Seinfeld’s comic legacy

Often imitated but never duplicated, US sitcom Seinfeld left behind an enduring comic legacy…

Perverse as it may seem to list the lessons taught by a sitcom allergic to imparting any message other than ‘Here. This is funny’, Seinfeld proved to be undeniably influential. Whether it liked it or not, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s series showed a generation of sitcoms how it’s done.

In style, content and attitude, Seinfeld blazed a trail for contemporary comedy. It gave us despicable leads, forensic multi-thread plotting, and coined a dictionary of quotable phrases before Arrested Development was even a twinkle in Mitchell Hurwitz’s eye. It also provided a template for countless subsequent singletons in the city imitators, taking US sitcom out of the family home and workplace and into its current locale: the apartment and diner/coffee shop/MacLaren’s Pub.

The show’s nit-picking focus on triviality popularised the existing genre of ‘what’s the deal with?’ observational comedy, while its approach to taboo subjects on network TV broadened mainstream comedy’s remit by miles. It made buying milk funny. It made jacket linings funny. It made race, religion, sexuality and disability funny. (It can’t take any credit for masturbation. That’s always been a hoot.)

Seinfeld’s obsession with the ambiguities and blind spots in modern manners filled a gap audiences didn’t know existed. It may have been averse to growth and development inside its own walls, but outside them, it helped comedy to evolve. Here’s how…

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The catchphrases

Seinfeld was coining quotable phrases long before Friends filled a generation’s mouths with “how you doing?” chat-up lines and “could this be any more…” rhetoric. It was providing its fans with passwords to the inner sanctum of its fandom over a decade before Tobias Funke blue himself.

As well as defining any number of nouns to describe modern behavioural tribes, from sidlers to low-talkers to double-dippers and more, Seinfeld’s lexicon journeyed far beyond the confines of the city. “Get out!” as a statement of disbelief,  “what’s the deal with?” as a precursor to observational comedy, the evasive, elliptical “yada yada”… all these and more were popularised by the show. It wasn’t just audiences picking up the lingo either; the likes of Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe would have sounded very different had Seinfeld not played its part in establishing their middle-class New York idiom on TV.

Not forgetting the many quotable moments specific to the show: “Hello Newman”, “sponge-worthy”, “shrinkage”, “soup Nazi”, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”. These quotes and more are the red carnation of Seinfeld fandom, the method through which fans can recognise each another in the crowd. Here’s a sure-fire way to identify another Seinfeld viewer: ask a stranger if they’re “the master of their domain” and see if they blush.

The observational focus

Observational humour focusing on the minutiae of day-to-day life may seem outdated in the world of modern alternative comedy, but its popularity is incontestable; see UK comic Michael McIntyre fill stadiums and flog DVDs by the thousands with tales of toaster settings and “man drawers” for evidence of that. The “have you noticed how…?” premise has been a backbone of stand-up for decades (memorably being parodied in a season ten episode of Cheers in Cliff’s dreadful “what’s that about?” open mic routine). It was Seinfeld though, that proved observational comedy had an enduring place not just on the stage, but also on mainstream TV.

A hangover from Seinfeld’s original premise back when the show was called simply Stand-Up, is its use of Jerry Seinfeld’s on-stage comedy segments. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld first envisaged their show as a one-off special about how a comedian comes by the material for a gig. The bulk of the special would have followed Seinfeld around as he had encounters that would later find their way into the show’s closing stand-up set. That idea fell by the wayside, but the stand-up segments remained, not only paving the way for the superlative Louie and the execrable Mulaney to do the same years later, but also showing that the comedy of triviality could play to millions.

Airplane food, milk cartons, the existence of brunch (but not lupper or linner) were typical of Jerry Seinfeld’s now-unfashionably observational subjects on stage. Where Seinfeld really cut a template for modern comedy though, is in its use of trivial details and situations – the contents of a turkey sandwich, the lining of a jacket, losing your car in a multi-storey car park – for entire plots. It proved that comedy could come from the smallest annoyance and the most banal encounter, a lesson adopted by the likes of Modern Family, Him & Her, Not Going Out, Friends and even Frasier (the show that genuinely held the title Larry David rejected for Seinfeld of “Cheers’ little brother”), and exemplified by Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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The autobiographical content

Speaking of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s show that dropped the George Costanza mask and had David play a heightened version of himself, Seinfeld paved the way for countless self-reflexive, partially autobiographical sitcoms about comedians and the world of comedy.

In making-of documentary Seinfeld: How It Began, it’s amusing to hear David remember encountering criticism that nobody would ever behave in real life the way Seinfeld’s characters do, only to reply “I did. That exact thing happened to me, and that’s exactly how I reacted”. A great deal of Seinfeld is inspired by, or directly copied from David’s own experiences. He lived next door to a real-life eccentric neighbour called Kenny Kramer (who’s been milking the connection financially ever since), he based Elaine Benes on Monica Yates with whom David remained friends after they stopped dating. The Deal, The Chinese Restaurant, The Pitch, The Revenge and countless others were all based on premises lifted from David’s own life.

Since then, Louis C.K. has made Louie, a creative take on his life as a stand-up comedian, SNL’s Tina Fey has made 30 Rock, about a comedy writer working for a late-night variety show, Chris Rock has made Everybody Hates Chris, about his experiences growing up as a kid in Brooklyn. On this side of the Atlantic, we’ve had Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon, Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as (sort-of) themselves.

Seinfeld was by no means the first show to draw on autobiographical experience, but it, and subsequently Curb Your Enthusiasm, started a process in which comedians could fling off the character disguises and wear their autobiographical content on their sleeve.

The complex plotting

Insightfully discussed in this Vox piece by Todd VanDerWerff is the way in which Seinfeld swerved away from sitcom’s A-plot + B-plot formula to weave together multiple-strands of separate stories, that, in the best cases, coalesce into one big pay-off. By the time the exquisitely plotted Curb Your Enthusiasm came around (at which time Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development was pulling the same trick) Larry David had perfected this art.

David says that the genesis of Seinfeld’s complex plotting was more or less accidental, remembering in Seinfeld: How It Began that The Busboy’s haphazard convergence of plot threads into one big final confrontation made him realise that was the paradigm for future Seinfeld. With some humility, David and Seinfeld suggest many of the show’s choices were down to their lack of experience: “we didn’t really have any idea how to run a show”, David remembers. (Neither, at that point, did its two other main writers Larry Charles and Peter Mehlmen, the latter of whom confesses that he’d never even written dialogue before landing the Seinfeld gig.) In an attempt to keep his actors happy, David endeavoured to write separate plots for each of the main four characters every week, confessing to not being aware that wasn’t how it was generally done.

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Watch a Modern Family, or a Community or an It’s Always Sunny or a How I Met Your Mother, and you’ll see the Seinfeld sitcom plotting pattern in rude health today.

The irreverence

In the course of making its “deceptively precise comedy of modern social manners”, as Sydney Morning Herald’s Dan Burt calls it, Seinfeld welcomed a whole load of taboo subjects into the mainstream comedy fold.

Remembering that Seinfeld was on network and not cable TV, it pulled some impressive stunts with the censors to enable it to mine all kinds of previously inaccessible areas for mainstream comedy. Race, religion, death, sexuality, masturbation… You name it, Jerry and the gang talked about it. How? Cleverly, by not actually talking about it. With episodes like The Deal and The Contest circumnavigating taboo areas like casual sex and masturbation with yards of creative, agile innuendo, Seinfeld became a master of the euphemism.

Friends sliding allusions to cunnilingus and anal sex (remember Monica telling Joey to “Be there for her”, Chandler looking at the diagram on a woman’s seven erogenous zones upside down and Rachel telling him, “Well, y’know, sometimes that helps”, or Chandler asking Monica about their surrogate’s sexual past, “The thing we hardly ever do or the thing we never do?… Shovelly Joe”) into a wholesome sitcom was nothing compared to what Seinfeld got away with.

Why did it break taboos? No to shock or to gain infamy, but because of Seinfeld’s pure commitment to comedy. Being funny took precedence, and laughs could come, literally, from anywhere.

The unlikeable characters

No article on Seinfeld’s legacy is complete without a reference to the show’s hug-free, personal growth-free, self-involved characters and their despicable comedy progeny from Arrested Development to Black Books to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

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We obviously can’t lay all the credit for TV’s raft of brilliantly unlikeable characters at Seinfeld’s feet (though some, such as Matt Zoller Steiz for Vulture, have made an eloquent case for doing so), but can agree that a precedent was set that hugely popular TV characters don’t need humanising flaws or softer sides to become well-loved.

Seinfeld revelled in its characters’ lack of development, thumbing its nose at the idea that Jerry and co. should learn lessons from their misadventures and become better people. After nine years, Seinfeld started exactly as it began (literally in fact, with a conversation about button placement), with a bunch of four nit-picking, entitled, obnoxious egotists having learned precisely nothing about the error of their ways.

As time has told, Seinfeld’s characters may have never learnt their lessons, but the show’s comedy successors certainly did.

Seinfeld: Complete Seasons 1-9 is available on DVD now.

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