Seinfeld.. The Thinking Comedy Fan’s Friends
Along with The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld made its UK debut on the BBC, but suffered from erratic late-night scheduling. Consequently, it failed to become the hit here that it was in the US, where the series finale attracted a staggering 75 million viewers.
Poor scheduling aside, it’s a mystery why Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show never become particularly popular in the UK. After all, both programmes feature two of the greatest losers in sitcom history: George Costanza in Seinfeld, who pretended he was a marine biologist to impress an old flame; and The Larry Sanders Show’s Hank Kingsley, the talk show side man who once managed to chip his tooth on urinal—a back tooth.
They both seem like archetypal examples of the kind of characters that we love in our own comedy, like Alan Partridge and David Brent.
The standard, lazy criticisms directed towards American comedies don’t apply here either, as both shows were conscious attempts to leave American sitcom conventions behind. None of the main characters in Seinfeld, for example, ever learned from their mistakes or grew emotionally. They were sarcastic, selfish and out for themselves, from the first episode to the last — not exactly the kind of characters that American sitcoms are famous for (we’re looking at you Friends).
Still, on first impressions — the terrible slap bass theme music, the dated set and clothes — you could be forgiven for thinking that Seinfeld is just another lazy American primetime sitcom. It looks like Friends: both shows are set in New York City, both heavily feature coffee shops and, most importantly, both shows follow the hapless pursuits of a group of mates. The difference is the Friends gang are cool, likeable young twenty-somethings; the Seinfeld bunch are neurotic misanthropes, struggling to understand the world in which they live.
Perhaps because the characters weren’t always the best of people, Seinfeld wasn’t immediately a hit in the states. Like Cheers before it, it took three seasons before it began to turn heads. And while the early episodes are brilliant in their own right, they are noticeably slower-paced than what the show eventually became and require a bit more patience from first-time viewers. The seminal episode “The Chinese Restaurant”, for example, takes place entirely on one set, in real-time, as three of the show’s main characters wait for a table at a restaurant.
It’s not the most inspired storyline. It’s unspectacular, a common occurrence for most people. But that, to an extent, is what Seinfeld’s all about. The show’s co-creator Larry David famously described it as “a show about nothing”, but in truth it’s a show disguised as a show about nothing. It’s about minutiae and bizarre social etiquette, neuroses, how penises shrink in cold water and how most women don’t seem to know this.
The influence of this style of humour is far reaching and can be seen in sitcoms like Peep Show and Lead Balloon. The moments in Extras where Andy has quirky “would you rather have a bionic arm or a bionic leg?”-type conversations with Maggie should be immediately recognisable to Seinfeld fans, who will likely roll their eyes at Gervais’ pale imitation.
Now, years after it made its disappointing debut on the BBC, Sky Atlantic have started airing Seinfeld. It had, in all fairness, dated — visually at least. But the jokes are still very strong and timeless and there aren’t many once-topical references that ruin it.
Start watching. Give it a good few episodes to get to know the characters and you may find out what all the fuss is about.