The world-historical importance of Seinfeld is indisputable—even people who don’t particularly like the show can still admit its massive influence on American culture, the phrases it introduced to our lexicon, even the plausible inspiration for a possibly fake fashion trend. That’s why the 25th anniversary of the series’ premiere has spawned a parking garage’s worth of thinkpieces about the show. Most of these have highlighted the ways Seinfeld changed TV, especially in paving the way for the unlikeable, complex characters we spend all our time watching now, focusing on how monumental the show was at the time and how it changed the entertainment we consume today.
In his Seinfeld retrospective, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald writes, “Maybe the reason that Seinfeld was able to go away so cleanly was because it has never, for a second, truly gone away. The actual broadcasting of the show was secondary to its vibrant and eternal afterlife, one that grows ever stronger with the publication of celebratory think pieces like this one.” Greenwald was 12 when Seinfeld premiered 25 years ago, while I was just over three years away from being born. There’s something to be said about witnessing the Seinfeld phenomenon (and the perspective it comes with), but there’s something about being raised in a world shaped by Seinfeld’s sensibility—a blur of pop culture, minutiae, and remove—that reaches deeper.
Start at the end: The very first episode of Seinfeld I can remember watching is the finale. It was a huge event, one of the last TV finales to unify viewers nationwide. If memory serves, I walked into my living room to discover my parents watching it, even though they hadn’t been following the show—The West Wing was more their speed—it was just that big of a deal. I caught a few minutes, but, confused and in need of shielding from urban nihilists (I was five), was ushered back to my room. I’m not sure why I remember this, considering my media diet at the time mostly consisted of Power Rangers and the VHS of Space Jam, but the fact that my relatively buttoned-up parents were watching a show that seemed the very opposite of important struck a nerve.
Growing up with Seinfeld as a cultural touchstone at the height of its mass popularity meant that life was, essentially, a long series of encounters with memes from the show before I knew what they were. Because Seinfeld was almost always on in syndication, whether on a local affiliate or TBS, individual episodes would infect me and other kids I knew with its ready catchphrases. For a few months, I found the idea of marine biologists hilarious, but had no idea why. I haven’t been able to unselfconsciously wait for a table in a Chinese restaurant since I was eleven. And after half-hearing a friend sing George’s “believe it or not” message from “The Susie,” I made the answering machine on my first cell phone a third-hand attempt at mimicking Seinfeld before I even knew what The Greatest American Hero was. If you call my 13-year-old sister (please don’t), you’ll hear an attempt at recreating my message, even though she’s seen maybe five episodes of Seinfeld.
For better or worse, Seinfeld both helped create and served as a guide to a world constructed by a mishmash of pop culture references. In the show itself, these were often to things I’ll never watch or hear, and certainly never understand in their original context. Part of the show’s commitment to more “realistic,” less overly theatrical sitcom dialogue—in conversations centered around the second button on the shirt or giving someone a ride to the airport—meant that the characters spent a large portion of their time talking about celebrities (John F. Kennedy, Jr., anyone?), movies, and the small stuff that makes up 90% of human interaction. And while some of those were made up (Rochelle, Rochelle, J Peterman), many were not: the extended JFK parody with Keith Hernandez’s spit, Jerry’s love of Superman—I made “Khaaaaaaaan” jokes based on George realizing he wasn’t going to get any of his dead girlfriend’s money before I had even seen an episode of Star Trek.
Greenwald heralds Seinfeld’s cultural permanence, and to an extent he’s right. How else would you know how to chastise someone for putting their spit-covered chip in your salsa? But, two and a half decades on, there are some signs of the juggernaut slowing down. There are likely people whose only exposure to Seinfeld has come from Wale’s Mixtape About Nothing, God help them. Cheers, NBC’s sitcom smash before Seinfeld, was a similarly monstrous institution, but how many people under the age of 30 could name any of the characters? Though Jerry Seinfeld and true genius Larry David are both set to make $400 million in the next syndication cycle, the show’s omnipresence has begun to falter, the specter of The Big Bang Theory nipping at its heels on TBS—reruns of that show are the “tentpole,” “lifting the entire network” that doesn’t even air the first run. The Big Bang Theory might well be a decent sitcom (I haven’t seen enough to say), but what will we take away from the 25th anniversary of its premiere?
There’s hope yet for Seinfeld, though, and it’s in the famous “no hugging, no learning” dictum. Part of what occasionally makes older sitcoms difficult to watch is that, much as they’re frequently triumphs of dialogue and performance, the moralizing, the attempts to have every conflict come to a resolution, can easily become grating, particularly when these are frequently reset at the beginning of the next episode. But more than anything, Seinfeld creates a comfortable sense of everything needing to return to the status quo (the show made fun of itself for this in ���The Opposite” when Kramer dubs Jerry “Even Steven”). The infamous feats of story structure, where several crazily spinning plots dovetailed in unexpected and brilliant ways, was all in the service of the standard sitcom reset button, but one that made more sense because the characters structured their lives so everything would always work out to be just fine.
People like to talk about how selfish and horrible the characters on Seinfeld were, but what they were was armored. Jerry and Elaine tried hooking up once, and never returned to that, or any relationship that could really change them, because it’d just be too messy. The important parts of life weren’t the ones that happened in big, serious conversations, they were the ones that happened hanging out in the same coffee shop with the same people, talking about whatever. Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine existed in a world and a New York that was already just a bit unmoored, a world where a street gang existed because of Martin Van Buren, and maybe paying outsized attention to the little things was the way to deal with the chaos. That was, in some respects, the driving force of my Seinfeld-infused childhood: Everything is kind of crazy and nonsensical and really hard to understand and for some reason people will keep trying to deny you soup, but if you try hard enough, somehow, everything will hopefully turn out okay and you can go back to watching TV.
As nice as it would be to perpetually learn moral lessons, that’s not really how people deal with being in the world, or (often) what they really care about. There’s a serious case to be made about the effects of the sort of moral closedness that Seinfeld inculcates, but the show rejects that way of thinking in favor of one much more focused on day-to-day life and, so, arguably, the stuff that really matters. Seinfeld, which so joyously took everyone’s tedium and pop culture and particularities and ran it through a blender, wasn’t just a profound influence on the way we talked and what we watched. It argued those were the only things that were worth influencing.
Eric Thurm is a contributing writer. He tweets here.