Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our series on the best episodes of Seinfeld (1989-1998, NBC), one of the most popular and critically lauded American sitcoms ever produced. I’m happy to report that the entire series has been released on DVD.
Where does a comedian get his material? From everyday life. Seinfeld stars JERRY SEINFELD as Jerry Seinfeld, JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS as Elaine Benes, MICHAEL RICHARDS as Cosmo Kramer, and JASON ALEXANDER as George Costanza.
When I’ve been asked before on this blog to cite the sitcoms that I consider the best of the best, Seinfeld is one that easily makes the cut. As with I Love Lucy, which I regard as the Gold Standard up to which every sitcom still strives to live, Seinfeld is commonly celebrated as one of the finest, if not the finest, comedies that our country has ever produced. As a connoisseur of the genre (and someone who fancies himself in possession of extraordinarily high standards when it comes to my chosen entertainments), I am in agreement with this praise, believing the series to be one of the most consistent fulfillers of the sitcom’s super-objective of making an audience laugh; and at the end of the figurative day, a good laugh is all we really come to these shows seeking. Additionally, it’s difficult to minimize the aesthetic impact the series has made on the situation comedy in the decades following – for better and worse – and the extent to which the show has been allowed to define for audiences what it means to be “quality” – again, for better and worse. However, one must always be careful when discussing Seinfeld, as the culture of the series, which is far-reaching and touches both sitcom lovers and loathers, tends to value minutia above everything else – often to the extent that this fetishistic focus on the trivial obfuscates and distracts from needed looks at premise-fulfillment and narrative direction, both of which can enhance our appreciation of the series and also pierce through the, at best, pride, and at worst, smugness, that surrounds the show’s identity and makes detractors hope to disprove its claim on excellence. So, keep in mind, beyond how the trivial details directly impact our perceptions of comedic and creative strength, these posts won’t be about them – you can find everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the series on the brilliantly produced DVD releases (the best sitcom release ever). Behind-the-scenes dirt; a detailed creation story; quirky episodic tidbits – you can get all that elsewhere. An honest look at quality? That’s harder to find.
Studying and discussing the series in these eight posts has been cathartic for me, because while I’ve always loved Seinfeld, I’ve also had issues with the trends it’s inspired, the misconceptions it’s fostered, and its notions of quality – which are sometimes incongruous to my own. Now, when I think of “quality” in regard to the sitcom, I personally think of works that earn big laughs while being routinely character-driven. (That is, when characters are a narrative’s primary concern, and no story exists without the believable motivation from and utilization of character.) As a longtime fan of this series, it’s taken some effort to reconcile my notion of quality (implanted by shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers) alongside the notion of quality that this show inspires – in which the comedic idea and the well-crafted story often have as much weight as the characters themselves: a philosophy to which many casual sitcom fans still subscribe. In these posts, you’ll see that I’m not going to abandon my own idea of how the situation comedy best functions (nor will I ever), but I will be exploring how this series both reinforces and rejects this principle – setting its own qualitative hierarchy in the process. Although Seinfeld is like previously explored classics such as I Love Lucy and Cheers in that every episode has something worthwhile (and if you’ve ever wondered why I choose ten episodes to highlight out of a season that only includes 22 or 24, a show like this proves why it’s necessary), there are creative choices and trends that beg for exploration, particularly when the quality does descend from the show’s peak, threatening to undermine its stellar reputation. Truthfully, I feel that most critical discussions of Seinfeld are inhibited by its reputation – which prevents some from honestly examining the series’ shortcomings, while others find it necessary to attempt dishonestly motivated take-downs. My goal is simple: I want to the find the series at its best.
So, in addition to exploring the relationship between the series’ use of story and character, which is an unimpeachable benchmark that I bring to the figurative table, one of the other ways we’ll determine what constitutes Seinfeld’s best is something it provides for us: the presentation and exploration of its premise. Interestingly, this is a more nuanced discussion than it may otherwise seem. First, there’s a misconception about the series that should be put to rest: Seinfeld is not a show about nothing and it was never intended to be a show about nothing. In fact, the pitch given by comedians Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up who was a regular presence on the late-night talk shows, and Larry David, a comic who had written for both Fridays and Saturday Night Live, was essentially focused on a single question — where does a comedian get his material? In the case of Jerry Seinfeld, the answer was in the casual observations of “everyday life,” and indeed, this would be the subject of his series – finding the humor in everyday life. Now, as mentioned above, I am not interested in wasting space discussing histories that are better documented elsewhere (again, let me plug those excellent DVDs), but there are certain things about this premise worth noting. First, by crafting such a low-concept series in which the accompanying storytelling would surely be different from more traditionally conceived and written sitcoms, Seinfeld established itself as being just as rebellious as shows like FOX’s Married… With Children (1987-1997) and Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-1990), the latter serving as a series to which Seinfeld was initially compared. It’s easy to see why. Both shows ostensibly feature a stand-up comedian known for late-night appearances playing himself (with platonic ex-girlfriends as part of their ensembles) and boast late-night/variety sensibilities that help make them decidedly “other” in comparison to most sitcoms. (To wit, Seinfeld actually was regarded by NBC as part of its Late-Night and Special Programming Division because of both its star and how the network decided to budget its first season. It really was “other.”)
Additionally, Seinfeld and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show each play with realism by winking at the audience and asking us to recognize that both stars are playing themselves. But It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which we discussed at length on this blog several months ago, is all about breaking the fourth wall, taking its very premise from the idea that a comedian (who’s playing himself) is on a TV show that the characters can’t help but acknowledge. Stories are derived from the relationship between truth and construct. On Seinfeld, there is no fourth wall breaking, for although we’re meant to accept that comedian Jerry Seinfeld is playing himself, we’re also encouraged to entirely believe the fictional reality of the universe that the show creates. Stories are derived from “truth.” In other words, while Garry speaks directly to his audience (within our own reality — breaking the fourth wall), Jerry speaks to the audience in the comedy club (within his own reality) – and that’s the difference in how they wink. (It’s the same delineation Shandling would enact in his next series, the more critically acclaimed The Larry Sanders Show, coming up on this blog later this year.) Obviously, crafting stories for Seinfeld proved much easier, for reality (in theory, at least) isn’t a gimmick that can overpower and divert attention away from character (as we saw on Shandling’s first show, which corrupted the audience’s investment), and as a result, Seinfeld has ended up being the more influential of the two with regard to content – more connectable. This series’ post-run influence is a theme that may pop up in the weeks ahead (and certainly in the shows ahead, because of the evolution of NBC’s brand), but here let’s note that sitcoms in the decades since Seinfeld have adopted the same intense focus on realistic, everyday stories, along with the quirky personalized trivia that is said to enhance believability. Also, the irony of Jerry playing himself, even on a show with fictional boundaries, is an aesthetic that remains prevalent in the comedies of today – when a subliminal wink to the highly TV-literate audience remains, but in the midst of stories that over-perform their fidelity to realism.
In terms of Seinfeld’s own use of the narrative style it would pioneer and typify – and let’s give the show credit for truly being revolutionary in the way it, in the beginning of its existence, deflated the situation comedy’s focus on overblown stories in favor of a low-concept look at life – the series really is a breath of exciting, humorous air. And as someone who’s always been a proponent of “less is more” when it comes to sitcom storytelling, I’m delighted by the series’ deliberate aim to simplify its scope and ignore tropes that, without strong established writers (of the MTM vein), too often cripple a show’s comedic character-oriented standing. Already, the simple “where does a comedian get his material?” idea is a brilliant filter to explore reality through a humorous lens, and the show never functions better than when it’s still connected to this theme. (Of course, as Seinfeld progressed, the writers pivoted away from this premise, and began turning its low-concept notions of “reality” into a pretentious style of storytelling that became suffocatingly high-concept, creating new story-over-character tropes that still plague the genre to this day; stay tuned…) However, in the very brief first season, which consists of a pilot that aired in the summer of 1989 and four more episodes that followed in the summer of 1990 (making the first season, for the purposes of categorization, a contribution to the 1989-90 season), the show looks to be too low-concept – because the characters aren’t well-defined enough to support these evaporated story constructs. (Note: story constructs; Seinfeld always employed story – remember, it was never about nothing. It was about the everyday, non-sitcom stuff.) Also, because neither the show nor the audience yet knows the characters, these first episodes must focus on the style and off-beat premise – neither of which, even Seinfeld in its story-heavy days would agree, can satisfy without set, well-defined players.
The addition of Elaine after the pilot is essential to the series’ emerging viability, for her inclusion in the group forces the show to concentrate on developing the characters and specifically, in the most basic and unsentimental way possible, the relationships that the four regulars share. (Let’s note now that Elaine will almost become a barometer for the show’s creative health in years to come – she changes in tandem with its disposition.) In this tiny first season, none of the characters have any rigid definition, and these episodes can be difficult to watch, especially when coupled to a comparatively slow pace and a tenuous confidence (which, in hindsight, seems uncommon of this overconfident series). There are indeed laughs in these first episodes due to both the show’s unique narrative ambitions and the point-of-view being introduced by two comedic geniuses (Seinfeld and David – then fresh voices in the sitcom world, coming from stand-up, late-night, and sketch comedy), which poises Seinfeld for being worthy of attention… but only once it gains more definition. So it’s really not until Season Two that the series discovers itself. Actually, the entire initial five-episode season functions almost as a pilot to Seinfeld’s show-defining second year, which in terms of development, acts a lot like its first. It’s here in the second season of 13 episodes (one of which didn’t premiere until the middle of the third year – with an introduction by Seinfeld to address the continuity issues), which were ordered after the first few shows had done fine in the summer of ’90 (in a post-Cheers slot), that everything about Seinfeld is created – the characters, the storytelling, the style. It’s still a bumpy year though, airing wildly out-of-order on NBC, which pulled the show from Wednesdays after a few weeks due to low ratings, and then brought it back at the end of the season (again post-Cheers), where it was received well enough to get another pick-up.
But the turbulence of the second year’s scheduling is best contextualized alongside these show-defining growing pains that the series needed to endure. With regard to the characters, there are several breakthrough episodes for each of the four regulars. While Jerry finds himself in tone-establishing episodes like “The Pony Remark” and “The Chinese Restaurant,” George’s excitable neuroses turn him into a brilliant purveyor of comedy in “The Phone Message” and “The Heart Attack,” Elaine’s destructive sense of superiority gives her pinpointable flaws in “The Ex-Girlfriend” and “The Busboy,” and Kramer’s evident eccentricities are channeled through traceable action and behavioral patterns in “The Statue” and “The Revenge,” finally taking him out of the building to which he was initially confined. Meanwhile, the foursome’s chemistry as an ensemble, which is noticeably elevated between the end of the first year and the beginning of the second, increases exponentially throughout the latter’s course, adding to our trust in the premise’s believability: this is the life of these four people. And with the characters and their relationships established, the show is then able to lock into its storytelling – a hallmark of which is the use of two separate narratives that somehow converge, or “dovetail.” Now, regular readers know that if a sitcom episode is to engage with more than one plot, I believe that some kind of connection is essential (be it by location, story, or theme) in order to justify the pairing. Season Two finds Larry David coming to this same conclusion during episodes like “The Busboy” and “The Baby Shower,” neither of which are strong enough to be highlighted below (even NBC, whose faith in the series’ uniqueness was tempered by a desire to make it seem more familiar, held them back until later), but they certainly presage the mastery that lies ahead. So, in effect, the series uses Season Two to create its distinguishing – and unfortunately, eventually destructive – narrative style. It’s a stimulating era of focused experimentation.
One more thing before we get to this list… Seinfeld also begs discussion on a conflict that’s been simmering within the genre for decades: the differences between cinema and theatre and the debate about which is more conducive to television quality. As a series that, because of its storytelling, did as much for advocating single-camera non-audience sitcoms (which therefore look more like a film than a play) than any cable comedy with said set-up (like The Larry Sanders Show), it’s pertinent to mention that the series opens its run with a focus on its theatrical elements; there’s a great desire to treat each episode as a one-act play with simple story beats and only a few characters. Now, you all know I find this preferable, as I maintain that television was designed for enhanced intimacy, the kind that best uses theatre’s humanity as a foundation. But I also think given both Seinfeld’s stand-up background and the premise’s minimal design, the more theatrical an episode of Seinfeld, the more in touch the series is with its own thesis. This is something that’ll be lost in later years, when stories become increasingly cinematic, enjoying more narrative freedom, but often stripping the writing of its appealing simplicity – thus creating an easily emulated formula that, when handled improperly, quickly threatens the premise. I make this point to note that there’s something special about the second season’s theatricality, in particular, and while there are funnier years ahead, and even better written ones, this year, with all its greenness and growing pains, offers humbler, more affable treats. So, I have picked seven episodes that I think exemplify these two seasons’ strongest. (There’s one from Season One and six from Season Two – which, for our purposes, consists of all 13 produced episodes. The DVD and syndication package keep the lone holdover in this bunch, and while I usually judge solely on airdate order, because Season Three is more competitive, I’ve chosen to include the installment here – where it can deservedly be mentioned.) For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there may be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the seven best episodes of Seasons One & Two. (As always, they are in AIRING ORDER — even though I advocate studying the second season, in particular, in production order to track its creative development.) Note that every episode from these two years, with the exception of the pilot (not highlighted below) is directed by Tom Cherones.
Season One (Summer 1989 & Summer 1990)
01) Episode 2: “The Stake Out” (Aired: 05/31/90)
Jerry plans a “stake out” to get a date with a woman.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld | Production No. 103
As the first installment to air after the pilot — almost 11 months later — this entry is easily the best of that four-episode (heck, even that five-episode) run, for it’s the most valuable pre-second-season character-builder. Although the second outing produced with Elaine, this was chosen as the first to air because, aside from being the year’s obvious strongest, it does the best job of introducing her; it’s the first to really make Elaine a significant part of the story, and the dynamic the show grants for her and Jerry (first in the easy, breezy bookstore scene and then in more story-related emotional trappings) is very important to both the show’s comedy — Louis-Dreyfus is a brilliant performer — and its storytelling. Additionally, the entry gains points for helping to craft George, whose scene with Jerry in the crux of the episode (the eponymous “stake out”) introduces important character traits and an indellible running gag (“Art Vandelay”) that make the outing both important and rewarding. Furthermore, we meet Jerry’s folks (although Morty will be recast). So it’s crucial. (Note: I intended to choose two entries from Season One, but I decided to give the more deserving Season Two an extra; Season One didn’t need it.)
Season Two (Spring-Summer 1991)
02) Episode 7: “The Pony Remark” (Aired: 01/30/91)
Jerry accidentally insults an aunt who dies soon after.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld | Production No. 202
In my introductory comments above, I noted that the second season’s prime appeal is the creation of the show’s identity. I credit this episode, specifically, for first introducing the series’ trademark irreverence, which is initially used (primarily this season and the next) to subvert sitcom tropes by painting the characters as more realistic, before eventually becoming an aesthetic objective of its own, in which dark humor (surrounding all the regulars) assumes a vital part of the show’s operation. So this becomes another seminal entry, in which we see the return of Jerry’s parents (now with Barney Martin), the introduction of the irascible Uncle Leo, and an uptick in the show’s relatable, but ever-so-slightly elevated, presentation. Important premise, hilarious execution — the first actual classic — it earned two Emmy nominations.
03) Episode 8: “The Jacket” (Aired: 02/06/91)
Jerry and George meet Elaine’s father.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld | Production No. 205
Of all the episodes on the list, this is the one I least feel is a definite Seinfeld essential, for as mentioned above in my seasonal introduction, every outing has something worthwhile and therefore recommendable, meaning that I could craft an excuse for highlighting almost any episode here. But this entry stands apart from the rest (especially the honorable mentions featured below) for the comedy provided by the casting of Lawrence Tierny as Elaine’s terrifying father; every scene in which he appears is delightfully intense — made better by the slowly-being-defined characters off of whom he plays. (You can learn all about why this character never returned on the DVD set.) I’d also like to note the series’ increasingly masterful storytelling — with the seemingly innocuous jacket becoming the climactic gag.
04) Episode 9: “The Phone Message” (Aired: 02/13/91)
George tries to retrive an embarrassing phone message from a girlfriend’s voicemail.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld | Production No. 207
This episode was written in a two-day period when a script fell out after the first day of production week (the notorious “The Bet,” which you can learn about, again, on the DVD releases), and ironically, it’s one of the most effortless and uncomplicated Seinfeld outings for the series thus far, utilizing a premise that allows for the natural chemistry that’s been building between the ensemble members (particularly Jerry and George) to play pitch perfectly, while also helping to further define the characters, especially George, whose neurotic mania over embarrassing voicemails — as usual, inspired by a real Larry David incident — sort of encapsulates all that he is, and will become (in this “faithful to premise” era). Unlike most others here, there’s nothing flashy or groundbreaking, but it’s perhaps even more solid as a result.
05) Episode 11: “The Statue” (Aired: 04/11/91)
Jerry thinks that Elaine’s client’s boyfriend stole George’s statue.
Written by Larry Charles | Production No. 210
Given the series’ somewhat quiet and, at times painfully, low-key origins, it’s interesting to see how quickly the writing broadens by the end of the second year; we’re certainly not near the crazy place the series will end up in ’98, but it’s still a significant leap — one only made possible by the growing characterizations, which then allow the show to amp up its storytelling in a more justifiable and rewarding manner. There’s a lot to enjoy in this big episode — which, like all great Seinfeld, is filled with off-beat quirks — but I point to this entry as being most notable for Kramer, who gets the story’s comedic centerpiece when he solves the conflict by pretending to be a cop, and thus delivers an ostentatious show of physical comedy that defines the character and establishes how the series will narratively use him. It’s his installment, really.
06) Episode 12: “The Revenge” (Aired: 04/18/91)
Jerry teams with Kramer, while George teams with Elaine, in separate revenge plots.
Written by Larry David | Production No. 212
Long regarded as one of the series’ early classics, I don’t think the episode is better than the sum of its parts. In other words, in a reverse of the cliché, I think there are several components that make this one worth highlighting, even though when added together I don’t consider it of the calibre of several others highlighted here. First, I appreciate the thematic link between both stories that justifies why they’re paired together and illustrates David’s growth as a writer. Second, the story allows Elaine and George (played by the show’s two finest actors) to work together for their first substantial sequence, predicting better stuff ahead. Third, there’s more physical comedy thrown to Richards, which is great for laughs. Fourth, the episode gets George out of real estate, which is ideal for new story. And fifth, Newman’s first mentioned.
07) Episode 16: “The Chinese Restaurant” (Aired: 05/23/91)
Jerry, George, and Elaine wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant.
Written by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld | Production No. 206
My pick for the week’s best outing, this classic was held late into the season by NBC, which was totally perplexed by the show’s interest in doing an episode that many execs claimed had absolutely no story. Of course, the episode does have a story — the trio waiting for a table — along with several other smaller narratives, like George’s attempts to reach his girlfriend — but the brilliance of Seinfeld in this early era is that narrative is subjugated in favor of smaller moments where character is allowed to take precedence (this is why it isn’t until we start to understand the main players that this format can really work), and such a shockingly bold disinterest in being story-focused (again, here in these early days) was difficult for the network to comprehend. But there’s nothing really new here; in fact, this is exactly what the situation comedy should be — not just the real-time one-act formula (which I love, but don’t want from every single series on a weekly basis), but also in the simple, unassuming character-on-display writing that occurs — and this goes all the way back to the radio days of Benny and Gildersleeve. Yet network comedy had moved so far away from these ideas by 1991, and this episode, which is typical of Seinfeld in Season Two (when it used theatricality to bust conventions), is able to stand, not just as a great episode of the series, but as an excellent representation of the situation comedy at its most pure. It’s brilliantly funny, superbly designed, and great for the show at this time. The only complaint? We miss Kramer. Otherwise, perfect.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Ex-Girlfriend,” which, as the second season premiere, illustrates how much more poised for comedic prosperity the series has become since its first year, and also does great things for Elaine’s characterization (the closest contender), “The Stranded,” an amusing entry with a classic line — it was first broadcast during the third season, where it was clearly inferior to what was being produced at that time (but good by Season Two’s standards), and “The Deal,” which is well-written, comedic, and contends with the unavoidable subject matter of a Jerry/Elaine reconciliation (the network’s idea, of course), but forsakes the series’ “no hugging, no learning” mandate and suffers from both Jerry’s and the show’s inability to support relationship-heavy material. Of more “honorable mention” quality is “The Robbery,” the only other viable entry from that first year.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Seasons One & Two of Seinfeld goes to…
“The Chinese Restaurant”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!