As Seinfeld celebrates its 30th Anniversary, Tom Jolliffe looks back at the iconic sitcom…
It’s been over 20 years since the final episode of a 9 season run brought Seinfeld to a close. The show ‘about nothing’ has just hit 30 years old since the airing of the first episode.
Jerry Seinfeld would play the titular character, loosely based upon himself (a stand up comedian, semi-famous, getting by in New York City). Co-conceived by Larry David, Jason Alexander would play George Costanza, a kind of amalgamation of David’s own personality, mixed with Woody Allen. Neuroses dialled up to 11. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Jerry’s ex-girlfriend turned friend Elaine (fiery and unabashedly promiscuous), and then there was Michael Richards as the madcap neighbour Kramer (loosely based on an old neighbour of David’s).
Having recently re-binged the show on Amazon, I can say with safe assurance, Seinfeld is still one of the finest sitcoms ever made. It still holds up magnificently. It’s still uproariously funny. There are elements of course, like any show of age, that have dated. Stereotypes within will not sit too well with the millennial generation, particularly if watched within modern context, rather than as a slice of history. Likewise, one must separate Richards’ moment of regrettable madness a few years back (having a racially charge back and forth with hecklers at a stand-up gig he was performing at), from his brilliant portrayal of Cosmo Kramer which is a mix of ingenious physical comedy, affably goofy charm and perfect comedic timing.
However, most of the observations on societal foibles still ring very true and some of the other characterisations, which are exaggerated for comical effect are still hilarious. Jerry Stiller, as George Costanza’s overbearing, over-loud father (and equally Estelle Harris as his mother) are constantly, side-splittingly funny.
Throughout the run, as with many comedies, the situations would become more and more elaborate and over the top. The characterisations would get progressively dialled up too. Somehow, where other sitcoms just seemed to derail, Seinfeld remained brilliant. Even when Costanza became an explosively volatile caricature of the version we saw from season 1 through 5(ish), he was still brilliant (and in context, you could say, began increasingly mirroring his father’s bouts of uncontrolled madness/rage). As a creation, the synergy between the writing, the mining of David’s own life/personality and Alexander’s performance make Costanza one of situational comedies finest ever creations. From his persistent musings of self-doubt, to his never-ending battles with the nemesis of the episode (be it a colleague sassing him, a mechanic stealing his Twix, or trying to get revenge on an ex boss), George Costanza is one of those comedy characters we never, ever want to win. You want Del Boy to win in the end. You want the characters in Friends to win, Father Ted to get his moment, even David Brent…with Costanza, such is the comic perfection of his persistent life failure, that the sadist within us, as an audience member, always wants him to suffer humiliating defeat.
Jerry Seinfeld himself, to his own admission was never a particularly comfortable actor. He eased into the show more and more as each and every character eased into their place, but even that somewhat rehearsed awkwardness always worked. It came to a point he almost caricatured his awkward deliveries from that first season in later seasons. Reactions to certain moments met with a less than realistic response, that just seemed completely ‘Jerry.’ For example ‘but I don’t want to be a pirate.’
Dreyfus was endearing, never cast asunder as the girl next door character. Never devoid of humour, whereas other comedies can often cast the women as the unfunny ones in the show. Dreyfus was a key cog, with particularly good chemistry opposite Seinfeld. The arc of Kramer from quirky to an almost pantomime buffoon seemed to work well. Every entrance, particularly from the 3rd season onward (the point whereby Kramer became increasingly Chaplin/Keaton/Wisdom-esque in his physical prat-falling) was ingenious. Moments which would become infamously, atypically Kramer largely remain some of his physical comedy. Firing from an airport luggage chute, falling off a catwalk runway, trying to pour concrete into a washing machine. All comedy gold and almost unlike anything seen from a Sitcom character before or since. Realistic? Pah! Who cares?
Seinfeld fans always have particular favourite episodes. High up on most lists would be The Contest (Season 4 episode 11) , which would see the four main characters battling to see who could last longest without self-love. It’s a brilliant episode (which was also magnificently parodied in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia). Others include The Outing (S4E17), The Hamptons (S5E20) and The Serenity Now (S9E3). Clip shows aside and a contentious finale (which included clips), there weren’t any duff episodes. There was always a funny situation or inspired guest star. Recurring guests like the aforementioned Costanza parents were always gold, as was Newman (Wayne Knight), all of Elaine’s bosses, Jerry’s comedian rivals, and the occasional psychopath (Crazy Joe Davola anyone?).
So as we celebrate 30 years of Yada Yadas, Rye Bread muggings, bizarre schemes, aluminium poles, pee stained couches and more, Seinfeld remains one of the most binge-worthy and watchable sitcoms around and an interesting capsule back to 90’s fashions, attitudes to acceptable stereotyping and observational comedy.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/