Return to Article Details Life and Humor According to Seinfeld: Sociocultural Aspects of a Classic Sitcom in the US and Beyond

Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comedian of Hungarian-Jewish origin from New York, together with Larry David, a comedian and writer from the same city, launched in 1989 a sitcom that changed not only the history of US television in particular, but also of American popular culture in general. Seinfeld (NBC, 1989–1998) is starring four characters: stand-up comedian Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), who reflects on life from a humorous, sarcastic angle and avoids emotional attachment in human relationships; his best friend, the neurotic and often miserable George (Jason Alexander); Jerry’s upbeat and witty ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the archetypal modern independent woman; and Jerry’s abrasive and sometimes tiresome neighbor Kramer (Michael Richards), whose character originates mostly in the world of slapstick comedy. The TV show, which aired on NBC for nine seasons and 180 episodes between 1989 and 1998, follows the daily lives of these four friends as they overcomplicate their apparently simple issues in a modern interpretation of the classic genre of the comedy of manners. Episodes include one-minute segments of stand-up comedy where Jerry explores themes that are directly or indirectly related to the main plotline of the episode. Some of the four main characters are based on real people: Jerry is a fictionalized version of co-creator Jerry Seinfeld, while George’s character resembles his colleague Larry David, George usually reacts to situations as he would. These characters represent four different takes on the thirtysomething New Yorkers as the writers imagined them (Mirzoeff 10-13).

Seinfeld, together with its protagonists and creators, became an undeniable symbol of American popular culture, considered to be one of the most influential sitcoms of all time. It became the best representative of observational comedy with its the concerns, reactions, and minor existential crises of the four protagonists were familiar to the public. At the same time, many negative remarks were also present: the show has been charged with being basically about nothing while trying to captivate the audience with its sometimes excessive simplicity. However, the show achieved a cult status in the United States, but in other countries it has been less popular. The aim of my article is to highlight the sociocultural aspects that turned Seinfeld into a comedic milestone in American culture and to describe what characterizes the Seinfeldian version of observational humor, while also trying to find answers to what might be the reasons for the sometimes extreme reactions (both positive and negative) in the U.S. and beyond to this type of humor.

Approaches to Nothing

A recurrent description of Seinfeld is that “it’s a show about nothing” (Skovmand 210). Nevertheless, in this case, we may say that nothing is everything. The basic concept of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David was to build up characters that discuss the minutiae of life and turn these trivialities into comedy (Keishin Armstrong 9). Their TV show focuses on the banal, almost imperceptible details of our daily lives. In popular sitcoms from the past and from the same period, like M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972–1983), Cheers (NBC, 1982–1993), Roseanne (ABC, 1988–1997), The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984–1992), The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985–1992) or Night Court (NBC, 1984–1992), seemingly insignificant topics appeared usually as a subplot, but they never constituted the main concern of an episode. In the genre of drama, however, this approach had an obvious precedent. It was thirtysomething (ABC, 1987–1991), which focused on the problems of some city dwellers in the 1980s, and which did not deal with extraordinary situations, but with the protagonists’ everyday issues, and it turned out that viewers were actually interested in themes that were closely related to their own lives. One of the writers of thirtysomething’s pilot episode described their series as “it’s sort of about nothing” (Thompson 133-134). Seinfeld, therefore, had its proper antecedents, and with the experience of these, it combined the familiar ingredients in a unique way. Viewers of the same age as the main characters encountered life situations in the sitcom episodes that were familiar to them but it was a revelatory novelty that they could approach them with humor: everyday annoyances, paradoxical situations, silly little things that Seinfeld and his friends found humor in. What the viewer might find embarrassing or annoying in everyday life, they presented in an amusing way.

Seinfeld and David created their comedy when the genre of sitcom was undergoing a fundamental transformation, establishing a new foundation for its place within U.S. popular culture. Whereas the focus of earlier sitcoms had been on the nuclear family, from the 1980s onwards workplaces and social meeting places became important scenes of the episodes. Seinfeld is the first major example of four characters becoming protagonists who are not members of the same family and are not coworkers either, but are linked by friendship, indicating that this relationship can be as important as kinship (Feuer 142-143). This approach to relationships marks a definite break from almost all the conventions of the classic American TV comedy, managing to develop a new tradition. This strategy paved the way for further, internationally successful sitcoms, which also focused on circles of friends, such as Friends (NBC, 1994–2004), How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005–2014) or The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007–2019).

The network executives of NBC were worried about the show’s focus on “nothing,” they were convinced that it was destined to fail (Keishin Armstrong 17-20, 34-37). Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC, asked after the preview screening of the pilot episode the following question: “Who will want to see Jews wandering around New York acting neurotic?” (Zurawik 1998). Tartikoff probably meant this comment in the context of primetime television, since this is the approach that Woody Allen used to achieve his greatest critical and popular success in the world of cinema (actually he was at the height of his popularity when Seinfeld was launched). The network president may have thought that what was successful in movie theaters would not be as attractive on a weekly basis on television. Despite negative expectations, the audience and critics proved the creators right. Seinfeld and David were also aware of the fact that their series was perceived as being about “nothing,” so they tried to make this “nothing” as interesting as possible. Reactions to Seinfeld anticipated the critical attitudes that would later become more pronounced in relation to Frasier (NBC, 1993–2004) as well: namely, the dichotomy between highbrow comedy and lowbrow comedy. While the category of highbrow comedy includes sitcoms that often use innovative, rarely seen or used themes and rely partially on the intelligence of the audience, lowbrow comedy covers shows that use well-known elements and are aimed at less sophisticated audiences too (Claessens and Dhoest 2010, Darowski and Darowski 2017). This does not mean that highbrow comedy is exclusively for the few and always reflects refined taste, nor that shows called lowbrow comedies are necessarily despised by intellectual circles, but the highbrow category includes many cultural or political topics that only those can understand, who are informed about the past and present of the contemporary world (or at least about various cultural markers pertaining to the U.S.) and they also make use of sophisticated linguistic humor. However, given the mundane themes of the episodes (which will be discussed later on), the dialogues of Seinfeld cannot be categorized as a highbrow comedy, but rather as a comedy halfway between highbrow and lowbrow.

Emphasizing its partial affiliation with highbrow comedy, the creators of Seinfeld frequently relied heavily on the viewers’ literacy. For example, the protagonists read The New Yorker magazine; in certain episodes, there are explicit references to the proceedings of the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Season 3, Episode 17: The Boyfriend, Part 1, February 12, 1992) and to a scene from the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) (Season 4, Episode 12: The Airport, November 25, 1992), as well as to a famous monologue from The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980) (Season 4, Episode 13: The Pick, December 16, 1992) and, last but not least, to the Italian opera The Barber of Seville with constant musical and textual references (Season 5, Episode 8: The Barber, November 11, 1993), without mentioning specific events or titles. Hence, those who do not recognize these references miss certain layers of the show’s humor. In further episodes, quotes or catchphrases from movies or novels are also frequently cited. References to American literature are also common, including elements that may not be familiar to the average viewer. From season three onwards, Jerry calls George “Biff” in several episodes, the first time he even mentions that he sees a similarity between his friend and Biff Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949): for those unfamiliar with Miller’s play, neither this comparison nor the recurring Biff-related humor in other episodes will be easy to understand. In the episode The Cheever Letters (Season 4, Episode 8, October 28, 1992), a whole plotline is linked to the sexual orientation of American novelist John Cheever, for which it is essential that viewers know information about the author and also some segments of his private life. The sitcom rarely makes references to countries other than the U.S., but even then it is mostly the educated viewer who is expected to be involved—see for example the issue about Salman Rushdie and the “5 million Muslims who persecute him” which is mentioned without any explanation or context in the episode The Implant (Season 4, Episode 19, February 25, 1993), assuming that viewers know who Rushdie is and why he is currently under threat.

Further features that strengthens the highbrow aspect of the series is that the writers also applied a multiple plotline structure within a single episode, and especially in the final scenes, they brought together the seemingly unrelated story elements. If viewers weren’t paying attention to any of the numerous components, they missed the episode’s climax as well. This requires not only attention, but also the aforementioned cultural awareness alongside the comprehension of the linguistic humor. The show’s verbal complexity called for seventy-page scripts in case of each episode, which is more than twenty pages longer than in the case of other sitcoms (Mirzoeff 6). The audience also had to make a series of conceptual associations in order to understand the complex message(s) of the stories. Actually, each episode was based on a highly complex narrative, making use of a variety of storylines that the writers brought to a single conclusion (Mirzoeff 19). According to David P. Pierson “one person’s unintentional acts or social blunders usually cause irrefutable comic damage across a diverse range of interweaving narrative situations” in the series, insisting that this sitcom should be treated as a modern-day comedy of manners, arguing that “as a contemporary comedy of manners” because Seinfeld “satirically and painstakingly shows the inescapable interdependency underlying American civility” (57), meanwhile “constructing its comic narratives to satirize and lampoon a plethora of social manners in the 1990s” (Pierson 59). Pierson’s view is indeed valid if we try to identify the characteristics of the classic comedy of manners in 17th-century English literary piece: a satirical approach to the social customs, conventions, behavior, and morals of the time through characters who, primarily through witty dialogue, bring to light the paradoxes of existing society (Muir 1970). In this respect, Jerry Seinfeld and his friends can be seen as heirs to this well-established literary tradition, but adapted the television screen.

Perhaps the most important inspiration for the series comes from the movies. The everyday lives of middle-class New Yorkers, the intellectual humor, the cultural references, and the focus on the minutiae of life remind us of Woody Allen’s films and writings. It is clear that the legendary filmmaker was a major influence on one of the show’s creators, Larry David: he appeared in a small role in two of his films, Radio Days (1987) and the Allen-directed episode of New York Stories, “Oedipus Wrecks,” and later played the lead, a kind of Allen alter ego in the lesser-known Whatever Works (2009). In David’s later series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–), in which he plays a fictional version of himself, readers are following the life of Woody Allen who has moved to Los Angeles. It is probably no coincidence that Allen is mentioned in the episode The Alternate Side (Season 3, Episode 11, December 4, 1991) because he is shooting a new film close to Jerry’s home. Kramer is cast in a small role, but George causes such chaos on the set that Allen considers never to shoot again in the Big Apple. This puts a well-known cinematic tradition at risk, as Allen rarely filmed outside of his favorite city until 2005, and only from that year on he moved most of his filming to other cities, mostly in Europe. Although Allen himself does not appear in the episode; his presence is only mentioned, but the spirit of his work permeates both the episode and the series as a whole. Mel Brooks’ movies and Neil Simon’s plays and film adaptations are not far from the Seinfeldian universe and in the filmography of Henry Jaglom – who is also often accused of making most of his films about “nothing” – one frequently finds similar situations: for example, his characters talk about the small and seemingly insignificant details of life. Viewers can relate to some of these minutiae, but the result is ambiguous, since we either empathize with the problem or find it too banal and meaningless to even think about it further. With regard to literary antecedents, Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that “Seinfeld owed a good deal to serious playwrights like Harold Pinter, whose style centered on everyday situations rendered comic by absurdist conversation” (26). Literary scholars have also discovered similarities between Seinfeld and the work of Gustave Flaubert, pointing out that Seinfeld’s “rejection of existing models of the sitcom resembles Flaubert’s disavowals of competing novelistic forms, especially those tied to the morals of the bourgeoisie” (Hurd 765), and in both cases it is the style, which is emphasized instead of the subject matter. It was an essential part of Flaubert’s oeuvre that his “novel about nothing” was based on the internal force of its style creating “a book that would have hardly any subject or at least where the subject would be nearly invisible” (Hurd 766). From this perspective, Seinfeld can be seen as a reimagination of Flaubert’s literary work, except in a comic form and adapted for television where the internal force is humor and the main goal is to provoke laughter.

Seinfeld’s theoretical background is provided by the observational humor. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were fans of this comedy style which they also put into practice (Paolucci and Richardson 334). By looking around in daily lives and observing the most trivial, insignificant events, situations or people, professional comedians can create the most entertaining performances, because they comment on them from their own perspective, usually with ironic remarks, highlighting the paradoxes and contradictions of people’s lives. What one might see as dramatic or completely irrelevant, observational comedians approach it with humor. In such circumstances, discrepancies over social norms often become sources of comedy with focus on commonplaces, familiar behaviors and human attitudes and viewers might not even realize that these issues can be examined from a humorous perspective (Double 207-208), too. From the 1950s onwards, everyday themes were prominent in the stand-up comedians’ performances typically in live shows and less frequently on television. But this changed in the early 1990s, with popular stand-up comedians, like Jerry Seinfeld, who appeared regularly on television shows and brought their already poplar materials from the stage into the new medium of the TV screen (Thompson 181). Seinfeld and Larry David thus adapted the observational comedy previously only used in live shows to television. Many consider Seinfeld, together with George Carlin and Richard Pryor, to be the greatest observational comedians who have ever lived (Bent 128). Through their strategy then also ‘construct’ the audience who gets the joke, who recognizes the situation and who connects with the comedian and the narrative. According to Laurie McNeill and John David Zuern, “such comics can destabilize assumptions about a shared, “universal” experience, the grounds for observational humor, in which the audience is expected to laugh in recognition as the comedian points out minor absurdities or annoyances of daily life” (235). The audience and the comedian thus become part of the same universe, with the stories seen and heard on screen (or on stage in the case of live stand-up comedy) becoming an integral part of reality.

Ordinary Annoyances in Extraordinary Style

Some features highlighting the lowbrow aspects of the show are that the main themes of most episodes are indeed everyday affairs, but while for viewers they are minor events, in Seinfeld they become the main plot. Writers take daily trivialities and treat them in a reasonable way, but instead of a logical conclusion, the show achieves an absurd climax where almost everything goes awry or even awkward. Small nuisances of life (such as queuing in front of a cinema or at a restaurant waiting for our table, returning a book to the library, looking for our car in the parking garage, feeling guilty about something done in the past, tolerating annoying fellow passengers on the subway or plane, suffering from the body odor of another person, finding flights in a crowded airport) become central conflicts of many episodes. And since these are generally well-known, one knows how to behave in these situations, but in Seinfeld a familiar scenario can unexpectedly turn unusual with the protagonists making things worse for themselves and others. The intrinsic humor is due to the fact that characters onscreen find involuntarily themselves in these situations and their reaction is quite predictable. A perfect example is the episode The Subway (Season 3, Episode 13, January 8, 1992), where the four protagonists set off separately towards various parts of New York on four different subway lines. Anyone who has traveled on a subway in a major city has probably encountered many inconveniences, but they have not been concerned about the annoyances they have seen, heard or experienced for more than a few seconds or minutes. This episode, however, is entirely about these details, exaggerating everything that can happen on public transportation. Elaine, for example, compares the feeling of being crowded on the subway to a concentration camp. Overall, characters often find themselves in what should be conflict-free scenarios but Jerry and his friends put themselves and others in unnecessarily embarrassing situations. Aside from the subway episode mentioned above, a prominent example is the now-classic episode set entirely in the lobby of a restaurant (Season 2, Episode 11: The Chinese Restaurant, May 23, 1991), where characters constantly overreact to the words and actions of employees and other customers while waiting for their table.

As discussed before, Seinfeld focuses on mundane, trivial things, and also on the commonplaces and social archetypes that most people accept because they are accustomed to them. Jerry and his friends react quite differently to events and annoyances that “normal people” may consider too ordinary, creating embarrassing situations but also offering useful insights into human nature (Paolucci and Richardson 334-335). The show suggests that “our social morality is based on meaningless reasons actors cannot control but must still negotiate” (340), while “in showing the discrepancy between the facts and appearances […] Seinfeld encourages its audience to contemplate their drives, manipulations, and, thus, the contingency of human agents” (341). The main characters of Seinfeld are not concerned about long-term relationships or career responsibilities, “their self-identities become intimately linked to the idiosyncratic nature of changing social manners in contemporary American society” (Pierson 53). Moreover, the show confronts its viewers with a fact that we are all aware of but prefer to ignore: we try to behave according to societal expectations even when our nature and personality would lead us to react in a completely different way. In such situations, Jerry and his friends try to conform to the norm but they usually fail, their true selves come out undermining the social consensus and so they can become outcasts. Most of the episodes leave the viewer wondering how one would have acted in that situation, whether in the expected or in the natural way. In this context also, some critics note that “the soulless Seinfeld characters went beyond just being amoral to often being immoral without suffering any consequence,” calling the show a cartoon rather than a sitcom (Winzenburg 60). Furthermore, some episodes focus on religious or cultural traditions, on disabled people or people with some kind of illness, whose encounters become a source of humor for the characters, but their reactions and actions – which today cannot be called politically correct – have no long-term consequences, they “get away with” everything. It is important to emphasize, however, that the protagonists are never malicious and rarely insensitive; instead they act and speak recklessly, listening to their first thoughts and instincts. Winzenburg believes that this selfishness, the disregard for consequences is most characteristic of cartoons, to which Jerry indeed makes many references, and so all his characters could be thus placed in cartoon situations (60-61).

The show raises questions that we have probably all asked ourselves, although we know that we are basically not entitled to defy certain commonly-accepted social standards. But Seinfeld’s characters have no problem talking about social conventions, for example, pretending to care about your friends’ newborn baby when you really do not (Season 3, Episodes 17-18: The Boyfriend, Parts 1-2, February 12, 1992). As mentioned earlier, social norms, conventions and expectations do not play a central role in the lives of the protagonists and their reactions seem natural according to their personalities. Seinfeld’s characters often know they should not say or do something, but they can’t help but let their natural selves emerge to the surface. Topics such as alcoholism, suicide, stroke, coma, disabilities, antisemitism, racism, homophobia (including the accidental coming out of an old married man to the dismay of his family), a poor man’s despair after losing his job, the deportation of a sympathetic Pakistani immigrant, a little boy suffering from immune deficiency, and many more are presented in humorous situations and the fate of the people affected by these issues usually takes a turn for the worse as a result of unintentional disasters caused by the four protagonists. They act recklessly, they make selfish statements, sometimes they just make comments that seem funny to them, having no regard for the irreversible damage their words can do to other people. A perfect example in this sense is The Busboy episode (Season 2, Episode 12, June 26, 1991), where they accidentally get a poor immigrant boy fired from his job and when they go to apologize to him, they also unintentionally let his only companion, a cat, roam free out of the apartment.

Sitcom audiences often encounter situations or people like this, but they usually behave in accordance with the social expectations. Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer also try to act appropriately: they are intelligent and sophisticated enough to stick to social norms (except for Kramer), yet they still get involved in unpleasant situations, mainly due to their own fault (or rather cluelessness). According to Greg M. Smith, Seinfeld challenges the myth of the American ideal of the goal-oriented individual: the protagonists are just hanging out and talking about unimportant things, and they get along, survive, even meet their objectives without much effort (89-90). Kramer’s life perfectly embodies these seemingly nonsensical achievements: he is a lazy, irresponsible, real “loser” who, thanks to a series of coincidences, manages to date beautiful women, become a member of an exclusive golf club despite his poverty, start a modeling career despite his repulsive looks, or – as part of a storyline running through season 5 – get his completely pointless book (a coffee table book about coffee tables) published by one of the most exclusive publishing houses in New York.

The main themes of the episodes have their roots in reality. From season three onwards, the show’s co-creator and writer of 62 episodes, Larry David, used his own life as inspiration, this way Seinfeld became “an almost documentary-style reenactment of incidents from his past” (Keishin Armstrong 54) in a very humorous way. David encouraged other writers to follow his example: wherever they went, whoever they talked to, they kept in mind whether they could use it in the script what they saw or heard. They carried a notebook everywhere to write down everything that might make or help create a new story. Most of the writers did not come from the writing room of previous successful sitcoms but were often stand-up comedians who were not constrained by the traditions of television. The frustrations of their life, annoying people whom they met (including friends or family members) — all became part of episodes. Script writers of such shows used their own and others’ life as a laboratory for pitches that would be turned into plotlines. However, the situation they experienced was only a starting point: Seinfeld and his friends acted or reacted as the writers had wanted to behave but they hadn’t (Keishin Armstrong 63-64, 87-88, 184). A perfect example is a scene from The Cigar Store Indian episode (Season 5, Episode 10, December 9, 1993) where Jerry asks a Chinese mailman if he knows of a Chinese restaurant nearby and the mailman is outraged by the question, saying that it is an insulting situation in which he should know the answer to the question just because he is Chinese. According to one of the episode’s writers, Max Pross, this is exactly how the story happened to him and he knew that this conflict would fit perfectly into Seinfeld (Bjorklund 113). In fiction, however, they go even further: Jerry does not understand the outraged reaction, stating that he as a Jewish man would not be offended if he was asked by a passer by where Israel is (since the main character’s Jewish heritage is always present in the show, it does not even have to be explicitly stated for the joke to work).

In such a context, Paolucci and Richardson write that

"Seinfeld examines disjunctions between unspoken behavioral rules and everyday behavior, admitting that normality can be a manufactured appearance and critiquing how modern scripts rarely allow for normal human faults but rather require impression management and reconnaissance to mask them […] the program produced a reflexiveness in its audience, comforted its guilt, and mocked a generalized condition in modern society." (344)

By expressing what the majority of society is afraid to say because of adherence to norms, the characters on Seinfeld establish a direct connection between the real world, and between the characters and audience.

In Seinfeld, each story, each misunderstanding or uncomfortable situation is closely linked to the socio-cultural context in which the sitcom is set. Together with the characters and situations, the city of New York is equally important. Cultural references, such as places or sports teams, are also closely linked to this city: its characters visit iconic sites such as Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, Sotheby’s or the New York Public Library, and viewers often see the city’s subway, yellow cabs and the streets. They appear in restaurants, cafes, and movie theaters, attend sports games, watch and eat what contemporary New Yorkers do, typical of the city and the decade. Therefore, in most episodes, viewers feel as if they were getting to know a new part of New York in the 1990s. Like most of the films of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, and TV shows like the Law & Order franchise (1990– ), NYPD Blue (1993–2005) and Sex and the City (1998–2004), Seinfeld has become an integral part of the city’s cultural history. Although some of these emblematic locations were built in film studios on the West Coast, since the sitcom was filmed in Los Angeles, Seinfeld has become so symbolic to the image of New York that even the city’s official guide ranks its New Yorkiest episodes (emphasis added). Recalling some episodes or scenes that have become legendary, the website identifies the pizzerias, restaurants, subway lines, parks, streets, stadiums, foods, cultural products that are historically linked to New York and have been an unforgettable and integral part of the characters’ adventures (Zeller 2013). Beside the show’s close relations to the Big Apple, it also brought a new approach to Americanness. As Mirzoeff puts it, what we get in this TV show is not necessarily the real US and the genuine American metropolis, but “American of a certain sort, that is, one that Europeans suspect does not even exist” and “the New York of the mind.” He believes that movies and TV shows set in New York give viewers an idea of the city, even if they have never been there. Accordingly, they expect the same representation in subsequent works and demand that reality follow fiction: when they visit the city, they want to have the impressions and see the locations previously conveyed by Woody Allen films, Law & Order, and Seinfeld (2-3). Therefore, Seinfeld presents us a New York that people living in another city or country would imagine based on their previous filmic experiences.

The show was a breakthrough also considering its portrayal of women. Elaine is a proud, intelligent, sarcastic, single woman, who lives her life as men do while she does not comply with societal expectations. According to some studies, since Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball – who are considered milestones in the history of American sitcom as well as concerning women’s humor – the character played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the most important figure challenging the representation of female characters here and also in future sitcoms (Keishin Armstrong 75-77). From the perspective of the present time, Seinfeld can be criticized for the choice of its four main characters, since all of them are white heterosexuals, with no ethnic or racial diversity appearing in the show (although the same criticism is true of almost all sitcoms of the same and later periods). Nevertheless, some racial issues appeared in several episodes where Jerry and George sometimes want to prove that they are not racist but circumstances make them appear to be the opposite. Several episodes have African American, Latinx and Asian characters as guests, and the show deliberately uses some well-established stereotypes associated with them as an element of the plotline. An entire episode, The Cigar Store Indian (Season 5, Episode 10, December 9, 1993), for example, focuses on the behavior toward Native Americans: Jerry, inadvertently and due to a series of misunderstandings, manifests himself in a number of offensive ways toward a Native American woman he wants to date, and no matter how he tries to make amends, the situation only gets worse. This way the producers of the show could also explore and mirror the American society’s attitude towards minorities in the 1990s, especially in the context of mundane New York.

During the first seasons of the TV show, NBC executives and critics repeatedly brought up the main characters’ Jewish origin. The writers reflected on this too, proving that there was no subject that could not be used as the basis for comedy. When they referred directly to the past (for example the Holocaust), traditions (such as the circumcision), and stereotypes about Jews, they also mentioned Nazism, Hitler, the swastika, the Gestapo, or anti-Semitism, but always as an element of humorous dialogue, placing the Jewish past and traumas into a completely different context. For example, in the episode The Soup Nazi (Season 7, Episode 6, November 5, 1995), Holocaust-related jokes are woven in a plotline about a visit to a restaurant, where “in counterposing Nazi-era line-ups with current-era line-ups, only now set before an authoritarian chef, the show’s writers confront viewers with this history’s factuality”, adding a new element to Holocaust memorialization by offering post-witnesses a different way to approach the historical memory (Demsky 330). Elements of the past and memory, taken out of the context of world history, are seen as freely usable in individual situations with little or no connection to the original circumstances. In this respect, the show goes beyond the framework of Americanness mentioned above, because wherever in the world the viewer lives, one is confronted with codes that are part of his or her own national and individual, historical memory that gets thus transformed into a transnational experience (Lénárt 2023).

The creators’ Jewish origin is also important from the aspect of humor. One of the main endeavors of the American-Jewish comic tradition is to demystify the underlying hypocrisies of modern Western civilization and to satirize the prevailing American manners, just like Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen did. Jerry Seinfeld, both with his stand-up comedy shows and his famous sitcom, continues this tradition by exposing the paradoxical nature of manners that comprise Western civilization and especially American society (Pierson 52). However, Seinfeld cannot be clearly classified simply as having just “Jewish humor.” Jarrod Tanny summarized the results of previous studies on the same topic and examined the extent to which Seinfeld can be considered a “Jewish sitcom” questioning whether it is legitimate to associate it with Jewish humor in general. Although the two creators of the sitcom (Seinfeld and David) and the main character (Jerry, for George we can only guess at his origins) are indeed Jewish, he argues that “there is little that is overtly Jewish about Seinfeld,” but that this does not depend solely on the overtly Jewish storylines (53). The issue is not clear-cut because, as the author summarizes, while some people think the sitcom is “too Jewish,” others think it is “offensive to Jewish culture.” However, the sitcom’s Jewishness, according to Tanny, is best captured in its comic strategy, narrative techniques, linguistic inflections, and dialogue related to Jewish culture, as well as its deliberate emphasis on stereotypes related to Jewish traditions and customs. Themes such as anxiety, conflicted relationships with parents (especially the relationship with the mother), self-denigration go back to the roots of Jewish humor, as does the occasional mockery of Jewish traditions, following in the footsteps of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. For some viewers, this was less acceptable: the NBC network and the Anti-Defamation League received hundreds of complaints from viewers who stated that Seinfeld had offended Judaism with episodes that satirized rabbis, circumcision, bar mitzvahs, and even the history and tragedies of the Jewish people (Tanny 55-56, 67-68; Raskin 88). Tanny argues that with all these, the show “can also be read as a critique of American Jewry’s superficial religious practices” (69), claiming that “Seinfeld is a historical milestone […] because its popularity hammered the final nail in the coffin of “too Jewish,” a relic from a bygone era of constrained Jewish visibility” (71).

The protagonists and their stories reflect the middle-class, metropolitan American way of life in the 1990s, or rather the way the writers wanted to describe it. In addition to the most common forms of entertainment (sports games, cinema, theater), television and TV shows also have a central role in the characters’ life. Furthermore, it is one of the first sitcoms to treat its own existence within the world of television, highlighting its growing role in Americans’ life. In Season 4, Jerry and George seek to produce their own sitcom for NBC called Jerry, a story about Jerry and his friends that would essentially be a show about nothing. Several episodes of the season deal with the procedures of pitching and writing this “sitcom within a sitcom.” Thus, the writers of Seinfeld reflect on themselves, creating a new television universe within their own fictional world, establishing a metafictional world of Seinfelds. They also refer to successful TV shows of other television networks, such as Melrose Place (Fox, 1992–1999) and Murphy Brown (CBS, 1988–1998). This way Seinfeld “set aside modernist theatricality for postmodern self-referentiality” (Mirzoeff 34), creating its own metauniverse within the realm of television, and also “a classic example of remediation, in that it transferred the process of creating and performing stand-up comedy to television.” (36). Seinfeld can be seen also as a post-Modernist sitcom, taking into account its preoccupation with metafictionality, intertextuality and self-reflexivity (Skovmand 211). The two-part series finale (Season 9, Episodes 23-24: The Finale, Parts 1-2, May 14, 1998) takes this self-reflexivity to its logical conclusion in the following manner: the four protagonists are put on trial for failing to help an overweight man who was robbed and many of the supporting characters from the previous nine seasons return as witnesses to prove that Jerry and his friends have done great harm to society through their unethical behavior, summarizing the horrible things they have done. The jury finds them guilty and they are sentenced to one year in prison. The series finale shows that the writers and actors of the sitcom were aware all along that they were breaking social rules and moral norms, and that they did so deliberately in order to create something unprecedented.

From its fifth season, Seinfeld became even more popular and more respected among critics than any other sitcom of the period reaching an audience of 30 million viewers, with an approval particularly high among upper middle class and middle class, mainly college-educated white men – the most desirable social groups for advertisers – and thus with high cultural reflexivity. At the same time, its popularity was quite low among married couples with children and African American viewers. During its ninth (and last) season, NBC made $150 million per year on Seinfeld, the highest earnings in prime time TV series (Keishin Armstrong 150, 194; Hurd 771). Despite the show’s main popularity, some critics insisted that Seinfeld was about “young Manhattanites with no real family or work responsibilities and nothing to do but hang out and talk about it, an insidious message about the future of Western civilization,” while others thought that “Seinfeld is the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption” or that “it represented modern male anxiety, Jewish cultural assimilation, the rise of irony and intertextuality and the self-centeredness of the 1990s” (qtd. in Keishin Armstrong 151). Nevertheless, its final episode in 1998 was the third most-watched sitcom finale in the history of TV (76.3 million viewers) after M*A*S*H (105.9 million in 1983) and Cheers (84.4 million in 1993) and before Friends (65.9 million in 2004) (Nededog and Torres 2019). Therefore this sitcom was not canceled by the network, but it had run its course: Jerry Seinfeld felt that Season 9 was the perfect time to end it, quality could only be guaranteed so far; even the $5 million per episode offered by NBC could not convince him to continue. In this regard, he said that “I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we’ve been doing it on for years […] I wanted the end to be from a point of strength. I wanted the end to be graceful” (Carter 1997).

Seinfeld’s Legacy in the US and Abroad

As mentioned before, Seinfeld is a milestone not only in US popular culture but also in the overall global television business, as it was one of the most profitable sitcoms in history. As Chow writes,

"[B]y the show’s ninth and final season, Seinfeld was the number one show on primetime, according to Nielsen, making an estimated $200 million a year for NBC. Jerry Seinfeld was taking in $1 million per episode – a far cry from that early $40,000 – and his three main colleagues (Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, Jason Alexander as George and Michael Richards as Kramer) were pocketing $600,000 per episode. The show’s finale was watched by 76.3 million viewers, nearly matching the ratings for that year’s Super Bowl." (Chow 2021)

Since its original broadcast, Seinfeld has been present on various U.S. TV channels. In 2019, Viacom paid an estimated $200,000 to $250,000 per episode for the rights and in 2021 Netflix bought the rights to the sitcom as part of a five-year deal for more than $500 million (Chow 2021), meaning that it can be watched in even more countries.

Despite of the time passed, Seinfeld’s popularity has not waned in the United States. Expressions and phrases like “master my domain” (a reference to abstinence from sexual self-gratification, introduced in the episode The Contest, Season 4, Episode 11, November 18, 1992), “these pretzels are making me thirsty” (Kramer’s only line in the fictitious Woody Allen film that was shot in the episode The Alternate Side) and “not that there’s anything wrong with that” (when Jerry and George are mistakenly identified as a gay couple in The Outing, Season 4, Episode 17, February 11, 1993) have become catchphrases in contemporary U.S. popular culture, while names like Vandelay Industries (a non-existent company that George made up for his fake employment) or Festivus (a fictional holiday Seinfeld introduced) are already quite widely known in American society. The fans of the show often recognize each other by using the terms or names mentioned above; when the Internet was in its early days, Seinfeld was one of the first TV shows to have an online fan club (Keishin Armstrong 4-6). Even the TV Guide proclaimed Seinfeld as the greatest show of all time (Winzenburg 57). Moreover, Michael Skovmand called Seinfeld an “unusually auteured sitcom,” with the following justification about its context:

"Over its nine years of production, for all its variety of themes and narrative structures, it has maintained a consistency of approach to the basic ingredients of its own project – a philosophical minimalist conversationalism, an acute sense of the dynamics of ordinary contemporary idiom, and a ruthless honesty in the exploration of the everyday anxieties of post-adolescent urban singledom." (212)

Although a large team of writers worked for the sitcom, the groundwork was laid by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, and throughout all nine seasons their colleagues respected their concept. There was no need to lay down strict rules about the direction to take; writers who were brought into the Seinfeld universe understood exactly what the basic principles of the show were. From season to season it became clear that the characters did not really evolve, their personalities, problems and relationships with each other were constant and this provided the consistency that made the four main characters “family” to the audience. For this reason, there was no deterioration in the quality of the episode scripts because everyone knew characters well, the challenges they would face, how they would react in a given situation, what vocabulary they would use and how they could escalate any seemingly insignificant problem or concern into an almost catastrophic one.

Two years after Seinfeld ended, Larry David created a new TV series for HBO, Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000– ), another cult hit with the same basic concept as the previous show but with a more direct connection to reality. Its protagonist is David, who plays himself following the path of observational comedy: a semi-retired television writer and producer living in Los Angeles becomes famous for creating Seinfeld, focusing on the seemingly insignificant details of everyday life. The original Seinfeld’s four main characters appeared in several episodes, portraying themselves in a plotline that attempted to create a sequel to the classic series.

Several sitcoms tried to follow in Seinfeld’s footsteps, creating secondary plotlines about apparently pointless inconveniences. These TV shows such as Friends, How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory, have been indeed pretty successful, but Seinfeld has managed to retain its primordial iconic status in America. The situation has been quite different in other parts of the world, especially in East-Central European countries, where the three sitcoms mentioned above have gained great popularity, while Seinfeld, the predecessor to all of them, is known only to those familiar with sitcoms and/or American culture. In the case of Hungary, all seasons of Seinfeld appeared on a Hungarian TV channel only in 2009 and had encountered no major reaction from viewers and critics. There are several possible explanations for this. On one hand, the series probably seemed outdated, with its characters were quite different from other successful sitcoms from this part of the world. On the other hand, if we approach it from the point of view of “nothing,” the insignificant or ordinary problems involved in the films may not be identical in the East-Central European region and in the United States. In addition, Seinfeld drew on many American popular cultural references that were difficult to explain in other parts of the world. In diverse social and cultural contexts, the themes were difficult to interpret or even seemed even less significant than in the U.S.

A new situation emerged in 2021 when, as mentioned above, Netflix has made Seinfeld available worldwide, including in East-Central Europe. This is the only ‘older’ U.S. sitcom which was accessible also thirty years ago. People can watch it with subtitles in almost all languages in the region (including Hungarian, Czech, Romanian, Croatian and Polish), showing the streaming platform’s clear purpose to ensure that almost all users can access Seinfeld in their native language. This way Seinfeld, one of the greatest classics in the United States, has become a vehicle for American culture in regions where it had previously had little or no presence. Some elements of the show are linked to specific segments of American culture, but themes such as details related to urban life (cinema, subway, restaurant, library, sports etc.) are familiar to many viewers from this region. Although social expectations, habits and behavioral norms are of course different, fundamental situations can occur anywhere and at any time, even in a region as remote as East-Central Europe thirty years after the production of the TV show. Some components of American culture are, obviously, at this point in time, well-known in this region mainly through movies and TV series, but due to the current development and growing popularity of digital platforms alongside with the aim of the streaming services’ growing focus on Central and Eastern Europe (Roxborough 2022), this landmark of American television culture has now become accessible for everyone even in these parts of the world.

It has been 25 years since the end of Seinfeld’s 9-season triumph and, despite of this, many people believe its message(s) are still valid today. In many ways, the show was ahead of its time, offering approaches that may be even more relevant today. For this reason, the sitcom’s popularity has not waned but its timelessness ensures that it will continue to be (re)discovered in the future as well. Many of the situations and problems that characterized New York in the 1990s are just as familiar today in the United States and, with the accelerated pace of globalization in the 21st century, also in the rest of the world. Seinfeld remains part of everyday life for those who watch episodes about “nothing,” which, for many, can mean “everything,” that is life itself. In this context, in the spring of 2023, Maya Salam, a senior staff editor on the Culture section of The New York Times made the following comment about Seinfeld, which is worth quoting at length because its personal and general aspects demonstrate perhaps more than anything else the eternal validity of this sitcom. Salam said that

"Jerry and his fellow misfits lied, cheated and stole. They were petty and shallow […] But they also presented an irreverent version of adulthood that I had never seen on TV or in life: a playful yet sophisticated world where grown-ups joked and laughed together and didn’t take themselves too seriously, even when everyone around them was being very serious indeed. Most important, they openly mocked the notion that professional success, marriage and parenthood were the cornerstones of existence […] Seinfeld did exhibit a worldview and priorities that were refreshing and, for me, far more aspirational and inspirational. Not despite the fact that these were flawed people uninterested in perfection, but because of it. Even with their abundant neuroses, they lived in the present, sought fun and were loyal to the tightknit, pretense-free friendships at the show’s heart, the kind where your people know your bad parts and love you anyway. Today […] real life seems to be catching up with Seinfeld." (Salam 1)


Works Cited

Episodes cited


The research was supported by the ICT and Societal Challenges Competence Centre of the Humanities and Social Sciences Cluster of the Centre of Excellence for Interdisciplinary Research, Development and Innovation of the University of Szeged. The author is a member of the “Diffusion of New Technologies in the Globalizing World and Their Social-Cultural Impacts” Research Group.