"I can't spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutiae, of . . . Every. Single. Daily. Event."
—Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), “The Bizarro Jerry” (Episode 8.3)
As co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David consistently honored his now infamous “no hugging, no learning” mantra in steering the writers’ room and in responding to network notes on what remains television’s most influential, if not greatest, sitcom of all time. “Sitcom” seems almost too quaint a word for a show whose slow-rolling irony and Pavlovian wordplay managed to torch most every trope of the format imaginable at the time of the show’s premiere in 1989—many of which are still used by lesser sitcoms to this day.
Yet for all of Seinfeld’s willingness to embrace the absurdity of the “excruciating minutiae” of mundane experience, the show was never the cliché by which it is now best known. The image of Seinfeld as the primordial “show about nothing” was playfully courted by the series itself when its fourth season initiated a year-long story arc about Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza’s efforts to produce their own comedy pilot—much as their real-life counterparts Seinfeld and David had done in bringing this most unlikely series to air in the first place. This sitcom-within-a-sitcom masterstroke of meta-narrative aside, Seinfeld was never quite “about nothing,” but rather about the sheer existential enormity of all the little nothings of our day-to-day struggle to control our environments—in every arena from romantic relationships to family, the workplace, and the social minefield that is life in the postmodern city.
In his powerful 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” sociologist Georg Simmel argued that “the deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society.” For Simmel, this unsentimental truth suggested yet another; namely, “that every event, however restricted to this superficial level it may appear, comes immediately into contact with the depths of the soul, and that the most banal externalities are . . . bound up with the final decisions concerning the meaning and the style of life.” Simmel’s insight encapsulates perfectly the divine madness of any truly great Seinfeld episode—holding a mirror to a universe where the superficial and the banal collide with multiple, intertwining plot threads so intricately crafted as to be the television comedy equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. Be prepared to laugh and think in equal measure as we explore some of the show's signal achievements and its enduring power to shape American culture.