Legions of imitators have tried to copy its formula, but the original ‘show about nothing’ remains the best.
‘Do you know what this is all about? Do you know why we’re here?” Thirty years ago, these words introduced the world to Seinfeld. They came from Jerry Seinfeld himself, doing one of the standup bits that often appeared in episodes, and to this day they serve as a succinct description the show’s ethos. Seinfeld and his castmates famously called it “a show about nothing,” but that was true only in the sense that it had no overarching storyline. It was a show about normal-ish people leading normal-ish lives of relative privilege in Manhattan, and it existed to investigate the world these normalish people inhabited. That’s what it was about.
To be sure, understanding the world around them was not a formal mission of Seinfeld’s writers. But through their use of observational comedy they created a show that didn’t just poke fun at that world, but provided actual insight into the cultural norms and customs that underpin it.
Watching Seinfeld reruns was a nightly tradition in my college dorm, and even though we were barely out of diapers when the show wrapped up in 1998, my roommate and I found it incredibly relatable. While some of the trappings of the lives of Jerry and his friends were alien to us — I don’t think I’ve ever seen an answering machine in person — their challenges in navigating love, work, and friendship — life — were immediately recognizable. How soon after a date do you reach out to a woman again? How expensive a gift should one bring to a party? Is it acceptable to sleep with the cleaning lady in the office? These are questions — well, except the last one, hopefully — that we Millennials and the Gen Zers behind us still have to ask ourselves, even if we’re more focused on Snapchat’s best-friend standings than speed-dial lists.
Seinfeld rarely provided positive answers, of course; more often it gave examples of what not to do. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were famously never allowed to experience character growth — the show had an unofficial “no hugging, no learning” mantra — but Seinfeld’s ability to make viewers think about and examine the habits and routines of their own day-to-day lives cultivated a level of introspection lacking in most other shows. The characters could never mature, but the audience could.
Seinfeld was also notably prescient at times. It tackled friends-with-benefits arrangements before “friends with benefits” had entered the national lexicon, in the classic episode where Jerry and Elaine attempt such an arrangement and it blows up in their face. It also provided an early critique of politically correct culture run amok, poking fun at those who carry PC efforts to the extreme. In one episode, Jerry dates a Native American woman and finds himself unsure if he can use phrases like “restaurant reservation” and “ticket scalper.” In another, Kramer is beaten up after refusing to wear an AIDS ribbon despite participating in a walk to raise funds for a cure.
While Seinfeld launched a legion of imitators, no other show came close to its level of humor, because no other show came close to its ability to parse the social mores of everyday life. It’s tempting to say that we need another show like it in today’s increasingly complicated world, an updated examination of those mores. But while much of life in present-day America remains ripe for parody, the truth is we don’t need a new Seinfeld. Thirty years on, the original still speaks to our culture as well as any show could ever hope to.