s sitcom brethren, Seinfeld required something of the audience beyond passive watching — tightly structured and aggressively self-referential, it rewards the kind of obsessive attention to a show’ recurring characters and in-jokes that’s common in the streaming age, when viewers have unprecedented access to complete series online and can pause and rewind episodes with ease.

“It feels almost like Seinfeld was created for the future,” Austerlitz says. “It was created for an audience that wasn’t there yet.”

Ironically, the very changes in the TV industry that have allowed contemporary viewers of Seinfeld to parse the show’s every detail — all nine seasons are now available on Hulu — likely preclude another Seinfeld-level success. Seinfeld remains one of the last bona fide hits from the traditional broadcast era, which has slowly been eroded by cable and streaming services. The show reached a new generation of viewers through syndication, but today, few shows stay on the air long enough to reach the 100-episode mark that guarantees a show will live on in reruns.

It’s easy to feel nostalgic for a simpler time, when we all sat down at the same time to watch the same show. In the streaming age, we experience only brief bouts of communion, bingeing Stranger Things or alternately marveling and rolling our eyes at Mr. Robot. TV may be objectively “better” now than it was in the 1990s, but it’s hard to imagine even a show as pervasive as Game of Thrones will continue to wallpaper our world 20 years from now the way Seinfeld has. (God, I hope not.) That wallpaper — the “Soup Nazi” franchise; the Brooklyn Cyclones’ now-annual Seinfeld Night; Kenny Kramer and his bus tour — is proof of Seinfeld’s enduring brilliance, but it also speaks to a very contemporary impulse: To use pop culture as a buffer for human connection.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.