Why Seinfeld Worked So Well
Seinfeld is one of the greatest comedies made in the past few decades, and is considered by many to be the greatest sitcom ever made. It drew in millions of viewers and still manages to generate laughs today. But why is that? Why has this show stood the test of time while other comedies lose their edge as the surrounding culture changes? The answer, in short, is that Seinfeld based its comedy on cultural norms rather than the culture of the 1990’s. Those societal tendencies had been around for a long time before the sitcom, and they persist to this day because of the basic freedoms and security that its viewers enjoy.
Before we fully explore why Seinfeld is still funny, let’s take a basic look at why it was funny. For those unfamiliar with the show, Seinfeld was a sitcom that ended 19 years ago. Its first episode premiered in 1989, and its last aired in 1998. The sitcom centers on four main characters: Jerry Seinfeld, George Costanza (an often-unemployed loser), Elaine Benes (a narcissistic writer), and Kramer (Jerry’s crazy next-door neighbor). Jerry Seinfeld portrays himself as a comedian living in New York, and the show follows Jerry and his friends around as they live their lives.
It is often referred to as ‘the show about nothing’, and while I do not believe this is completely accurate, this synopsis gets the point across to any newcomers. There is rarely a season-long arc or character growth. Every conflict in mundane, and the stakes tend to be low. If the characters fail, the worst they will have to deal with is embarrassment for a few days. Sometimes the stakes are a little higher, such as losing a job, but even then the audience knows that the characters will survive.
A perfect example of this type of storytelling is an episode called “The Chinese Restaurant”. The plot of the episode is simple: Jerry, Elaine, and George wait in line for a table at a Chinese restaurant. And that’s it. Shenanigans ensue, but there is no broader problem, no real effect on the following episode, and no real stakes. Yes, the characters want to see a movie after dinner and are concerned that they won’t have time, but that’s as far as it goes.
Those of you who have never seen Seinfeld may be wondering why it is considered by many, including myself, to be the greatest sitcom of all time. My answer is that Seinfeld manages to make waiting for a table absolutely hysterical. The conflict in the episode is mundane at best, but what makes it funny is that it is relatable. This show thrives off the ‘I’ve been’ there feeling.
It takes the conflicts that one would face in an ordinary adult life, exaggerates them, and then puts in some funny dialogue. To explain how Seinfeld does this so effortlessly, let’s examine part of “The Chinese Restaurant” under a sharper lens. The episode begins with Jerry, George, and Elaine arriving at the restaurant. They are told that the wait will be five to ten minutes, but as you can suspect, the wait is far longer.
There is so much comedic brilliance in this episode that it could take hours to examine to entire twenty minutes, so let’s just look at one joke.
George plans to call his girlfriend, but a man is already using the phone in the restaurant. After the man leaves, George attempts to grab the phone but a woman reaches it first and refuses to let him use it. After being denied, George walks a few feet away and screams “You know we’re living in a society! We’re supposed to act in a civilized way!”
He then stands motionless for about a second, before walking to his friends in silence.
Here Seinfeld takes a common occurrence, being forced to wait for something, and blows the significance out of proportion. When the audience sees this, they can relate to the frustrations of George Costanza while also laughing at how ridiculous his reaction is.
Seinfeld did this on a weekly basis. There were a few times when the show went beyond mundane plots, such as Kramer’s involvement in murder in the opening episodes of Season 4, but for the most part this is the type of humor that Seinfeld thrives in.
This is also part of the reason why Seinfeld is still funny today. The plot of each episode is an exaggerated examination of something that most people experience in their lives, but the things Seinfeld explores are broad and social. The show refrained from commenting on specific details of life in the 1990’s, like politics or government. Instead, it focused on the social norms of the time. But the social norms of the time had been in place for years, and many of them are still in place now.
These are the types of social norms that come about in a prosperous and free society. In a country that struggles to feed itself, many of the jokes within “The Chinese Restaurant” may seem odd. But in the United States, where food is not very scarce, the jokes make more sense. Social norms might seem insignificant in places where survival is not guaranteed, but pointing them out in this culture makes for good comedy.
Strange Uncles continue to be annoying in the twenty-first century, as does waiting in line, and so do odd neighbors. These are things that Seinfeld joked about, and they are the experiences that a country like ours produces.
The other thing that makes this show feel timeless, is that it did not focus heavily on the morality or the family dynamics of its time. Both of those subjects are commonly explored in sitcoms, and they are part of the reason why many do not age well. Moral lessons about certain issues change with time, and family dynamics alter as well. One day the ideas of Modern Family will become antiquated, and that is because it was made for its time. What is modern now will not always be modern.
Seinfeld doesn’t try to do this. The family dynamics in the show are very broad and tend to center on extended family, and the morals of the show are usually only brought up for jokes. For example, in “The Handicapped Spot” Kramer advises that George park in a handicapped space because handicapped people “wanna be treated just like anybody else”. After they select the spot, their choice of parking injures a handicapped person and an angry crowd destroys their car. The moral of the story: don’t park in a handicapped space. The message is still somewhat relative to the time we live in, but it is so basic and general that it doesn’t run the risk of becoming outdated quickly.
In short, Seinfeld makes jokes about simple things in a brilliant way. So although it may not change your outlook on the world, it is still as funny in 2017 as it was in 1991. It will eventually become antiquated as time marches on, but the show will continue to generate laughs for years to come.