‘Seinfeld,” which made us laugh and think during its dazzling nine-year run on NBC, went off the air 25 years ago this month. After a slow start–46th ranked show–it was only renewed for episodes in season two. But slowly and then explosively, Seinfeld found its audience of young, hip viewers. By it’s sixth season, its ratings made it the number two show in prime time and for its final four years, dueled with ER for the top spot from 1994 to 1998. Its finale on May 14, 1998 drew 76.3 million viewers.
Maybe Seinfeld’s greatest accomplishment–and surely the key to its immense success–was that it made Noo Yawkers seem lovable, not haughty, flawed, not bullying. It made people appreciate New York City. And it made New Yorkers feel happy that they lived here.
The show was so New York. So Upper West Side in particular! Yet, Americans everywhere identified with the endearing quirky characters they encountered each week. Perish the thought, but it seemed that we all had our own special version of Morty Seinfeld or Estelle Costanza, not to forget the likes of Newman or J. Peterman or Uncle Leo. And we all have a hangout like the coffee shop Monk’s, too, right?
How great was the show? “Seinfeld” has never really left the airwaves. It is on one channel or another seemingly 10 times a day in greater New York City. Netflix paid a reported $500 million for a five year deal to air reruns in 2021–twenty three years after its last original show aired.
But its episodes and plot lines are also frozen in time, from 1989 to 1998. In the 25 years since it departed, so much has changed about society and pop culture. The upheaval begs the question: Would Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer–as well as brilliant co-creator Larry David – manage to come up with the goods today?
Would an era of social media, iPhones, video games, 24-hour news cycles and polarizing politics spark their comedic musings today?
Pulling the Plug
Jerry Seinfeld, the star and co-creator of the show, pulled the plug back in 1998, when he was making $1 million an episode and NBC reportedly wanted to pay him $5 million to keep working. He fretted that the humor might get stale and begin repeating itself.
Even though “Seinfeld” was the top rated show in prime time, he sensibly wanted to go out on top and was willing to leave a year too soon instead of staying a year too late. It seemed that “Cheers,” –at one point the lead-in for Seinfeld which is credited for helping it build an audience early on–had grown predictable and repetitious late in its 11-year run.
The world was so different in 1998. At the time of the end of “Seinfeld,” Bill Clinton was U.S. President. The Monica scandal had yet to explode. Peace and prosperity reigned. The Fox News Channel was only two years old and not yet a media force.
“Seinfeld” seemed to benefit from the placid times we lived in, allowing the mundane lives of the zany characters in the show about nothing to be the focus, not the news. Today, however, day-to-day life has a more dangerous and wildly unpredictable feeling. It’s possible that events now might make it harder to laugh at Jerry’s commitment phobias, George’s selfishness and periodic job searches, Kramer’s never-ending succession of wacky schemes or Elaine’s procession of un-sponge-worthy boyfriends.
Given the downright scariness in today’s 24-hour news cycle, could we still feel motivated to laugh mindlessly at the antics of the endearing “Seinfeld” cast and the array of idiosyncratic recurring characters, such as NEWMAN!, the parents of Jerry and George, Elaine’s blowhard bosses, Jerry’s parade of girlfriends, Susan Ross, George Steinbrenner, Elaine’s Braless Nemesis, The Soup Nazi, Babu Bhatt, Uncle Leo, The Virgin, The Sniffing Accountant, annoying Kenny Bania, fast-talking Jackie Chiles, David Puddy, Tim Whatley and Jack Klompus, the close talker, the low taker, the high talker and the rest?
Seinfeld cleverly addressed contemporary social issues with a disarming, trademark wit. Remember when “Not That There’s Anything Wrong with It” made societal homophobia seem stupid and ridiculous?
Just recalling memorable episode titles, such as “The Big Salad,” “The Yada Yada” and “The Contest” is enough to make us nod in recognition and smile. “No soup for you!” became a classic putdown.
Today, reboots are all the rage. Streaming services, desperate to come up with content that people will pay extra for, have revived old favorites such as “Sex and the City” and “Mad About You.”
A Reboot Today?
Can you imagine what kind of publicity a reboot of “Seinfeld’ could generate? In 2009, the cast reunited in a few episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s hilarious show on HBO.
It was a seamless trip through the years, like no time had elapsed at all, instead of 11 years. The characters were as funny as ever. It worked!
That was then. Could it happen again? Probably. People today are as eager to embrace familiar characters and laugh at their peccadillos as ever.
Will it happen? Nah.
The cast has moved on. They don’t need the money. Besides, Larry David has “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to focus on. Jerry Seinfeld is content to do stand-up shows and he flourished with his Internet show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Meanwhile, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ success with the HBO comedy “Veep” has made Elaine Benes seem like she existed a million years ago.
We should continue to appreciate the brilliance behind “Seinfeld.” Twenty-five years later, the show still makes us laugh – and be glad we live here.