My mother recorded every episode of “Seinfeld” on VHS; she thought the show would never last and wanted to document its brief existence.
30 years ago, in July of 1989, her estimation appeared to be correct. Based on the performance of “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” the tepidly-received pilot of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s show about nothing, NBC opted not to pick the series up for the ‘89 season. Executives decided to give it another chance in 1990 and – yada, yada, yada – it ran nine seasons, ending on its own terms. The Grisar home had a lot of tapes.
But “Seinfeld” was never a sure thing. Its conceit was too niche and picayune for prime time.
Its comedy may have skewed a bit broad – as a jerkish Ricky Gervais once told Larry David on a Season 8 episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – but its concerns were prohibitively narrow, appearing to push out any demographic corners on the Nielsen dial that deviated from the creators’ own New York, Jewish backgrounds.
Even the Jewish collaborators on the project shrugged at its appeal. As recounted in Jennifer Armstrong’s history of the show, “Seinfeldia,” then-NBC president Brendan Tartikoff wondered “Who will want to see Jews wandering around New York acting neurotic.” Jason Alexander opined, “The audience for this show is me, a white guy, Jewish-Italian, who lives in a big city, between eighteen and thirty-two. And I don’t watch TV.” Testing for the pilot conducted in 400 homes found that “no segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again.”
The fact “Seinfeld” did succeed – after a Bob Hope special was cancelled to air four additional episodes with the stipulation David and Seinfeld add a new, female member to the ensemble – was a testament to the universal appeal of the trivial. While economic anxiety or the harvest never factor into Jerry, George, Elaine or Kramer’s lives, the social contract Talmudically deconstructed on “Seinfeld” is relatable to non-urbanites because its implications aren’t localized. One can find such social miscreants as double-dippers and close-talkers as easily in the Ozarks as on the Upper West Side.
I would contend, though, that the reason NBC assumed a niche milieu for the show owed to the pilot’s sketchy contours. Its faults mask its potential merits – not an uncommon issue for an inaugural episode.
Watching the pilot, which first aired on July 5, 1989, one is immediately struck not by its potential, but by the shortcomings of its original low concept.
It lives up to its scanty mission, famously dreamed up by Seinfeld and David at a Korean market on the Upper East Side. It was about nothing: here meaning parsing the potential interest of a woman Jerry had met in Minnesota who says she “might” see him when she’s in New York for an academic conference. That’s it. No b-plot, no c-plot. No Elaine, but, instead, a second-tier waitress character named Claire at a restaurant called “Pete’s Luncheonette.” Kramer is called “Kessler.”
The whole endeavor has an ur-quality, too concerned with Seinfeld’s inspiration for standup material to provide anything with staying power. The one bright spot was George’s exhortation that Jerry do the opposite of whatever his instincts tell him to, and the moment’s only promising because it foreshadows Season 5’s “The Opposite,” a much better episode.
“Seinfeld” was at its best when juggling plots and connecting them in the third act – often disastrously. Take, for instance: A Trinidadian runner, Jean-Paul, who famously missed his alarm for a race, sleeps through the starting gun when Kramer’s newly-installed hot tub short circuits power to his and Jerry’s apartments; meanwhile Elaine reconnects with an acquaintance with an illegitimate child and George gets chummy with Houston Astros executives by referring to them as “Bastards,” something Jean-Paul mistakes for acceptable American idiom – you can guess what the runner calls the born-out-of-wedlock-bundle-of-joy when they meet.
Within these Rube Goldberg-esque colliding plots are a greater sense of what the show is actually about: not nothing, but in fact a proliferation of stuff. Pez dispensers, Junior Mints, Drake’s Coffee Cakes, Binaca, Jujyfruits; never in TV history have products occupied so much free air time. Grafted onto that is a shallow materialism evident in ‘90s abundance and its ensuing selfishness. “Seinfeld” would find its place in the culture along these lines when it debuted in earnest on May 31, 1990, becoming the show we all remember and can’t not reference.
“Seinfeld” made a Jewish sensibility for the little things an American one. And while its protagonists are not admirable, the quartet prove instructive in how not to behave in a society – even when society’s rules are flawed.
On a technicality, one can recognize 1989 as the beginning of “Seinfeld” – many outlets are treating it as such – but that is doing a disservice to the series’ impact. The show’s nihilism in a major key epitomized the ‘90s and helped define that decade. Also, the second episode gave us George’s alter ego, Art Vandelay. Hell, it gave us Elaine.
But maybe this pedantry arises from my own sense of bias. I was born in 1990. I remember when school-wide parent-teacher conferences were rescheduled so the adults could watch the series finale in 1998. It was so essential a part of my rearing (I was allowed to watch so long as I didn’t ask questions), that to accept that the series predates me is to betray something of my own core being and admit that I am slumming amid the signposts of an older generation. Then again, I just find that the pilot falls short of qualifying for much else than a mulligan. NBC thought so, too, airing the episode as a one-off special in the dead zone of summer programming, the day after Independence Day.
Just as we don’t celebrate the completion of the rough drafts of our Declaration of Independence, we should withhold our revels for so great a founding document of Must See TV as “Seinfeld” until the time is right.
I will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of “Seinfeld” next summer, shortly before my own 30th birthday. If you love the show, I recommend you join me. Just as cinnamon is a lesser babka when measured against chocolate, the “Seinfeld Chronicles” is a lesser show than its more succinctly-titled descendant. It’s real and it’s spectacular.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.