It’s been three decades since Seinfeld first premiered on July 5, 1989, changing the sitcom narrative forever. From the show’s core characters of Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander), and Kramer (Michael Richards) to the low-stakes story lines explored in every episode, the series from Larry David and the titular creator gave audiences a joke-heavy glimpse at the mundanity of the human condition, adding an unexpected element of intellect and creativity to the formulaic prime-time landscape of the ’90s.
The show that was famously “about nothing” — a joke that originated in the show itself — premiered 30 years ago yet still holds true today. To dig deeper into why the series is still so impactful all these years later, we’ve tapped a handful of experts — from journalists to bestselling authors, university professors to a writer who worked on all nine seasons of the show … yada yada yada — to help unpack the ways Seinfeld has maintained its status as a television icon for three decades and counting.
Robert J. Thompson, Professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld managed to take their stand-up acts about the kind of, you know, goofy observations about stupid things, and turn it into a weekly half-hour sitcom that ultimately went nine seasons. That’s easier said than done. They did it brilliantly. And some of the very best episodes of Seinfeld are those that are the most tied to the stand-up act that Jerry Seinfeld had done way back. I think the most obvious answer and the most correct way to address it is that it really was a masterpiece. Not every episode was as elegant as others. But they managed to churn out episode after episode that would become part of the American vernacular.
Todd Gilchrist, freelance reporter for Variety and Nerdist: I think the show invited us to look at the everyday minutiae of human behavior — both others’ and our [own] — and contemplate the way we process and interact with our surroundings. The show itself created all of these little definitions and buzzwords to categorize when people do certain things (“close talker,” etc.) that has since given us a lexicon to understand that behavior. It also encouraged us to do that in our own lives, so it not only created this vocabulary to understand the world but inspired us to expand it. And it, of course, deeply entertained us with each new reminder how times may change, methods of communication change, how we process the world may change, but what we do within that understanding really doesn’t change all that much. Which feels like a suitably bittersweet lesson for the show’s misanthropic view to impart.
Allison Keene, TV Editor, Paste Magazine: The nothing-ness of the show encompasses all of the little universal experiences and pet peeves and desires that transcend its time and place. Seinfeld is wacky, hilarious, and incredibly smart, but the conversations and arguments and observations remain with us because we’ve experienced them, too. The touchstones of the series — whether it be low-talkers or seeing someone sneeze while naked or the results of “The Contest,” etc. — all speak to the fleeting, mundane thoughts we have, but here they are augmented into something important and meaningful. Seinfeld gave context and importance to life’s weirdness, and that’s why it still resonates today.
Liz Shannon Miller, freelance TV critic for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and The AV Club: It’s strange to look back at Seinfeld and realize just how much of an impact it had on pop culture, an impact that still resonates today with phrases we use. “They’re real and they’re spectacular” is still something I say on a semi-regular basis, just because after 20 years or so, certain phrases get hardwired into not just our brains, but society itself. In the future, as we cluster around trash fires in the ruins of civilization, someone somewhere will probably tell a friend, “No soup for you!” Even if the context is lost, the meaning will endure.
Peter Mehlman, writer and producer for Seinfeld: For the most part, [the show’s most quotable lines] just came organically. In the case of “double dip” … it doesn’t take any big genius to come up with that. With some of the others, like “master of my domain” and “sponge-worthy,” they were more creative and brilliant — they just came up as a natural bit of writing. It wasn’t a concerted effort to come up with new terms for things. There was no poignant moment ever in a script — it was all about just being funny.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything: In many ways both social media and streaming have bolstered Seinfeld‘s legacy. The show and its characters lend themselves well to memes, and several sites, artists, and internet personalities have dedicated themselves to keeping Seinfeld alive. In 2013 a street artist named Jayshells made a reproduction of the poster for “Rochelle, Rochelle,” one of Seinfeld‘s fake movies, and put it up in Manhattan. Photos of it went viral online. We had @SeinfeldToday on Twitter, which pitched ideas for plots that could be on a modern version of Seinfeld. And we still have @seinfeld2000 on Twitter, an internet character obsessed with getting Seinfeld back on the air. (He’s a creation of a TV producer named Jason Richards.)
Gilchrist: Their personalities don’t always translate directly to ourselves or our circle of friends, but the behavior of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer is deeply recognizable to us, and quite often in an unflattering way. We’ve all made choices, had social gaffes, and discovered little superficial patterns of behavior that became ridiculous pet peeves among both the people we cannot stand and the people with whom we’re the closest. We become our own obstacles to happiness because we can’t put aside those things — discarding friendships, relationships, and business exchanges because of an infringement that crossed an imaginary line in the sand. We may even be technically right to do so! But the wonderful thing about the show is that as entertaining as it is for us to watch, those decisions very seldom brought the characters greater or lasting happiness. Mostly, just the opposite.
Tom Nunan, Oscar-winning producer and lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television: It’s so funny because these characters are so relatable. And everything about them seemed kind of right down-the-middle: The way they dressed and where they lived, everything was pretty ordinary-looking. They never tried to make it feel like fantasy. The Friends apartment just seemed like a fantasy version of being 20 years old in New York. Everything about Seinfeld‘s world was really kind of drab, and I think that’s why we relate to it so much more. It was obviously a super-sophisticated, brilliantly-executed show, but they made it all look so normal, and I think that’s what makes it so popular.
Rick Porter, staff writer, The Hollywood Reporter: Because it was so huge in its time, it seeped into the larger culture in a pretty big way, from “yada yada” to “master of your domain” and having fundamentally unlikable people be the center of a show. It probably doesn’t get enough credit for the last part, but the characters were all low-key awful a good half-decade before The Sopranos.
Armstrong: As horrible as they were, why did we love them? They’re just really well-defined. Part of the reason people loved @SeinfeldToday so much was that they loved imagining these characters in modern scenarios, and that’s because we know them so well that it’s easy to imagine what Kramer might do with Amazon or Elaine might get into on Tinder. These characters — and many who came after them — are proof that viewers aren’t particularly interested in watching characters because they’re good people. They want to watch characters who are interesting, and interesting people are often somewhere between imperfect and awful.
Mehlman: It was before political correctness got completely out of hand, you know? There was a certain kind of innocence about it. Because it’s all about just being funny, and just observing the world and not really making points. Characters on shows now are basically so good to each other and if they are not, they apologize. On Seinfeld, they screwed each other over every single week and remained best of friends the next week.
Nunan: The ambition that Jerry and Larry had for this — these multiple story lines and multiple scenes per episode — mixed with a cast that was a murderer’s row of phenomenal, superstar comic talent … that kind of magic is rare. And then there’s that old saying that this is a show about nothing. In other words, it’s not about family cohesion; it’s not about romantic comedy; it’s not about politics. It’s about what Jerry Seinfeld became known for as a comedian before ever signing onto his own show, which was about the little observations in life — these little things that are universal and that we all share in common.
Thompson: It wasn’t really about nothing. It was just about different things that television generally didn’t deal with. It was about the kind of details of daily life that people go through. For example, the classic “Chinese Restaurant” episode … that was not something about nothing, it was about something we very much deal with on a daily basis: waiting in line for a restaurant.
Mehlman: You know, we didn’t have a writers room. You basically pitched ideas to Larry and Jerry for each of the characters. They’d say, “I like that,” or, “I’m not crazy about that.” And you’d go off and write on your own. The very first script I wrote for the show [was “The Apartment”]. It was the first outside script they produced and it was just about Jerry absentmindedly telling Elaine that an apartment opened up in her building. That was the whole thing that they sent me off with. I added in this whole story about George going to a party wearing a wedding ring to see if it would really attract women. I just added that in as I was writing. And Larry and Jerry had no idea what that was going to be.
Porter: I think it’s the template for most of the hangout comedies that followed it. Stakes are never terribly high, which allows more room for jokes and bits of character work and giving everyone in the core cast their time to shine. You can see its DNA in everything from Friends to Happy Endings to The Big Bang Theory. The low stakes and jokes-over-all ethos of the show also gives it a more timeless feel. They all have landlines and stuff, but with a handful of exceptions, stories don’t hinge on things that are so of their time that it feels dated. There’s a B-story in one episode where Jerry taped a Mets game and doesn’t want to know the score before he gets home to watch it, which How I Met Your Mother riffed on in a Super Bowl–themed episode and this still plays well in the current spoiler-phobic era.
Mehlman: It was a very male-centric show. I think the big upside of that is that you got to see conversations in mixed company that you never saw before. You know, we got to talk about anything. So I think that made a lot of people feel kind of liberated. It was kind of a very male show, yet, I always felt that if you didn’t have a good Elaine story, or if Julia didn’t have a big part in an episode, there was no way it could be a great episode. All the great episodes needed to have really strong Elaine stories or you were in trouble.