A Look Back at the “No Hugging/No Learning” TV Sitcom About “Nothing”
This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the debut of “Seinfeld,” the pilot for which debuted in the summer of 1989 on NBC. What better time to explore maybe not so much the “meaning” of the classic TV “non-sitcom,” but why it was indeed so good — and how, in the end, it went so wrong. So, here we go…
WHAT WENT WRONG
Comedic god Jerry Seinfeld and former partner Larry David chatted with Bob Costas in the spring of 1998 about the final episode of their big-brainer, no-sitcom Seinfeld, airing around the same time, awash in a gang-size media blitz.
The comedian claimed the last segment did not fulfill expectations because the expectations were too high, and denied the show’s decline in caliber in its latter years.
“Maybe” to the former, a big “I don’t think so” to the latter.
What was the reel deal with Seinfeld and its disappointing final hour (in which Jerry, Elaine (played by Julia Louis Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer [Michael Richards) end up in jail and the show’s overall lack of quality control through the years?
Anyone who has now had a chance to view the series in reruns for the last ten years, can make a sound appraisal, in comparing the first few brilliant seasons of the show (1990–1994) to the final hum-drum, over-done years (1994–1998).
The last half of the Jerry semesters on NBC had nothing to do with the original show-about-nothing appeal that graced the premise and characters during the initial four seasons. The comic lead and his gang originally appeared eccentrically amusing.
When we first met Jerry, he was a very funny guy, whose personal observations were so keenly universal that you actually pictured, if not personally remembered, them happening to you.
Later, he and his pals became too lost, too frantic, too mean, and just plain too unfunny.
Something began to be amiss when George’s girlfriend, Susan (Heidi Swedberg) was killed off at the close of the 1995–1996 season. It was first perceived as humorous when she died from an overdose of cheap glue from excessive licking of her and George’s wedding invitations.
But, in retrospective, it’s really not funny at all.
It would have played slightly cheering if the series had stopped there, at death, with its slight bent on a mean-streak. But the boundaries of bad taste continued with extremity. Boredom stepped in, and the show’s original charm was gone, replaced with an incessant repertoire of sexual innuendo and occasional off-color humor, accompanied by mind-numbing canned laugher.
First of all, the show’s initial four years never required packaged chuckles.
Why? Because the studio audience actually laughed. And while they were doing that, a social consciousness, incognito, bled through each segment. The laughter, the acting, the characters, and the situations became constipated.
Producer/director Andy Ackerman (in charge of today’s horrid Becker) was mostly to blame.
He joined the show in 1993 (replacing Tom Cherones’ subtle, graceful rein), changed the pace of the program, guided the actors to be overly conscious of the audience and the camera, and did not allow their comedic gleam to stem from their character’s no-win no-situation. (Ackerman even told Jerry to stop smirking on camera. A big mistake, as this smirk was such a huge part of his charm.)
The writers strayed as well, as they frequently created interweaving non-real circumstances (e.g. Kramer having Chinese tourists sleep over in his large chest of drawers?! Kramer cooking in the shower?!). There was a severe deterioration and lack of originality in the scripts, which began to repeat themselves with frequent references to previous (funny) episodes.
What used to be sophisticated, highbrow, literate Woody-Allen-esque half-hours (“these pretzels are making me thirsty”) transformed into low-rate duds. Still better than everything else on television. But still low-rate duds.
Where indeed was that smirky appeal that Jerry once possessed when he was confronted by the Dragnet-like librarian Mr. Bookman (Philip Magnolia Baker Hall, in a brilliant, Emmy-winning performance) in search of a way-overdue Tropic of Cancer? What became of the Jerry who used to give the rude rental car reservations clerk a deserving hard time, yet who still allowed us to bond with him in this all-too-familiar position?
“I know how to take a reservation,” the clerk would say.
“I don’t think you do,” Jerry would reply as the voice of Everguy, with witty aplomb, a twinkle in his eye, and perspicacious appeal — not the overt, unattractive sarcasm that later took hold of his form.
We caught a glimpse of his old self, maybe, in one of the last episodes that were inspired by the Harold Pinter play and film, Betrayal (which may also sub as a title for a story on how some fans felt about the show’s decline) — a story of a relationship told in reverse. In one of the segment’s final scenes (which was really one of its first?), we view Jerry, eleven years before, moving into his apartment, and meeting Kramer for the first time. It was a remade scene of an encounter we always envisioned, but never actually saw. It was also one of the funniest moments in the entire episode because Jerry and Kramer’s original discerning (but not overly-performed) humor had returned. No one was manic. No one was running around, mawkish. It played like a funny, genuine moment of nothingness in Jerry’s life, just like the series used to showcase in every scene, every week.
In the real early years, Seinfeld, the actor, along with his thespian brigade, would perform in character, in an otherwise, staged, but real (realistic) situation. He used to say the words we all dream of saying to ill-mannered workers of any front desk. Yet he did so with style, not with the off-putting, complete and utter mean-spiritedness that later became his routine pattern of speech.
What became of the yes, cynical, but sometimes-necessarily adorable Elaine? She used to be the tough, but sweet gal-pal who would scream only once and a while. We used to understand her frustration. She then became repelling. All she did was yell at people. That’s all everyone always started to do — was yell, scream and shout. Why couldn’t it have just been kept down to a roar, with only George’s parents (played by Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller) playing screamers, which is how they were from the on-set? The yelping trait was part of their original make-up, and not created merely because it was classified as funny shtick.
What about George himself? Where was the neurotic, cheap-but-lovable imp of days-gone-by?
He became an unwatchable moron, who gobbled and goofed like an over-stuffed turkey, overcompensating with what seemed like a frequent case of diarrhea.
Conversely, Kramer — like George’s parents — maintained a certain consistency — his was the sole legitimate, frantic voice of the show, mainly because his character was frantic, and was so from the beginning. After playing Cosmo, mellow (in the first few episodes), Richards’ zany antics became a trademark that studio audiences cheered each time he entered Jerry’s apartment.
Yet the doorway-entry applause stopped four years before, not because the actor’s entrance hadn’t still deserved accolades (and besides the fact that it, too, wreaked of an overly conscious performance and audience relation), but because his presence stood out beyond and actually over-shadowed the other actors.
As the show tired, the other cast members, including Jerry, sought to mimic Richards’ manic-mania, an imitation that was not only unnecessary but only added to the erosion of the Jerry, George and Elaine characters — and the show, in general.
In the last years, the dialogue of the once fab-four became unclear, as it was too speedily pronounced. The actors ran around, trying hard to act funny, and forgot in the process how jocular they used to be just being funny, by playing themselves.
Of course, Jerry Seinfeld, the real person, has now refuted that his life-com changed for the worse, in the end. In 1998, on CNN’s Larry King Live, he even displayed early signs of the same caustic denial that he relayed to Bob Costas, going so far as to contradict himself, saying that Seinfeld was never a show about nothing, bit how it was a show about anything.
That statement would have been acceptable had the new episodes turned out to be about something or comparably comical to the old ones.
Yet such was not the case.
Okay — so Jerry didn’t want to do the opening monologue anymore, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David sought to move on, and the supporting actors started to pull in an outrageous $650,000 per episode (in addition to the star’s one million dollar-plus weekly salary). This was somewhat acceptable.
The issue here was humor. And the sitcom or no-sitcom premise, the series strayed from the simple presentation of it. The gallant dash of self-awareness that used to mirror the nothingness of our lives, the kind that once appeared so extremely funny (and spontaneous) — the kind that the Seinfeld gang once gracefully showcased with a balanced blend of poised pessimism, reality, and comedic genius — it became non-existent.
When it was good, Seinfeld allowed us to recognize and amend out imperfections, and to rise above them with tact, style, and sincere non-debasing merriment. With its initial unequaled comic home-delivery, the show once prescribed a perspicacious memorandum: Laughter is the best medicine.
With their original dose of reality, Jerry, Kramer Elaine and George once appropriately needled us, and refused to insult our viewer intelligence, permitting us to actuate the positive, ignore our differences, and concentrate on what makes us the same (We do all like to laugh, don’t we?).
In the process, diversity on television was given a healthy shot in the funny bone.
All that was sorely missed in the last four years of the show, as TV’s once top likable unlikables not only ended up in jail (a horrible, horrible way to end the beloved show), but seemingly transmuted into what looked like the Seinfeld residents of the Bizarro World — the fictional Superman parallel universe to which the show frequently referred.
“Ah,” as Jerry might have said in the good old days, “the final irony.”
PART 2: HOW IT SHOULD HAVE ENDED
The camera fades in. Jerry’s apartment. It’s morning. We see Jerry tossing and turning in bed.
He’s dreaming of the last nine years. His parents in Florida. George. George’s parents. Elaine. Kramer. Newman. Mr. Bookman, the library detective. The virgin. The low-talker. The close-talker. The puffy shirt. Teri Hatcher’s hot Sidra (“They’re real, and they’re spectacular!”), and all of the other eccentrics he’s come to know.
“What’s it all mean?” he wonders aloud. Thinks a second, then, “Eh…it’s probably nothin’.”That evening, George, on a whim (but really because he’s bored), decides to set Jerry up on a blind date.
“This could be the one,” George tells his best friend.
“Yeah,” Jerry replies with a measure of apprehension, “maybe it’s time.”
“You’ve got to meet this girl,” George goes on to say. “You won’t believe your eyes.”
“But I’m really not concerned so much with my eyes, as I am with hers,” Jerry says. “As well as her nose, her mouth, and various other pertinent body parts and districts.” He thinks a moment, and then asks, “Is she good lookin’?”
“Good lookin’ doesn’t begin to describe her,” George returns. “As a matter of fact, she’s indescribable. Without description. This girl cannot be described.”
“So, she’s undesirable?” Jerry jokes.
“Come on,” George insists, “give her a chance.”
Jerry gives in. “Alright. Alright. One chance, and one chance only.”
“Thank you, Sir,” George replies.
“And by the way,” Jerry warns, “this is your last chance.”
We then hear the strum of Seinfeld’s theme guitar and cut to the following Saturday. George arranges for Jerry to meet this mystery woman at Monks, the gang’s home-away-from-home for the last near-decade.
At the allotted time, the woman walks in.
To Jerry’s and our utter surprise, it’s Elaine.
Both Jerry and Elaine who, of course, once dated, feel duped by George.
But we kind of like it.
At first, they laugh. Next, they become a little angry, then begin to discuss how meeting this way (and anything that could develop from it) may have its perks.
“Hey,” Elaine figures, “I’ve done worse.”
“Well, I haven’t,” Jerry jokes. “This is as bad as it gets.”
On that note, Kramer rushes in with Newman and his little acting friend, Micky.
“Then again…” Jerry adds.
“Guess what?” Kramer screeches.
They all look at him as if to say, “Yeah…??”
“I’ve been pegged by a Hollywood producer to star in my own TV sitcom.”
“Oh, you’re pegged alright,” Jerry says.
“And I’ve got a supporting role,” adds Newman.
“Really pegged,” Jerry adds.
“Me, too,” says Micky.
“Pegged like you wouldn’t believe,” Jerry adds once more.
Kramer explains: “I play a character named Mr. Fix-It Doctor, which also doubles as the show’s title. He’s a plumber-slash-psychologists who knows all too well how to drain the pipes and emotions of others. And it’s about the funny situations that stem from there. The premise is really out there.”
“And I’m outa’ here,” Jerry interjects.
“You and me both,” Elaine chimes in.
We cut to George’s apartment. We see him watching TV on the sofa. There’s a knock at the door. It’s Susan, his thought-to-demised fiancée.
“You can’t be here,” George states in shock. “You’re dead!”
“No so, George,” Susan replies. “Not so.”
“But the poison glue from our wedding invitations? What about that?”
“All a lie,” Susan replies. “I lied, George. And I learned from the master.”
“Of my domain?”
“So now what?”
“I tell you what. We’re getting married. That’s what.”
Back at Jerry’s apartment, Jerry and Elaine are in the living room. They’ve just returned from their date. And as it turns out, sparks have indeed flown. They retreat into Jerry’s bedroom.
The next morning, the two decide they’ve always been in love, and to marry. As we view their bliss, we cut to George’s distorted face. Then to Kramer, Newman, and Micky flying to LA.
The screen goes black. We hear, “Cut!”
The lights go on. We see Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer reassembled in Jerry’s apartment.
The camera pulls back. The living room is really a TV set. There’s the production crew. The audience.
“See you later, Jerry,” George says, walking off to one side of the set.
But it’s not George, the character saying this to the TV Jerry, but Jason Alexander, the actor, saying this to the real Jerry.
“Good night, Jason,” Jerry replies, adding, “Julia…Michael,” as in Luis Dreyfus and Richards.
All these years, Seinfeld has really been a show-within-a-show.
And that arc of episodes, in which Jerry and George create their own sitcom for NBC? Well, those outings really displayed a show-within-a show-within-a show premise.
But wait — there’s more.
The screen goes black once again.
The lights reappear.
We’re back in Jerry’s bedroom.
The show. The no-show. The show-within-a-show. The show-within-a-show- within-a-show.
All of it was…”nothing but a dream.”
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