Jerry Seinfeld, a New York-born stand-up comedian, had little interest in doing a TV show when he was approached in 1988 by American TV channel NBC to attend a creative meeting. Unhappy with his small recurring role on the TV show ‘Benson’, he felt like it was a limited medium and not right for his brand of comedy. He had already appeared several times on the ‘Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson and on a Rodney Dangerfield HBO special, giving him enough publicity to make a living of the touring comedy circuit.
Nevertheless, after some negotiation with NBC, Jerry agreed that he and good friend and fellow comedian Larry David would create a pilot for a TV show blurring the lines of reality and fiction, showing footage of Seinfeld performing his act in between scenes from a fictionalized version of his life, thereby expanding upon, or showing how Seinfeld got the inspiration for his act.
Initial reactions to the pilot were bad. People claimed it was too Jewish, too New York and ironically enough, too appealing to young adults. Nevertheless, Rick Ludwin, Seinfeld’s champion at NBC got the show commissioned for an additional 4 episodes. These episodes were highly rated as they were broadcast after ‘Cheers’, and the show was commissioned for a second season of 12 episodes, slowly becoming a cult hit with late-night TV audiences and breaking into the Nielsen Ratings Top 30 by season 4.
Ostensibly a show about nothing, apart from the footage of Jerry on stage, the show relied heavily on dialogue and sly observations to become the first television series since ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ to be widely described as post-modern. For example, one episode is set in the reception of a Chinese restaurant where three of the main characters are waiting for a table. Set in real-time, the humour of the episode is driven by the increasing desperation of the characters waiting for a table, as they’re meant to go to the cinema afterwards, as well as the neurotic obsessions about their personal lives discussed while waiting.
The main characters themselves were four thirty-something singles: Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine, with no roots, vague identities and a conscious indifference to morals. They would often involve themselves in the lives of others, typically with disastrous results. However, despite the damage caused, they never grew from their experiences and continued to be egotistical, self-centered people. This notion was completely at odds with other US sitcoms at the time, which would often end with a lesson on morals. Regardless of this, audiences were attracted by the dialogue and the somewhat absurd and neurotic approach to everyday situations and conflicts that the characters would find themselves in.
From season 4 onwards, the show reached meteoric levels of success and by the end of its 9 year run was the most viewed show in the US, with 75 million viewers tuning in for the series finale. All the actors on the show became identified with their characters to the general public. This was a new level of success for the hitherto unknown actors, especially Jerry, who became the first person to get a Black AmEx credit card and even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine when he announced the end of production for the show.
Though fans and critics would have liked Seinfeld to continue, by finishing on a high note Seinfeld avoided jumping the shark like so many of its contemporaries, and left an untarnished legacy that would go on to influence other successful and critically acclaimed shows like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and ‘Arrested Development’.