Originally, before realizing how futile it would be, I was going to do a list of my top ten favorite Seinfeld episodes. Eventually, however, as I was compiling the list I realized that Seinfeld was more than just the sum total of its parts. Sure there are episodes of the hugely influential show that were funnier and more memorable than others (I’m sure no one would argue “The Puerto Rican Day” is anywhere close to as good as “The Contest”), but as a complete experience Seinfeld was akin to capturing lightning in a bottle.
It was a show that could hone in on the most mundane aspects of life and weave together entire episodes around a single situation, like losing your car in a parking garage, while maintaining a sense of humor that was edgier than most sitcoms of the era. Yet even today, upon its 25th anniversary on July 5 and its influence having spread across the television landscape, Seinfeld still remains as fresh, funny, and relatable as it did when it was on the air.
Simply naming your ten favorite episodes wouldn’t be able to do the show justice because even though it lasted for 180 episodes over nine seasons, the show’s batting average was remarkably high. Even in the first two seasons where the show was still finding its voice or the final seasons where the jokes leaned more on the cartoonish side, creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David and their creative team could come up with material as biting as “The Ex-Girlfriend” (“You’re a cashier!”) or as character-defining as “The Little Kicks.”
Revisiting the show’s pilot, “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” after watching the show evolve over almost a decade is an interesting experience. They hadn’t quite nailed down the right comic timing or tone at that point, but aside from the absence of Elaine (whose position was originally filled by the waitress Claire), most of the shows basic elements and idea were already in place. As a show that purports to be about nothing, there are very few things more mundane to center the first interaction around than Jerry chastising George Costanza’s shirt button.
It’s this element of “nothingness,” which could range from the frustration of being in line at a restaurant to getting stuck on the subway, that ironically made the show stand out over others. Well, that and a bottomless supply of clever dialogue, much of which has entered the pop culture consciousness. One can’t buy a pack of Junior Mints anymore without thinking of Seinfeld, let alone drop now ubiquitous phrases like “sponge-worthy,” “yada yada,” “double dipper,” or the iconic “master of my domain.” Anyone who buys soup in a deli can expect a flood of quotes too. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Beyond that, Seinfeld also pushed the boundaries of what could be discussed and/or shown on television. “The Contest” is, of course, the most obvious example of that, a half-hour centered entirely around the characters’ masturbation habits without actually saying the word. Seinfeld and David’s writing motto “No hugging and no learning” perfectly describes their show’s cynical side. They weren’t afraid to put the character’s self-absorbed selves front and center, particularly with Elaine’s abrasive nature, George’s blissful ignorance, and Kramer’s hipster doofusness. But the writers and actors did such a great job of making these rather narcissistic people so relatable and likable together that when the controversial finale decided to turn the mirror on the audience for laughing at these antics, the intention backfired big time.
Even though the show was mostly centered on the titular comedian, its really George, Elaine, Kramer, and the assortment of other characters that stood out the most. Julia Louis Dreyfus had arguably the toughest job since the three men of the quartet generally got more material to play around with, and yet she elevated every scene she was in with just the right amount of brio. And while Kramer caught most viewers’ attentions thanks to Michael Richards’ skill with physical comedy, it’s Jason Alexander’s George that arguably came out on top of them all. George could have been the most irritating of them all, but with Alexander’s mix of self-deprecation and intense neurosis pushed him over the top.
There are many reasons (beyond ratings success) why Seinfeld still runs in heavy syndication on television today. One could see the same episode over and over again and never tire of its humor, or they could catch an episode and nod to themselves, “Yep I’ve been in that exact situation before.” They’ve most likely had a boss as needy as Mr. Pitt (or as eccentric as Mr. Peterman), a nemesis like Newman (“Newman!”), or parents as obnoxious as Frank and Estelle Costanza. So as we celebrate the long and gratifying run in pop culture that Seinfeld started 25 years ago, it truly is a Festivus for the rest of us.