Festivus, baldist, sponge-worthy, regifting. It was a quarter of a century ago that these words and countless others entered the American lexicon thanks to "Seinfeld," and popular culture has been better off because of it.
Bob Thompson returned to BPR's Studio Three today to discuss why "Seinfeld" is still relevant 25 years later. Thompson is the director of the BleierCenter for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Thompson summed up our enduring love affair with Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George like this: "Practically no experience that you have doesn't lend itself to saying, 'Remember that 'Seinfeld' episode when that happened?'"
Unlike previous comedy classics — "I Love Lucy," for example, or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" — "Seinfeld" has maintained a relevance to popular culture that would be the envy of any television series, and boasts a viewing demographic ranging from those who watched the show on primetime in its final season in 1998 to their children watching re-runs today. What makes "Seinfeld" an outlier?
The uniquely black and neurotic humor of its co-creator Larry David that led to some of the most memorable plot lines had something to do with it, according to Thompson. "It took a slice of American psychosis and weaved this baroque, funny story about it," he said. "They did this was so many things: standing in line waiting at a Chinese restaurant, losing your car in a parking garage. It was the stuff of epic tragedy."
Numbers alone point to how successful the show was during its apex and beyond: More than 76 million viewers tuned in to watch the series' finaleon NBC in 1998, making it the sixth most-watched entertainment event in television history, according to Nielsen Media Research. Respondents to a 2012 "60 Minutes"/Vanity Fair poll voted itthe best sitcom of all time. It was the first television series to charge $1 million per minutein advertising.
But not everyone was on board the "Seinfeld" bandwagon. Thanks to a less than optimal programming schedule the show never really caught on in the United Kingdom, as The Guardian noted in an article. Even in the United States the series had a slow ascent to popularity — there was a year long break between its first and second seasons, and one NBC research report at the time described it as "weak."
New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas wrote that despite the show's brilliance, it is no longer well suited to the reality of American life. In a recent article, Giridharadas suggested Seinfeld's observational comedy that was so relatable to '90s viewers fails to work as well in an age where inequality and its effects is a hot topic, "and our inability to relate becomes the point," Giridharadas wrote.
But humor is in the eye of the beholder, and for every new TV show in the era of the "anti-Seinfeld," there is someone out there who appreciates the comedic genius of 'Spare a Square,' the Bubble Boy and Vandelay Industries. If nothing else, there is a certain nostalgia for a show whose subplots might not even be possible now with modern technology.
In the world of TV sitcoms, "Seinfeld" is still the master of its domain.