How Seinfeld Paved the Way For Tony Soprano

SEINFELD -- Season 6 -- Pictured: (l-r) Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld (Photo by George Lange/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Photo: NBC

Seinfeld, which debuted 25 years ago this summer, was one of the least likely hits in television history and one of the most significant. Though cable dramas usually take all the credit, the seeds of TV’s so-called golden age may have really been sown in Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s half-hour sitcom. Their eagerness to tinker with the show’s format—altering the tone, pace, and structure to startle viewers and keep ­themselves amused—emboldened many subsequent comedies, including Friends, 30 Rock, both versions of The Office, Veep, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (the last two starred Seinfeld alums) as well as The Simpsons (an altogether warmer series that premiered five months after Seinfeld and shared a few crew members and an obsession with “meta” humor). But Seinfeld’s impact resonated beyond comedy. Its serene belief that characters did not have to be likable as long as they were interesting foreshadowed a change in TV drama that wouldn’t settle until the late ’90s, when HBO turned a show about violent gangsters into an award-winning hit. We tend to forget that the first coldly expedient hero to anchor an influential, long-running series named after him wasn’t Tony Soprano. It was Jerry Seinfeld.

How did a “show about nothing,” built around the misadventures of a supremely selfish comedian and his equally obnoxious friends, rescue a network and inspire generations of TV writers? By being itself. Seinfeld straddled the diverging worlds of broadcast and cable TV. It was shot in the traditional way, with four cameras and a live studio audience whose laughter was sweetened in editing. Jerry had a zhlubby, needy, impulsive best friend; a wiseass ex-girlfriend who brought sarcastic banter and sexual tension; and a scene-stealing wacky neighbor whose rubber-limbed entrances were so popular that the crew had to warn studio audiences not to greet every opened door with a standing ovation because it was putting them behind schedule.

But these reassuring qualities were superficial. Seinfeld was defiantly not lovable. First, there was its New York–iness. Seinfeld was not just a show that happened to be set in New York, like The Odd Couple or Taxi. It was specifically about Manhattan life in a way that should have alienated every other part of the country. Actually, it may have been even more specific than that: It was, in fact, a show about the idealized, compacted, cartoon version of New York imagined by displaced New Yorkers who’d settled in Los Angeles, where Seinfeld was taped, and didn’t plan on moving back anytime soon but still reserved the right to complain about the lack of good bagels and a decent mass-transit system. But its formal daring was even more distinctive. For all its baseline technical excellence (every line and transition timed with whip-crack precision), Seinfeld was never content merely to amuse. It seemed to loathe the idea that audiences might get too comfortable with it. David admonished the writing staff that there would be “no hugging, no learning” in the scripts, and there wasn’t. Ever. Seinfeld went out of its way to provoke, baffle, and offend. It was often blasted as showoff-y, cold, even hateful. (When George’s fiancée died from licking toxic envelopes, he seemed to get over it in seconds.) Seinfeld was, to quote a phrase from the Grinch’s theme song, as cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel.

And yet, somehow, it became one of the last across-the-board broadcast-network hits. It was a top-20 show for most of its run, inspiring catchphrases and memorable moments that would now be repackaged as gifs or memes: Sponge-worthy. Shrinkage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. No soup for you! Its finale drew a staggering 76 million viewers, the third-biggest audience for a sitcom sign-off, after M*A*S*H and Cheers. How did this happen? It’s not enough to say “It was a different time; everybody watched the same shows.” They didn’t—not in the way that they had during the ’50s or ’60s or even the ’80s. In the ’90s, cable was becoming a creative and commercial force, eroding the broadcast networks’ numbers. NBC ran the pilot of the show originally titled The Seinfeld Chronicles on July 5, 1989, and was so unimpressed by its performance that it tried to sell it to Fox. The Seinfeld Chronicles showcased some now-familiar situations (stand-up routines, ­coffee-shop banter) and a few good jokes, but it felt like another blandly traditional NBC sitcom with a vaguely urban-ethnic flavor. Jerry (Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), and Kramer (Michael Richards) were all much more chipper. Kramer was named “Kessler” and owned a dog. Elaine wasn’t in the episode at all. The show survived the Nielsen’s long knives, thanks in large part to NBC executive Warren ­Littlefield’s advocacy; debuted in a regular Thursday-night slot in May 1990; then limped through the summer and was nearly canceled again.

But in season two, Seinfeld started to become Seinfeld. The show perfected a unique type of squirm-inducing humor with “The Pony Remark” (in which Jerry and Elaine offend Jerry’s mother’s second cousin at an anniversary dinner by disparaging her favorite animal) and aired highly conceptual, self-contained episodes in which the main characters were trapped in a kind of open-air prison of social ritual—waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant, say, or wandering a parking garage like a clueless band of Beckett clowns. The ratings climbed. NBC built on its success by scheduling an entire bloc of programming around Seinfeld, including ER and the Seinfeld-lite sitcom Friends. Must See TV, they called it—and it was. (That phrase is a nostalgic remnant now; NBC just announced that this coming fall it would abandon its ­comedy-driven Thursday-night lineup.)

Before Seinfeld, there were never any sitcoms that let their characters be purely selfish, treating the rest of humankind as a resource or obstacle while standing back and observing their shenanigans with a jaundiced detachment. But David’s “no learning” ethos has since become a mantra for the medium, at least insofar as it has encouraged the writers of sitcoms and dramas alike to be true to whatever their vision may be, and not trouble themselves too much with whether you approve of what the characters say and do. Would Tony Soprano have strangled that snitch in the woods, would Six Feet Under’s Nate Fisher have been a sonofabitch right up to his final moments on Earth, would 30 Rock’s Jenna have treated the entire known universe as a ladder leading to her own career success, if Seinfeld hadn’t steamrolled an artistic path for them back in the early ’90s?

Even the end of Seinfeld feels like a harbinger of a particular kind of finale: one in which a show’s creators seem to be deliberately provoking the viewers to hate them and question whether the years they spent watching the series were wasted. The foursome were literally put on trial for being assholes after watching a man get carjacked in small-town Massachusetts and cracking jokes about his weight instead of helping him. (Kramer videotaped the whole thing.) The episode had, to use an aughts word, a troll-y quality. On the one hand, it seemed to be giving a certain sector of the audience—moralizers who were deeply uncomfortable with how much they enjoyed Seinfeld—a kind of catharsis-by-punishment. (David Chase would later joke that Seinfeld and The Sopranos should have switched endings.) The last pre-credits moment—Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer blathering cheerfully in a holding cell—seemed like a middle finger to viewers who wanted confirmation that the characters had grown or at least seen the error of their ways. The credits unreeled over footage of Jerry in an orange jumpsuit, performing for an audience of fellow prisoners. Once again, the Seinfeld characters had reverted to type, hugging no one, learning nothing. Not giving a damn what anyone thinks of you can land a person in jail, but for artists, it’s liberating.

*This article appears in the June 30, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

How Seinfeld Paved the Way For Tony Soprano