Today marks the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Seinfeld, which remains the greatest television show about New York City (and nothing) in history. It is often a horrible, no-good, lazy cliche to say that a city is an important character in a movie or TV show, but in this case... it really was. Seinfeld embedded and reflected life in NYC in such a way that its plots and its euphemisms have become a part of our daily life. It's adherence to a slightly cynical, lovably surreal, etiquette-obsessed, and distinctly Jewish sense of humor was a remarkably unique blend at the time; it's a sense of humor that has kept the majority of episodes from aging poorly (certainly not as poorly as most of its contemporaries). There are few things as pleasurable as falling into a Seinfeld binge on TBS while staying at some relative's house where they still have basic cable.
It's enduring legacy can be seen in the sheer volume of tributes, fan events, homages and references that pop up on a near-daily basis: now-iconic Twitter accounts, Lego sets, an endless supply of rankings and listicles, Mets theme nights, immersive experiences, real-life restaurants, even an entirely made-up (and frankly, rather disturbing) holiday tradition. It changed the way sitcoms were structured and written, and it did as much to get audiences to embrace unlikable protagonists as The Sopranos did. It introduced the world to the god Elaine Benes. It did more to normalize the slap bass guitar than anything or anyone in history, besides maybe Flea. The show garnered so much good will (and so, so, so, so much money) for star and co-creator Jerry Seinfeld, it has allowed him to coast for 20+ years on Bee Movie, an endless supply of dad jokes, and the world's least necessary (but still very watchable) passion project: a prestige web-turned-Netflix series that exists mostly to allow Jerry Seinfeld to put some miles on his exotic car collection and write off some lunches as business expenses.
And it is remarkable to think about how close we came to Seinfeld never making it past the pilot.
If you've ever seen the brilliant fourth season of Seinfeld, then you already know the gist of how the show came to be: NBC executives approached up-and-coming standup comedian Seinfeld to work on a television project with them. They initially wanted a 90-minute special; Seinfeld enlisted friend and fellow comedian Larry David to develop and write it with him. The initial idea was to make a special about how comedians get their material—but because they didn't think the concept could hold up for 90 minutes, they instead ended up writing a regular TV pilot. Early versions of it were called Stand Up and The Jerry Seinfeld Show, but they eventually settled on The Seinfeld Chronicles.
According to a DVD extra about the making of the show, the two quickly latched onto the idea that this would be a "show about nothing"—and the pilot in particular would explore the "gaps in society where there are no rules." The three main characters we meet in the pilot are all slightly exaggerated versions of real people: Seinfeld was himself, George Costanza was a tweaked Larry David (the character originally was going to be a standup comic named Bennett... which would have been even more David-esque), and Kramer was based on David's neighbor Kenny Kramer.
Except in The Seinfeld Chronicles, Kramer isn't Kramer—he's Kessler.
Here's the thing about the pilot: watching it is pretty pretty pretty weird. I'd estimate that I've rewatched just about every Seinfeld episode between five and 20x in my life, between reruns on TV and full rewatches, with a couple of exceptions: I always skip the two clip shows, I've always really disliked "The Bris" (a.k.a. the "pigman" episode), and I have mixed feelings on the finale (great concept, not great execution). But the episode I have most avoided and rarely revisited is the pilot. That's because the show was, understandably, but a shadow of what it would become in many ways (although... not so much in other ways). Let me run down the major, jarring differences:
- I repeat: Kramer is named Kessler here.
- It had a different theme song—a much worse one which you can hear below (note: Hulu has substituted it for the regular old theme, which is historically questionable, but probably for the best in terms of taste)
- There's no Elaine! Dear lord, how can it be Seinfeld without the little kicks?? Instead, Lee Garlington plays Claire the Waitress, who interacts with Jerry and George a little and was going to be a recurring character in the show.
- Claire doesn't work at Monk's however—instead it's Pete's Luncheonette.
- Pete's was a leftover set from The Muppets Take Manhattan!
- The exterior of Jerry's apartment is different from the one for the rest of the series. (But most of the interior is pretty close.)
- Kramer/Kessler owned a dog named Ralph?! That got dropped pretty quickly... although there is at least one Reddit theory that the dog was in the apartment the entire time.
- This is jarring in a different sense: Seinfeld's opening monologue is a joke about going out that he still uses in his standup act today.
- The opening conversation between Jerry and George about buttons is the same one that closes the finale (this isn't jarring, this is just solid trivia).
The insertion of Claire is the thing that really doesn't fit here; everything just feels off when she interjects in Jerry and George's conversations. Kessler is both tamed down compared to the Cosmo Kramer we'd come to love (even his hair doesn't reach as high). He's also implied to be a shut-in, which is strange—but when he casually offers to talk to a woman on Jerry's behalf, it's pretty hilarious.
Seinfeld was never a great actor (he got progressively more comfortable and good within his limited range as the seasons went by though), but he was especially amateurish here. His rapport with George is fully-formed though, with a bit about over-drying that really hits that Seinfeld sweet spot. Jason Alexander is really good off the bat, but he's hewing a little closer to Woody Allen than Larry David here. The basic plot is also pretty in line with the kinds of stories we'd see in the future (Jerry met a woman who is coming to visit him, but he doesn't know whether she's interested in him romantically).
The thing that surprised me the most was how much more watchable and enjoyable the episode was than I had remembered/feared. It doesn't hold a candle to anything from seasons three to eight, but if I stumbled upon this clicking through channels, I wouldn't turn it off!
Audiences at the time felt a little different: it was screened for two dozen NBC executives, and while most laughed, one of them, Brandon Tartikoff, wasn't sold, notoriously calling it "too New York, too Jewish." Before its TV airing, it was shown to a test audience of 400 households and given extremely negative reviews. TV Guide revisited some of the responses:
"No segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again."
"Viewers were unclear whether Jerry worked as a comedian or if his routines took place outside of the show as commentaries. The movement back and fourth was also considered abrupt and somewhat disorienting, particularly to older viewers."
"None of the [supporting characters] were particularly liked, and viewers felt that Jerry needed a better backup ensemble."
"Despite the slice-of-life approach, the program was considered only mildly realistic and believable, and many did not identify with the things with which Jerry was involved."
Warren Littlefield, then second-in-command in NBC's entertainment division, would later recall that "In the history of pilot reports, Seinfeld has got to be one of the worst of all time." When the episode finally aired on July 5th, 1989, it actually didn't do too poorly, coming in second in its timeslot (right behind that classic CBS cop drama, Jake and the Fatman). TV critics also responded relatively positively to it, but NBC didn't pick it up for the 1989-1990 season.
Rick Ludwin, the network executive who developed the show, wasn't ready to give up on it yet, so he canceled a Bob Hope special and ordered four more episodes in 1990 that would constitute the first season of the show (it was the smallest sitcom order in television history at the time). Production company Castle Rock apparently tried to sell it to another network, but no one bit.
The show was renamed Seinfeld for those four episodes, and it wasn't clear whether the show would be picked up for a second season. But when the pilot was repeated on June 28th, 1990, it received a Nielsen rating of 13.9—which was better than the original score of 10.9, and gave execs the breathing room to order a 12-episode second season (including the iconic "The Chinese Restaurant").
"The show was different," said Preston Beckman, who was the head of NBC's ratings research department at the time. "Nobody had seen anything like it. It wasn't unusual for poor-testing shows to get on the air, but it was very rare that they became big hits."
At a show a few years ago, Seinfeld reflected back on those early days, and how long it took to find an audience: "For half of the show, it was just like we were doing this thing for ourselves. And it didn't seem to be working, but it was fun to do...I just can't believe the show is still here. It's very humbling and exciting for me and Larry and Julie and Michael and Jason and Wayne and all the great people who worked so hard, just because we loved it, we loved doing it so much."