Jerry Seinfeld (b. 1954) is a man who has stood on the shoulders of giants, one who has since become a giant himself, which must be very uncomfortable for the people he’s standing on.
My nickname for him used to be “The Luckiest Man in the World”. When he was younger, I found his stand-up weakly derivative and middle-of-the-road, basically George Carlin without the politics. And, amongst the dazzling cast on his blockbuster sitcom, as he has often admitted himself, he was, shall we say, the least skilled as a thespian. He’s a stand-up comedian, not an actor, which is why you never see him act in the post-Seinfeld era. He had a bad habit of smirking during his scenes, a clear sign of someone who is not in the moment. Much has changed since the ’90s, though, and today I accord him the very highest stature. While the show Seinfeld (1989-1998) rates the very highest praise as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, it was with his second hit show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (2012-present) that, in my eyes, his prestige went through the roof. Now he is in the unprecedented position of having been the star and creator of both a top sitcom and a top, groundbreaking talk show, so now it is as though he had the stature of, say, Lucille Ball and Johnny Carson COMBINED. And his stand-up, now that he has matured, is much richer and full of authority and commanding presence, as Hope’s and Benny’s used to be. He deeply respects tradition and emulates his show biz heroes, and that’s the kind of stuff I love.
Seinfeld was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Nassau County, Long Island (where your correspondent currently resides). In the mid ’70s he began appearing at comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and The Improv, and this led to spots on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman when stand-up experienced an explosion in the early to mid 1980s.
With Larry David, a veteran of ABC’s Fridays, he created Seinfeld for NBC in 1988. The show is often mischaracterized as “a show about nothing”, but I concur with its creators that that couldn’t be a worse description. Seinfeld almost always has intricate, farcical, highly wrought plots, often weaving several different threads together into a single “wow” climax. A plot happens to be the opposite of nothing. I’m not sure if I have ever seen a narrative TV program that was actually literally about nothing, outside of public access. By contrast, Seinfeld is a show about anything and everything. Seinfeld episodes may often start out being about SMALL, apparently inconsequential things, but they always snowball into momentousness, usually because of the neurotic obsessiveness of its four lead characters and the people they interact with. Because, after all, it’s set in New York City, where everyone is always wound very, very tightly. As I wrote in this recent post, Seinfeld is one of the quintessential shows about the New York experience and if I hadn’t already moved here by the time it debuted it would have been one of the shows that convinced me to do so.
Another way Seinfeld is not about nothing is its echoes: of Seinfeld’s own real life, and of past sitcoms we have known and loved. In addition to being about New York, it is about show business. In its early seasons, the show featured wrap-arounds of Seinfeld performing stand-up in a club. Because he didn’t appear to be nationally famous like the real Seinfeld, this aspect of the show reminded me a little of The Monkees, believe it or not. His actual status was in a bit of a vacuum, it was a formal trope. This was something the show also had in common with The Abbott and Costello Show, which Seinfeld has often cited as an influence. And I also see echoes of The Danny Thomas Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Joey Bishop Show, which are all about the private life of comedy professionals.
His fellow cast members were why I used to say Seinfeld was the Luckiest Man in the World. Two of them were well known to me when the show launched. Michael Richards had been a cast mate of Larry David’s at Fridays. He brought something distinctive to Seinfeld: slapstick. A highly physical comedian, he brought all sorts of physical comedy to the show, pratfalls, and takes, and funny faces, the sort of thing that hadn’t been seen on prime time television in decades. Richards played the mysterious “Kramer”, who lived across the hall from Jerry, a hustler with no apparent means of support outside of his schemes and incredible, almost magical good luck. Julia Louis-Drefus had been a cast member of Saturday Night Live from 1982 to 1985, a particularly dismal period on that show. Because she was both beautiful and funny she made an impression, and I always felt she was given far too little to do and her sketches weren’t good enough on SNL. On Seinfeld she played Jerry’s ex-girlfriend Elaine, which is a wonderful true-to-life device, I think, one that probably seems pretty exotic to people outside of show business, who largely avoid their exes. On Seinfeld, Elaine remains one of Jerry’s best friends, with no shortage of hilarious antagonism and zero of the usual “Sam and Diane” romantic nonsense. The idea of them ever getting together again is universally dismissed as ridiculous, never even alluded to. Each of them have rigorous, disastrous dating lives that fuels many of the plots. Jason Alexander, as Jerry’s best friend George Costanza was a new face to me. He had been a regular on the short-lived sit com E/R (1984-85), not to be confused with the eponymous hit drama of a decade later. Mostly he was a Broadway guy, and his most recent credit had been in the original production of Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound (1986-88), the third installment in the so-called Eugene Trilogy. I have seen Alexander in many roles since Seinfeld, but George is his greatest creation, a depressed, angry loser who’s a magnet for misfortune. Along with the star, he brings a lot of the show’s “New York” energy. They kvetch, they complain, they riff, they hang out at diners. And in addition to the quartet, there was a stellar supporting cast, which included Wayne Knight as pot-stirring neighbor “Newman”; Barney Martin as Seinfeld’s father; Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris as George’s parents, and many others (including Larry David as the voice of George Steinbrenner, George’s boss for one memorable stretch of the show).
In the diaspora after the show there were both winners and losers. Richards’ career was largely halted after he was captured on video using the N word during a stand-up set in 2007. Alexander has continued his flourishing stage and screen career, although he remains overshadowed by George. Louis-Dreyfus has had many series since Seinfeld, climaxing with HBO’s Veep (2012-2019) widely held to be one of the greatest and most innovative comedy shows of all time. Ditto Larry David, who went on to Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2017, 2020), which exceeded Seinfeld in originality in many ways. And Seinfeld himself went on, as we have mentioned to Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which he has conducted insightful, hilarious interviews with all the greatest comedians of our time. He also continues to perform stand-up in sold out venues, and to broadcast major TV specials.
To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.