What Makes Seinfeld Tick?

Since it went off the air in 1998, no show has been quite like Seinfeld. With its myriad of jokes and phrases forever seared into the public consciousness, nothing else on television has ever come close to capturing the same magic. Even Larry David’s comedic masterpiece Curb Your Enthusiasm can’t entirely compare. Despite both shows’ humor resting on characters’ disregard for social norms, Curb never achieved the same cultural presence. While the obvious explanation for this is that Seinfeld was on Network TV and Curb on HBO, perhaps there is a unique element that sets Seinfeld apart.

The characters. That’s certainly one explanation. Jerry, the sarcastic straight man quick to lampoon his three friends. George, Jerry’s unlikable albeit relatable best friend and self-described “lord of the idiots.” Kramer, Jerry’s fruit-obsessed neighbor who always seems to be hatching some sort of scheme. Elaine, Jerry’s spirited and somewhat superficial ex-girlfriend who is the most intelligent and cultured of the group. The four friends play off each other in excellent fashion and form the perfect core of the show. However, peripheral characters are what Seinfeld does like no other. Name another show with a character like Newman. Despite not receiving considerable screen time until later seasons, he feels just as integral to the Seinfeld universe as George. The show would feel incomplete without even the most minor characters. Unforgettable names like Jack Klampus, Bob Sacamano, and Jackie Chiles.

There’s also the setting. Only New York City and Larry David’s experiences living there could have created the amazing characters that populate Seinfeld. Beyond that, Jerry’s Manhattan apartment and single lifestyle are much more approachable than the affluent west side neighborhoods and expansive houses of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Additionally, with several episodes featuring the subway or simple walks down the street, the show made more forays into what felt to viewers like the “authentic” New York City than other shows set in the city such as Friends.

It’s possible that there’s something deeper about Seinfeld. Something that speaks to our experiences living in a society. The show is often lauded for not being escapist and portraying negative aspects of its characters. However, Seinfeld is in fact a powerful piece of escapist fiction. All of the show’s characters act in violation of social norms regularly. The reason this is so fun to watch is because it allows us to escape into a world where we no longer have to abide by societal conventions.

Maybe it's a combination of these factors. The perfect characters placed in their natural setting: the city that inspired them. Add to that formula escapism — which on its own can only explain so much, considering Curb arguably perfected that very same form of escapism— and Seinfeld was the perfect comedic storm. Or maybe the cynical explanation is the right one, and it just benefited from being on NBC at a time when television was as popular a medium as any other.

One thing’s for sure. It’s not Jerry’s stand-up routine.

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