In 1989 the NBC sitcom Seinfeld aired its pilot episode, then under the title The Seinfeld Chronicles, in a dump slot during the middle of the summer. The ratings were low and the show seemed to go almost unnoticed to all, except for a single executive at NBC who believed in the series enough to convince the network to produce four more episodes to round out what would be an unusually short first season. Nine years later its series finale would air, reaching the staggering number of 79 million viewers. In the course of a nine-season run Seinfeld became one of the most influential sitcoms and a true cultural phenomenon, continuing its comedy dominance even over the ten years since it ended. With the obsession of the minutiae, an increased focus on story structure, and love of meta, self-referential humor Seinfeld changed the notion of what Americans knew to be a sitcom and helped pave the way for the single camera comedies of today.
The tagline of Seinfeld for years has been “a show about nothing”, and in many ways this is true. Take for instance the famed “The Chinese Restaurant” episode, which consists of nothing but the main characters waiting for a table to eat. There is no other plot throughout the episode. The action is simply George waiting for a phone call, while Jerry and Elaine make bets with each other to pass the time, and that’s it. Many Seinfeld episodes are similar, taking little ideas or details and stretching them out to fit the half-hour. In a 1990 review of Seinfeld before the second season began Entertainment Weekly wrote of Jerry Seinfeld: “he’s one of those ‘observational’’ comics, the kind of jokester who begins every other sentence, ‘Didja ever notice the way ___?’…[Yet] He has managed to find fresh humor in hackneyed topics, from going shopping to doing the laundry, and his timing is a marvel,” (Tucker).
A majority of the episodes contained little plot wise, instead focusing on the small details of life. Comedy often works best when focusing on the little things, and Seinfeld exploited this belief to the fullest. Most scenes consist of just Jerry and friends talking in his apartment, at the diner Monk’s, or talking at one of their offices. Little action actually occurs on screen, opting to talk about events rather than show them. Take for example George’s monologue at the end of the episode “The Marine Biologist” where he discusses at length his interaction with a beached whale to the rest of the cast at the diner:
George: “The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to return soup at a deli…suddenly the great beast appeared before me. I tell ya he was ten stories high if he was a foot. As if sensing my presence he gave out a big bellow….from out of nowhere a huge title wave lifted, tossed like a cork and I found myself on top of him face to face with the blow-hole. I could barely see from all of the waves crashing down on top of me but I knew something was there so I reached my hand and pulled out the obstruction!” (The Marine Biologist)
The action George describes is never shown on camera, instead opting to focus on George’s storytelling skills and the gang’s reaction. The story is told so well that actually watching the event would ruin the joke. His monologue is so detailed and filled with visual language that your mind creates an image that the show could never truly produce.
This particular style type of comedy goes against the classic belief that films/videos should “show not tell events”, but the exact opposite has now become a standard of the sitcom format. Today you can see it expertly executed in shows such as Parks and Recreations. In the eighth episode of their third season, “Camping”, the tag at the end shows the character Ben attempt to escape a room where the old lady that runs the bed and breakfast they’re staying at is playing classical music. After he fails to get away he sits down and sighs. The very next shot is an interview with Ben claiming, “Yeah she died like twenty minutes after that,” (“Camping”). To actually see the old lady die would come off as sad and tragic, but using the Seinfeld theory of “tell don’t show” it turns the sad old lady’s death into a punch line.
Despite the fact that individual Seinfeld episodes focused on small subjects, the series was one of the first big mainstream sitcoms to introduce serial narrative structure into comedy. Serial structure is when plots and elements carry over from episode to episode. The norm up until this point was for sitcoms to reset after each episode, meaning the progress achieved in one episode would be undone by the next. While most episodes of Seinfeld still remained fairly self-contained, there were elements from each episode that seemed to carry on to the next. The show first implemented this type of narrative structure in season three as a test to see how it worked within the sitcom genre. In the sixth episode of the season, titled “The Parking Garage”, Kramer mentions offhand that he got a jacket that belonged to his mother’s ex-boyfriend. It seems like an odd minor detail in the episode, but it ends up being a plot point for Kramer in the next three episodes where the ex-boyfriend steals the jacket back from him, causing Kramer to re-steal the jacket with help from Elaine (“The Nose Job”). The episodes still work out of context, but there’s an added charm if the four episodes are seen in subsequent order. The show takes this idea to the next level in season four by making a majority of the season revolve around the plot of Jerry and George developing a sitcom at NBC. If watched all in order the entire season tells one overarching story. Previous sitcoms would sometimes have major actions like a character getting a new job or getting married carry over into new episodes, but rarely was large scale, season long continuity such a big part of a comedy.
Now serialization is common within sitcoms, largely in part due to the success of Seinfeld’s experiments with the structure. The greatest example of sitcom serialization can be found in Arrested Development, which contains the most dense and extensive serial elements of any comedy series. While Seinfeld could still be enjoyed in any order, as shown by its high success in syndication, Arrested Development was a show where it was absolutely necessary to watch each episode one after another and because of that it did poorly with ratings and was canceled by its third season. On the topic of Seinfeld’s use of serialization TV professor Jason Mittel writes:
“These arcs and ongoing plots demand little explicit knowledge from episode to episode, as actual actions and events rarely carry across episodes—arguably because of the infrequency of significant actions and events on a show committed to chronicling minutiae and insignificances. While certainly appreciation of the show’s story world is heightened the more you notice ongoing references like Art Vandelayor Bob Sacamano, narrative comprehension does not require the engagement in any long-term arcs as with The X-Files or Buffy.” (Mittel)
Mittel’s insight helps to understand how Seinfeld was able to become a massive hit while still retaining serialization. While there was continuity for season arcs, such as in season four, it was never too highly serialized where new viewers could become confused. Rather it was most frequently used to help build the world of the series. Minor characters were often brought back for little roles and small phrases would reappear as nods to past plots, rather than being essential knowledge for the episode at hand. By doing this Seinfeld could still be enjoyed in any order, as shown by its high success in syndication. A current example that stuck closer to the Seinfeld method of serialization is How I Met Your Mother, whose episodes can be viewed at random but each episode contains references and details to past ones that act as a treat for fans who play close attention. Picking up the details and plot points isn’t a must in How I Met Your Mother, but instead are a reward for those viewers that do watch each episode, just as it was in Seinfeld.
Meta humor, a type of joke where characters reference the work/medium they’re in, has been a staple of sitcoms for years, but it was Seinfeld that took the concept further and brought comedies into the period of high self-awareness they’re in now. The fourth season of Seinfeld introduced the season long plot of Jerry and George pitching a series to NBC that was essentially the show itself. In the third episode of the season, titled “The Pitch”, George explains to Jerry the show should be about “nothing”, saying it should simply consist of the inane, stupid, funny conversations they always have.
George: See, this should be a show. This is the show.
George: This. Just talking.
Jerry: Yeah, right.
George: I’m really serious. I think that’s a good idea.
Jerry: Just talking? Well what’s the show about?
George: It’s about nothing.
Jerry: No story?
George: No forget the story.
Jerry: You’ve got to have a story.
George: Who says you gotta have a story? Remember when we were waiting for, for that table in that Chinese restaurant that time? That could be a TV show.
Up until this point no television series had been so blunt in its use of meta humor. George literally points out a previous event from the show, waiting at the Chinese restaurant, and says it would make a great episode of TV. The entire season is full of meta jokes like this, working with NBC to produce their version of Seinfeld, this time called Jerry. The two-part season finale, titled “The Pilot”, is a highly meta piece of television, as shown during the casting session for the fake sitcom people read lines that were used on previous episodes of Seinfeld. Another example within the episode occurs when Kramer demands to play himself in Jerry but is rejected, just as in real life the actual Kenny Kramer, who the character Cosmo Kramer is based on, demanded that in order to use his last name on the show they had to let him play the character. Also, in the episode, the actor that gets the role of Kramer in Jerry actually auditioned for the role of Kramer in real life for Seinfeld, almost getting the role until Michael Richards overtook him in the end. The episode is completely filled with inside meta jokes, right down to the fake director of Jerry being the actual director of that episode of Seinfeld.
Today it’s almost impossible to make a sitcom without being a little self-aware. Arrested Development was known for it’s frequent meta jokes with any form of product placement being bluntly explained as product placement (a technique 30 Rock would later use). Now the king of sitcom meta humor is the series Community. The whole show appears to be built around the idea of being self-aware with one of the main characters, Abed, always pointing out the similarities between what’s happening in the episode and what would happen on a television show. For example in the season two episode “Cooperative Calligraphy” Abed continually refers to what’s going on as a bottle episode, a TV term that means the action is taking place in just one location like Seinfeld’s “The Chinese Restaurant”, and of course the episode is just that with the group remaining in a study room for the entire half hour. Seinfeld expected a level of sophistication on the part of its viewers in order to get these inside meta jokes, and now, thanks to that, many great comedies do the same.
These examples are merely a handful of the major impact Seinfeld has had on the world of sitcoms. The show pushed the boundaries of what could be discussed on television (saying “master of your domain/queen of the castle” in substitution for masturbation in “The Contest”), and created the notion of “no hugging, no learning” sitcoms, which allowed TV shows to focus on less-than-nice people, without giving them any form of redeeming qualities, other than being funny. The series would even become a tagline for future shows, as during its early seasons It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia was advertised as “Seinfeld on crack”. Just as much as Seinfeld changed and affected pop culture by introducing catchphrases like “yada yada” (“The Yada Yada”) and holidays such as Festivus (“The Strike”), the series changed the landscape of television sitcoms to become the shows we all know of today.
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