Every night during dinner, my wife and I watch TV. I know that’s bad. Mealtime should be a time for conversation, for connection, for relationships. A sacred, inviolable hour for the young family. So sue us. Our most recent addiction has been classic episodes of Seinfeld, king of the 90s TV charts.
We’ve restarted from the show’s earliest days, enjoying some early episodes for the very first time. Sure, the show stumbles at first. Too many stand-up clips sabotage the pacing, and scenes drag on far too long. In addition, the characters don’t quite seem themselves. George, later hapless and lazy, somehow navigates a successful career. And Michael Richards seems more Stanley Spadowski than Kramer at first. Before long (by season 3), though, the show hits its stride.
Why does the show endure? Clever writing, most of all. While Jerry Seinfeld’s “What’s the deal?” routine grates on me as nasal stand-up, it works brilliantly spun out as story. It’s inane and everyday and pedestrian (think “excruciating minutiae”), but it’s familiar and astonishingly funny, too. Funny, especially, because the characters play it so well. They’re quirky, iconic, distinct, and relatable. George Costanza, the neurotic, obsessive societal cast-off. Kosmo Kramer, the lovable, eccentric hipster doofus. Jerry’s conniving failure of a arch-nemesis, Newman. And a long list of one-hit weirdos: the Low Talker. The Soup Nazi. The Wiz.
As these infamous characters prove, Seinfeld created culture, rather than merely imitating it. “Yada, yada, yada.” “A Festivus for the rest of us!” “Man Hands.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The show created touchstones that haven’t yet dislodged from culture. In fact, the show was so influential, it would eventually reference itself. Meta moves were frequent; for example, in one repeating storyline, NBC woos in-show Jerry to write a sitcom based on his stand-up. Another time, Kramer creates a tour based on his own life–just as the real-life inspiration for Kramer did after the show grew popular.
All good things come to an end, of course. Maybe Seinfeld’s reruns will wear on us. Life has changed, after all: cell phones are conspicuously absent from Jerry’s world, and the Internet shows up only as a punch line there. Michael Richards’ unfortunate (and despicable) racist onstage rant certainly tarnished the show’s image–and made Kramer seem more Ku Klux than kooky.
Then again, maybe Seinfeld is something special, something timeless–more akin to I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H than shallow stuff like Friends or Raymond. According to one recent report, Seinfeld has earned $2.7 billion in syndication since it went off the air twelve years ago. That makes it the highest-earning sitcom in TV history. Not too bad for the “Show about Nothing.”