It’s been almost 20 years since SEINFELD ended its original broadcast run on NBC (it’s been off the air almost twice as long as it has been on the air).
In the 1990s, at the height of its network success, 40 million devoted Americans watched weekly (imagine this happening today). Decades later, the series remains strongly woven into the culture and continues to bring in millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
Between its 1998 finale and 2014, SEINFELD generated $3.1 billion (that's billion with three commas). In 2015, the streaming service Hulu won the exclusive rights to the series, after an intense bidding war (the reported fee: $160 million).
TV historian and entertainment journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has taken a closer look at this unique cultural and business milestone. SEINFELD was (and is) a show that had everything going against it, but somehow kept surviving and thriving (sound familiar, entrepreneurs?). Her book, SEINFELDIA, details how a show about nothing changed everything.
SEINFELD altered the very DNA of the network sitcom.
With some exceptions, the ‘80s sitcom was a sentimental, terrible thing (GROWING PAINS, FAMILY MATTERS, WHO’S THE BOSS). SEINFELD, on the other hand, didn’t allow sitcom writers or sitcom situations. Instead, it hired edgy, thoughtful standup comedians to obsess on the obsessive: self-absorbed, childless adult friends who endlessly discussed the minutia of life. On paper, this would never go. The initial fear from network execs and focus groups: too Jewish. Too New York-ish. Those fears, eventually, were unfounded. SEINFELD is all of us.
A show about nothing.
We take for granted this quirky story style today (even the Disney Channel has co-opted this structure). Old-school sitcoms, for the most part, were about fitting in and being “normal.” SEINFELD celebrated weirdness and neurosis without apology or explanation; it gave a green light to the right to focus in on something stupid and not let go.
However, at the very beginning, SEINFELD wasn’t considered brilliant or different – just puzzling (an entire episode about waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant?). But some higher-ups at NBC liked the concept, and gave it a chance. Amen?
SEINFELD basically snuck through the back door.
Most hit sitcoms share this ironic cliché: nobody thought it would work, and then it became a huge hit (take heart, entrepreneurs). At first, SEINFELD was a limited series (very limited: its first season, in 1989, consisted of one episode). Once it was scheduled after CHEERS -- the jewel in NBC’s crown – it began its ascent.
By the time CHEERS retired in 1993, SEINFELD was the obvious heir apparent. Week by week, it grew its audience by leaps and bounds, and it became a critical darling. In this rare case, the network marketing slogan – “Must See TV” – was actually honest and appropriate.
The takeaway of each SEINFELD episode: either you “get it” or you don’t. No hand holding, and, as often repeated in the writing room: “no hugging, no learning.” Americans, desperate for TV that didn’t suck, longed to be in on the joke. It became appointment television. You watched it in real time on Thursday evening because everybody was going to talk about it on Friday morning. It was simply part of life in the 1990s.
SEINFELD in syndication
Even as broadcast and cable TV decline in the age of Netflix, television syndication is still the gold standard (until it all shakes out). Once upon a time, a series ran on network television, and if it was lucky enough to survive to 100 episodes, it would more than likely be sold into syndication -- for big money -- and live forever (think THE BRADY BUNCH, STAR TREK and GILLIGAN’S ISLAND).
Now, our worlds are colliding; most young people today don’t even understand the concept of “watching TV.” But they watch SEINFELD – with their parents.
The SEINFELD Curse
Despite what we would like to think about the miracle of success, it’s actually more of a miracle for people to succeed again after a huge success. We assume that because somebody is successful once, that person will just continue to grow and be successful. It’s a very American, capitalist idea.
However, it’s not true in art and culture, and especially untrue on television (track Mary Tyler Moore’s TV comeback attempts in the years after her hit series). Lightning strikes only once when a sitcom like SEINFELD is successful; to have another sitcom with equal success is almost unthinkable. With VEEP, Julia Louis Dreyfus proved this theory, but also clearly evaded the curse. Although VEEP doesn’t do SEINFELD numbers, the genius talent on both sides of the camera separates out the project and generates praise on its own merits.
In writing the book, Jennifer learned that SEINFELD was more than a simple underdog story. It had no business succeeding, and yet it became one of the greatest television series of all time.
The show generated a ripple effect, and it continues to this day. That includes providing income to bit players who starred in one ep and are a part of American pop culture forever. Huge example: actor Larry Thomas, who played the Soup Nazi in only one show (screen time: less than ten minutes). Catch him at the next fan convention.
He -- and others associated with the series -- continue to live SEINFELD-centric lives. Kenny Kramer – who was the inspiration for the TV version of Kramer –gives SEINFELD bus tours of sites featured on the show. Even Jennifer admits that she is part of this economy: she writes a book about the show, and people want to buy it and talk about it.
Why? Jennifer says that the show simply brings joy to people, but she adds that there is definitely a real, palpable magic to SEINFELD. All age groups are hooked on it, even to this day. It keeps acquiring younger fans (Hulu, YouTube) and retains its older devotees. It’s one of the few television series that has a common denominator. There is a cartoon level that appeals to kids and the need for general silliness, but it also brings the sophistication, intelligence, and wordplay.
A huge part of the magic appeal is the ability to repeat the lines used in particular episodes (“master of my domain,” “sponge-worthy,” “not that there’s anything wrong with that”). It’s now become a thing: repeating these phrases in real life and getting a rush from the joyful reaction and recognition they inspire. It appeals to our most basic instinct to connect.
Jennifer says that, among other things, SEINFELD is the story of two guys (creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David) who went out for coffee and changed the world.