Thirty years ago today, NBC debuted the first episode of what would become Seinfeld. Originally called The Seinfeld Chronicles, the sitcom revolved around several friends living in New York City and their troubles with dating, family and careers. Sounds basic, right? Like something that had been done multiple times before. Indeed, looking at the idea on paper, Seinfeld doesn’t seem like something that would revolutionize television and pop culture. But it did just that. To this day, the series is one of the most talked-about and influential shows in history. It changed the way networks made comedy series, it changed the way sitcoms were looked at it, it even changed the way some Americans talked and behaved. It became more than just a show.
But many years have passed since Seinfeld rode off into the sunset. Some have forgotten — or never knew — just how culturally significant the show was. I vividly remember sitting in my fifth grade class while my teacher was instructing. She was trying to explain something and said “Yada, Yada, Yada.” This was just hours after the episode featuring that famous catchphrase debuted. She then looked to us children and said, “Did any of you see Seinfeld last night?” And most of the students nodded. A teacher was referencing a television show the night after it aired. And the children knew what she was talking about. Children! That’s the sort of show Seinfeld was. It really was everywhere and was touching everything.
What made the show so special? It’s been mentioned about a million times before but the series was pitched as a “show about nothing.” Jerry Seinfeld and co-created Larry David didn’t want a typical sitcom, they wanted to portray the normal, day-in-the-life conversations and problems they had with their real friends. They didn’t want it to be a show about four friends working at the same place, with the lead character pining for a star-crossed love. They didn’t want the usual sitcom tropes. They wanted to portray real people talking about real things and living real lives. In the eyes of many, that’s a show about nothing.
But it wasn’t just the plot, it was the characters that made Seinfeld so unique. These were NOT good people. This was years before the anti-hero trend, eons before It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Sitcom characters were always lovable, smart, attractive people. America was used to Sam and Diane and then along came Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George. These were selfish people, cruel people, decidedly mean people. They weren’t seeking redemption nor change and they never found either. The characters were the same from the beginning to end and it was never in question if they would get better. They were mean to each other, they were downright atrocious to exes, they were true jerks to strangers. They argued over unimportant things and nit-picked the most petty issues. These were not people anyone should aspire to be. But they were funny! They told Americans that it was okay to laugh at these bad apples. Come on, Seinfeld nudged audiences. You can laugh at this. It’s okay. We won’t judge. America fell for this type of humor and characters and it fell hard. Cynical comedy isn’t always a hit in this country but Seinfeld leaned into its cynicism and hit the ultimate jackpot. America was ready for these types of characters and was, surprisingly, ready to admit it.
The show was also incredibly progressive when it came to sexual politics. Before Seinfeld, sex was still a major taboo for sitcoms. Yes, it was talked of often but it was always through innuendo or cute winks to the audience. It was rare that a show came right out and talked frankly about sex. But Seinfeld did. Birth control, orgasms, threesomes, masturbation — this was a show that wasn’t afraid to talk about it all. This was a radical change for network primetime TV. Perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of the show was the character of Elaine. Never before had television seen a female character speak so openly about sex. Not only did Elaine have sex, she had a decent amount of it. And she wasn’t always looking for love, she was often just looking for a suitable sexual partner for some fun. She wasn’t trying to get married or be swept off her feet. And she was comfortable speaking about sexual situations with the men. Not only did her exploits keep up with them, she described them and bickered about them as well as the rest of them. Elaine was a true female equal and that was another groundbreaking event for sitcoms.
These are just some of the ways Seinfeld changed it all. Television would never be the same after Seinfeld and David made their mark. Creators didn’t write characters the same way again. Networks didn’t want the typical sitcoms anymore either. Audiences were far more comfortable with the frank openness that the series introduced. It’s rare to see a show truly alter the cultural and television landscape but Seinfeld did just that. And the best part about it all? It’s still damn funny.
Here’s one of my favorite clips from the show. It’s hard to choose just one.