Late to the Party: Seinfeld

Peter McLaughlin 7 October 2020

Late to the Party is an ongoing feature that takes on the wildly praised, the underground acclaimed, and the cult classics that you just missed the boat for – and now can’t understand why on earth everyone finds the name ‘Inigo Montoya’ worthy of an on-the-spot monologue.

I hear you already. This series of articles is supposed to be about cult TV shows, but few shows have ever been bigger than Seinfeld. It bankrolled everyone involved for the rest of their lives and is without a doubt playing on syndication somewhere in the world as you read this. If any show is not a cult show, this is it.

But while I’m sure that’s the case in the US, I’ve never met anyone not from the States who has actually watched it (bar a few friends who got into it at the same time as me). This surprises me, because it’s not really a very American show in cultural terms. But for whatever reason, it seemingly never made it over here. I’m writing this guide, then, for all the times my friends have seen me start a sentence and suddenly stop it short because it’s a reference to that one episode where George claims that the Moops invaded Spain.

There’s another problem with writing this guide to Seinfeld, though, and it’s also due to its success: every single sitcom since has, knowingly or not, taken from it. Think of the way that all the main characters are un–self aware bad people, or the complete opposition to sentimentality, as examples; so much of what made the show special has now become the standard. Hence it’s difficult to watch today without heaps of baggage. But beyond its value as a historical artefact (seeing how all these sitcom staples arose and imagining how fresh they must have seemed when created), the best reason to watch Seinfeld today is that no matter how many great shows have taken inspiration from it, there are some aspects on which it’s never been topped. The writing is still top-notch; the performances from the cast (Jerry Seinfeld excluded) are still fantastic; and even as other shows go further in other directions, the blank-canvas nature of the ‘show about nothing’ makes it really easy to return to.

The writing is still top-notch; the performances from the cast (Jerry Seinfeld excluded) are still fantastic; and even as other shows go further in other directions, the blank-canvas nature of the ‘show about nothing’ makes it really easy to return to.

So, what do you need to know before starting? Seinfeld was created by Jewish comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, loosely based on Seinfeld’s own life. Apart from a fictionalised Jerry Seinfeld (played by himself), the main cast of characters are his friend George (Jason Alexander); his ex Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus); and his weird neighbour Kramer (Michael Richards). The show is entirely episodic, and can be watched in any order: the characters never grow or change, and their relationships with each other are almost entirely static, which is—surprisingly—a good thing. (Seinfeld’s motto in its first few seasons was ‘No hugging, no learning’, and it was the show that really completed the revolt against sentimentality in sitcoms.) This means you can dive right in anywhere if you wanted to. But I leave the rest of this guide to offer a few pointers.

Watch first:

‘The Contest’ (S4 E11)

It’s perhaps a bit predictable to recommend the best-known episode of a show for first-time viewers,; but this episode, in which the four main characters place a bet to see who can go the longest without masturbating, really is the best place to start. At the time, probably the most remarkable aspect of ‘The Contest’ was how the writers made a whole episode about masturbation without ever actually mentioning it (or devolving into crude clichéd euphemism). With TV writers having to censor themselves less than ever before, this might seem like it would date the episode; but really, what’s most remarkable today is how well it stands up. The episode proceeds from great gag to great gag in a way that shows off the best skills of the main cast (even Jerry Seinfeld, who the show knows is a terrible actor); it’s brilliant.

‘The Fusilli Jerry’ (S6 E20)

One of Seinfeld’s best features was the way that it could resolve two, three, or even four seemingly unrelated story threads so that they all tied up together in a hilarious climax; no other show has ever quite managed this to the same degree. This episode is the high-point of such multi-story writing: Kramer is making pasta-based statues of his friends, George’s mother has cosmetic surgery, Elaine’s new boyfriend has stolen his bedroom ‘move’ from Jerry, and the Motor Vehicle Bureau has messed up some license plate orders. How the writers tied these all up I don’t know, but the climax of this episode is one of my favourite scenes in all television.

‘The Merv Griffin Show’ (S9 E6)

Every so often, especially later in its run, Seinfeld gave itself permission to go off the rails. Sometimes this didn’t work—such as when Kramer began acting like a dog in ‘The Andrea Doria’ (S8 E10)—but sometimes it absolutely did; and it works perfectly in this episode. George frets that the social contract between people and animals is breaking down, while Kramer constructs an entire talk show set from rubbish in his apartment. Other shows since have pushed the bar of wacky humour much further, but few have managed to hit the sweet spot that Seinfeld did during its peak. Absurd, but hilarious, and a great introduction to the show at its most absurd.

The Best:

‘The Chinese Restaurant’ (S2 E11)

Perhaps controversially, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this episode as your first foray into Seinfeld, just because it’s not all that representative: it’s a Kramer-less bottle episode that is a little unusually structured compared to the series’ other great episodes. But everything about it really works; what it lacks in the elaborateness of later Seinfeld, it more than makes up for in the precision of its humour. The highlight is the slow build of George’s anger, culminating in him loudly proclaiming, “You know, we’re living in a society!”, a line so good that decades later it unconsciously formed the basis of memes.

‘The Marine Biologist’ (S5 E14)

Another episode in which multiple plot threads come together at the end, ‘The Marine Biologist’ is also an amazing Kramer episode. One of the few things that wasn’t pilfered from Seinfeld by every other sitcom in existence was a character like Kramer, and it’s obvious why: nobody could pull off the physical comedy of that character (the movement! the expressions! the entrances!) like Michael Richards, who in this episode manages to turn walking down the hall with a bag of golf clubs into a great joke that never feels overly silly. And while I won’t spoil the ending for you, it has me in stitches no matter how often I watch it.

‘The Big Salad’ (S6 E2)

No Seinfeld guide would be complete without mention of Newman. Jerry’s trivially evil arch-nemesis is my favourite side character by a long way: part evil genius, part bumbling postman, part lazy slob. Jerry’s disgust and confusion in this episode when he learns his date used to go out with Newman is brilliant. Meanwhile, Elaine plays the straight man to an increasingly exasperated and petty George. The one-line summary of Elaine as a character is ‘straight man’, but it is hugely impressive how Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ performance elevates the character to the same comic level as the others, despite the slim pickings the writers sometimes left her with.

‘The Hamptons’ (S5 E21)

An episode remarkable for how much things fall apart. George arrives in the Hamptons looking forward to trying some Hampton tomatoes (“you can eat them like apples!”) and having sex with his new girlfriend; by the time he leaves, he’s the only one not to have seen her naked, and the tomatoes are being pelted at him. Jason Alexander is fantastic at performing pathetic desperation, and he shows it off in spades here as George is hit with one awful occurrence after another (most of them his own fault).

Avoid:

‘The Puerto Rican Day’ (S9 E20)

It’s difficult to imagine how an episode of Seinfeld could be so offensive; but this one managed it, so much so that the network had to apologise for airing it. One joke involved Kramer responding to a violent rioting mob with the remark, “it’s like this every day in Puerto Rico.” And if that quote didn’t tip you off, this episode commits another cardinal sin on top of offensive bigotry: it’s not funny. ‘The Puerto Rican Day’ is so unrepresentative of the rest of the show that it stands as a bizarre cultural object, an episode that seems like it fell out of a parallel dimension.