Jerry: So, we go into NBC, we tell them we've got an idea for a show about nothing.
Jerry: They say, "What's your show about?" I say, "Nothing."
George: There you go.
-- “The Pitch,” Seinfeld (Season 4, Episode 3)
Thirty years ago, on July 5, 1989, Seinfeld debuted on NBC. And then? Nothing. The next episode didn’t air for another 330 days. Three more episodes followed. And then? Next to nothing. Another six months passed between the end of Season 1 and the start of Season 2. And then? Not nothing, exactly, but not fireworks, either. Another four years passed before Seinfeld reached No. 1 in the TV ratings.
Arguably no other show that would be labeled iconic, that would dominate the pop-culture discussion, and that would end its run before a Super Bowl-sized audience, took a stranger, more meandering path to success. And that’s hardly the only weird thing about how Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards) came to be something special.
Here’s the weird story of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Part I: Jerry and Larry
1. Getting fired -- and fired up
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Long Island, Jerry Seinfeld aspired to be a comic from boyhood. “I was not a very social kid, but I did get a TV in my room -- when my parents got a new TV, I got them to give me the old TV,” Seinfeld told The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast. “I had a TV in my room, and I never came out of the room again.”
After making his stand-up debut in 1976, Seinfeld was cast on the sitcom Benson. In 1980, Benson wasn’t what you’d call good TV, but it was hit TV -- and Seinfeld had a recurring role as a delivery guy. The young actor taped three episodes. When he showed up to work on his fourth, Jennifer Keishen Armstrong reported for her book, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, he was informed he’d been fired. “Never again,” Armstrong wrote, “he vowed.” If Seinfeld couldn’t control his TV destiny, like he could control the stand-up stage, he wasn’t going to do TV.
2. The late shift pays off
Another product of Brooklyn, Larry David got his start in TV as a writer-performer on Fridays, a would-be, Los Angeles-based Saturday Night Live, that premiered on ABC in 1980. After the show’s cancelation, David returned to New York, where he landed a writing gig on the real deal: NBC’s SNL. David liked the job, except when he hated it: None of his sketches were making it to air. One night in 1984, a few minutes before showtime, and after learning that yet another one of his bits had been cut, David told off then-producer Dick Ebersol, and quit. David immediately regretted the move, and a neighbor told him he should just show up for work the following week as if nothing had happened. David gave it a shot -- and it worked, at least, that is, until Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in 1985, and Ebersol’s hires were shown the door.
For his trouble in late-night TV, David scored paychecks, TV credits, lots of material -- and the acquaintance of actors such as Fridays’ Michael Richards and Saturday Night Live’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Oh, and the neighbor who gave David a crazy, but brilliant idea (later to be seen in the David-penned Seinfeld Season 2 episode, “The Revenge”)? A fellow by the name of Kenny Kramer.
3. No idea
By the late 1980s, Seinfeld had become a top-draw stand-up comic (who, true to his vow, mostly avoided TV, save for appearances on the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show and the like). His manager got him a meeting with Brandon Tartikoff, then the chief of top-rated NBC. The meeting went well, and Tartikoff asked Seinfeld if he had any ideas for a TV show. Seinfeld said he didn’t. But, as it turned out, another comic friend of his did: Larry David.
4. The importance of fig bars in Korean delis
Back in New York, David and Seinfeld were waiting in line at a Korean deli, riffing on fig bars, when, as Seinfeld would tell The New Yorker, David told him, “This is what the show should be -- this is the kind of dialogue that we should do on the show.” The concept morphed from a special about two comics making fun of everything, if not everyone, to, per NBC’s request, a traditional, three-camera sitcom. Except, as things turned out, there would be nothing traditional about Seinfeld’s and David’s show.
Part II: The Seinfeld Chronicles
5. The mystery of George
Then-NBC exec Warren Littlefield remembered reading Seinfeld’s and David’s script, and thinking, “[Why not?] What the hell?” A pilot was ordered, and casting was begun. Seinfeld, of course, was the lead, a fictionalized version of himself. According to one widely reported account, an eclectic bunch of actors were considered for TV Jerry’s friend, George Constanza: Danny DeVito, an unknown, 24-year-old Chris Rock, David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer, Nathan Lane, David Alan Grier. Brad Hall, a former SNL coworker of David’s and Louis-Dreyfus’ husband, and Steve Buscemi. There was one problem (or more?) with the story: Buscemi, for one, said he never auditioned.
6. The Woody Allen connection(s)
The teller of the tale about Buscemi and the other reputed potential Georges was none other than Jason Alexander. When asked about the names he’d dropped in a 2015 Howard Stern interview, Alexander said he knows Rock and Shaffer were definitely in the mix -- and that he scored the role himself the minute David saw his audition tape, which featured the Tony-winning, then-Broadway star doing George as Woody Allen. David does indeed have a thing for Allen: He did his own best Allen in the filmmaker’s 2009 comedy, Whatever Works.
7. The world turned upside down
Character actor Steve Vinovich was among those who auditioned for the part of Jerry’s eccentric across-the-hall neighbor, Kessler -- a character inspired by, but not yet named for David’s eccentric across-the-hall neighbor back in New York, Kenny Kramer. Vinovich lost out to David’s former Fridays costar Michael Richards, he said, because Richards’ take on Kramer was just plain funnier. Another possible factor in Richards’ favor: In the midst of his audition, Richards up and decided to do a headstand.
8. The other woman
When the Seinfeld Chronicles pilot was shot, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was not only unavailable (she was a series regular on another NBC sitcom, Day by Day), she was not even on the radar to play Elaine Benes -- because Elaine Benes didn’t exist.
Seinfeld’s and David’s original script called for Jerry and George to banter about decaf with a waitress pal named Claire (at place called Pete’s Luncheonette). Character actress Lee Garlington won the starring role.
9. Failure? What failure?
A given in Seinfeld lore is that the show was a “flop” before it became a hit. But while it’s true that the likes of David and Alexander didn’t have high hopes for the pilot being picked up as a series (a sound assessment considering that most pilots, then and now, get passed over), and while it’s also true that test audiences were unimpressed (“No segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again,” an NBC research memo said, per TV Guide), this is also true: The 23-minute Seinfeld Chronicles pilot won the network-screening room.
Jerry and George discussing the placement of shirt buttons? Jerry and George discussing relationship signals in the laundry? Execs laughed -- most of them anyway.
NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff famously was in the not-a-fan camp: He found Jerry and friends “too New York, too Jewish.” But, according to TV Guide, Tartikoff was “one of the few NBC honchos [who was] not sold on the show.”
10. Surprise: We’re marking an unhappy anniversary
Ultimately, the test audience’s negative reactions toward the pilot outweighed NBC’s positive ones. The network did not order more episodes from Seinfeld and David. Instead, the pilot was packaged as a “new comedy special,” and aired in what Rick Ludwin, another Seinfeld fan in the NBC executive suite, called “garbage dump theatre”: the middle of the summer -- on July 5, 1989.
11. Creative financing saves
A few weeks after the pilot scored an OK-ish (for 1989) 15.4 million viewers, and notched a 21st-place, TV-rankings finish, just behind a rerun of Growing Pains, Seinfeld was noted as telling the New York Times that he still hoped The Seinfeld Chronicles would be picked up for the 1989-1990 TV season. NBC’s Warren Littlefield and Rick Ludwin, meanwhile, were basically hoping the same thing, so they moved around money in their development budget -- and found the cash to have Seinfeld and David make four new episodes.
Part III: Becoming Seinfeld
12. Cruel twist of fate
After the pilot, Kenny Kramer gave Seinfeld and David his blessing, and Kessler became Kramer. Pete’s Luncheonette, meanwhile, was written out altogether (replaced by Monk’s Diner), as was Claire the waitress. Lee Garlington, as it turned out, made her first -- and last -- Seinfeld appearances on the pilot.
13. Things best left unsaid?
Alexander recalled that Garlington was doomed after she rewrote David’s dialogue. Warren Littlefield, weighing in, said Claire (and, in turn, Garlington) had to go because Jerry, George and Kessler-turned-Kramer could only interact with the character if they were at the restaurant. Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, told The New Yorker that Seinfeld and David got their episode order on the promise that they’d add a “real female character.”
As for Garlington? To hear her explain it, she was the victim of standard pilot-to-series reshuffling -- her contract just wasn’t picked up. She’s gone onto plenty of other work, and while she doesn’t dwell on the gig that got away, she’s never totally escaped it, either. Jason Alexander is “best friends with a friend of mine,” Garlington has said, and she sees him all the time. And not once, over the years, according to Garlington, have she and Alexander discussed whatever happened to the waitress who once --- and only once -- slung jokes with Jerry and George.
14. The importance of Alex P. Keaton
Even with Claire gone, and Seinfeld and David cooking up a new role, Louis-Dreyfus might not have been on the market had it not been for an apparently unrelated show: Family Ties.
The Michael J. Fox sitcom shared a creator, as well as character tie-ins, with the two-year-old Day by Day. (Louis-Dreyfus even guest-starred on it once.) When Family Ties sent Fox’s iconic young Republican character to Wall Street, and ended its seven-season run in May 1989, NBC canceled its lower-rated cousin, too. Louis-Dreyfus was a free agent. But not for long.
15. The Almost-Elaines
A thirtysomething Patricia Heaton and a twentysomething Rosie O’Donnell auditioned for Seinfeld’s and David’s new character creation, Elaine. So did a former college flame of Louis-Dreyfus’ husband: a pre-Will & Grace Megan Mullally.
"Isn't that weird?" Mullally told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live. "I went in just a couple of times [to read with Seinfeld]. … [W]e had really good chemistry and everything, so I actually thought I was going to get it. I didn't get it. Spoiler alert."
16. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day
NBC honchos loved the idea of Louis-Dreyfus for the Seinfeld series. Seinfeld and David did, too. Louis-Dreyfus, however, wasn’t sure. As related in a New Yorker profile, she liked Seinfeld’s and David’s writing, but the actress, who’d been signed to a deal with the hopes of developing her own starring series, didn’t like that Elaine wasn’t much of factor in two of the four new scripts. She took a meeting with Seinfeld and David, and read a scene with Seinfeld. One of the things that won her over? During the meeting, Seinfeld ate cereal. She thought it made him seem “very young and casual, in a way that was appealing.”
17. The theme song you don’t know -- and the one other one you don’t really know, either
The Seinfeld Chronicles pilot featured a jazzy, keyboard-driven tune by composer Jep Epstein. For the new episodes, a new sound was sought. Seinfeld told composer Jonathan Wolff he wanted “some kind of signature, identifiable, quirky music,” Wolff remembered for Vice. Wolff delivered. He produced a slap-bass riff by sampling “the organic human sounds from my lips and tongue” -- and no bass guitar.
18. The show that turned Seinfeld into Seinfeld, literally
On April 4, 1990, ABC premiered a comedy series about a high-school-aged New Yorker and his observations on life and love. Critics were generally kind, but audiences were indifferent. Were it not for one thing, the short-lived sitcom, which provided a minor, early-career role for Adam Sandler, would be lost to the TV ages. The one thing? Its name: The Marshall Chronicles.
Before the show’s seven episodes were done making it to air, The Seinfeld Chronicles which was set to begin unspooling its new episodes on NBC on May 31, 1990, blinked; its title shortened.
19. The start of something big? Yes -- and no
It was right there in black and white. The newly renamed Seinfeld, with its new diner, new theme and new actress, was a “winner,” with critics, and also with viewers. “The Stakeout,” the first of the four new episodes (which, with the pilot, would comprise Season 1), finished third in the weekly TV rankings. The episode even went on to earn Seinfeld’s first Primetime Emmy nomination (for editing). The three episodes that followed were nearly as big in the ratings. Seinfeld won a second season. And then a funny thing happened to TV’s next big thing: When Season 2 opened on Jan. 23, 1991, the series suffered, in the future parlance of George, shrinkage.
20. Inside joke
As Seinfeld struggled, NBC grew impatient with the show’s ratings -- and its voice. The powers-that-be especially hated Season 2’s penultimate episode, “The Chinese Restaurant,” which we now remember as the series’ first signature show about nothing. The executives’ complaint? Nothing happened.
Given their agitation, the execs probably didn’t appreciate that Seinfeld and David’s script featured a sly nod to NBC history. It happens when the waiter, played by James Hong, calls out for “Cartwright,” instead of “Costanza”; Cartwright was the surname of TV clan from Bonanza, the network’s longest-running TV Western of all time.
21. Accidental history
While Seinfeld’s nothingness was initially unappreciated by NBC, its intricate, linked storytelling was initially ignored by viewers. The episode after “The Chinese Restaurant” was “The Busboy.” Owing to NBC’s overall pique with the series, it was banished to a summer air date where it got beaten by a rerun of a crime show called Jake and the Fatman. “The Busboy” would go down as the second-least-watched Seinfeld from the show’s entire network run. What viewers missed was an episode that tied a busboy (David Labiosa) and his cat to Jerry's gang and a boyfriend of Elaine’s -- the first linked storylines in the show’s then-17-episode history. In a way, David almost missed the significance of the episode, too. While writing the show with Seinfeld, the BBC recounted, David “noticed the unrelated plotlines coincidentally crossing paths … and from then on he aimed to put this effect into every script.”
Part IV: The big time
22. Forget Newman: Fatman!!!
Seinfeld’s Season 3 was a season of firsts: It produced the series’ first Emmy wins (for writing and editing), its first Emmy nominations for acting (for Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander) and its first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series. It marked its first season with a fall premiere and a full, 23-episode network commitment. But it was also a season of same-old, same-old: Most weeks, it couldn’t beat Jake and the Fatman. “We would get closer,” Seinfeld told TV Guide of his show’s ratings rival, “and then he would get fatter and pull away."
23. Now you hear it, now you don’t
The first episode of Season 3, “The Note,” features scat singers doing what comes natural: scat singing -- in this case, over the Seinfeld theme. Wolff, the composer. had wanted to try something different; Seinfeld and David liked the result. The new-style theme, however, did not jibe with NBC and Castle Rock Entertainment, which produced Seinfeld; neither NBC nor Castle Rock had been aware of the change until after “The Note” aired, CBR.com recounted. The scat singers were promptly ordered to scat, and “The Note” became the only Seinfeld episode with a theme song. (The episode is also notable -- and unusual -- in that it ends with a song, too: the 1944 hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.”)
24. Mirror trick
“The Parking Garage” was another episode that defined Seinfeld on its long road to phenom status. The Season 3 episode finds Jerry and friends trapped in a parking garage in search of their car. The maze of a garage was inspired by the one at Los Angeles’ Century Square Shopping Center (now Westfield Century City), but the episode was shot on Seinfeld’s usual set -- albeit after it was tricked out with mirrors to allow director Tom Cherones to make it appear as if the show’s usual set was actually a maze of a garage.
25. So. Much. Meta.
Seinfeld spent the first part of Season 4 getting beaten in the ratings by Home Improvement. (Its former nemesis, Jake and the Fatman, had ended after the 1991-1992 season.) On Jan. 27, 1993, the series hit a new low: fewer than 12 million viewers tuned in “The Visa.” A week later, Seinfeld dropped “The Shoes,” and the show zoomed to what was then its all-time high in viewers: 26.9 million. The difference?
NBC had shifted Seinfeld to Thursday night, and began airing it after a sitcom by the name of Cheers, which starred Ted Danson, who had been insulted months earlier on Seinfeld by George (“I can't live knowing that Ted Danson makes that much more than me!”), and who would later credit Larry David with changing his career for the better via Curb Your Enthusiasm.
26. Take two
After “The Shoes,” Seinfeld never looked back. After three-and-a-half years, three-and-a-half seasons and 56 episodes, the series was an overnight sensation. Larry David would use his new power to revisit Seinfeld’s past, and retrofit older episodes so that they'd match up with newer ones once the series began its now-inevitable life in rerun syndication (and, once the format was invented, streaming).
The Seinfeld Chronicles title card and theme music from the pilot? Replaced with Seinfeld's and the slap-bass-style music. The off-camera voice for Newman that David did in Season 2’s “The Revenge”? Redone with the voice of Wayne Knight, who’d been cast in the role in Season 3’s “The Suicide.” Season 4’s “The Handicap Spot,” featuring John Randolph as George’s father, Frank Costanza? Reshot with Jerry Stiller, who’d assumed the role starting in Season 5’s “The Puffy Shirt.”
27. The survivor
Phil Bruns got lucky. The actor who played Jerry’s dad in Season 1’s “The Stakeout” was not erased by Barney Martin, who took on the recurring role with Season 2’s “The Pony Remark.” Per one popular explanation, the actors who’d appeared in 1990’s “The Stakeout,” including Seinfeld, had physically changed too much by the time David's reshoot project began in the mid-1990s -- the Bruns scene stayed.
28. Comedy is brutal
On May 16, 1996, more than 33 million tuned in “The Invitations” to see Seinfeld kill off a main character’s fiancée with poisoned envelopes. The AV Club would call it “the show’s bleakest joke,” but the bleakest joke arguably came off-camera.
As he would relate to Howard Stern, Alexander had chemistry trouble with George’s intended, Susan, played by Heidi Swedberg. “I couldn’t figure out how to play off her,” Alexander told Stern. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus cracked that Susan should be offed, David, who was ending his run on Seinfeld, ran with the joke -- and Susan was a goner.
Part V: The end
29. Good night, everybody
By Christmas Day 1997, Seinfeld was averaging more than 30 million viewers each week, and minting nearly as many catchphrases. Per the New York Times, the show was no less than the “most popular television comedy of the 1990s.” To its star, namesake and co-creator, it was time to go.
''I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we've been doing it on for years,'' Seinfeld told the Times as he announced that his show’s ninth season would be its last. ''... For me, this is all about timing. My life is all about timing. As a comedian, my sense of timing is everything.''
Less than three months later, on March 19, 1998, art imitated life when Seinfeld unspooled “The Burning.” The episode features Jerry advising George about showmanship, about knowing when to leave the stage -- or office meeting. “When you hit that high note,” Jerry says, sounding awfully familiar, “you say goodnight and walk off.”
30. The biggest twist of all
Even before Seinfeld ended on May 14, 1998, before an audience of more than 76 million, the series cemented a legacy as a genre-changing show that made a pop-culture dent by smartly being about nothing. But was it? About nothing, that is?
A few weeks after the premiere of The Seinfeld Chronicles, back in 1989, the New York Times interviewed Seinfeld about his show -- his show “about single life,” as the outlet described it. "The singles scene is one of the main themes of life; it seems natural to talk about it,” Seinfeld said.
Nearly 30 years later, Seinfeld would call the “show about nothing” label “nonsense.” “That was made up by the press,” he said on the Hollywood Reporter podcast Awards Chatter.
As Seinfeld would see it, the only show about nothing he worked on in the '90s was the show-within-a-show cooked up by Jerry and George in a Season 4 Seinfeld storyline. Its name? Jerry.
31. Back to the future
Sometimes, to see the future, all you have to do is look to the past. Jerry Seinfeld’s ultimate destiny, for instance, arguably is right there for all to see -- on the wall of Jerry’s apartment -- in the very first, 30-year-old episode of Seinfeld.
During a scene in the pilot between Jerry and Kramer (then Kessler), a black-and-white photo is spied. The man in the picture is George Burns. Burns was a hero of Seinfeld (and apparently Jerry) -- a cigar-smoking comic, who despite winning an Oscar, was best known for going on and on like the Energizer bunny. Burns performed into his 90s, and was booked to play the London Palladium on his 100th. While Burns, who died in 1996, made it to his centennial, he was prevented by injury from making the birthday gig. In 2004, on the occasion of Seinfeld’s 50th birthday, George Shapiro, the star’s manager, revealed he’d booked his client to play the Palladium on April 29, 2054 -- the date of Seinfeld’s 100th birthday.