Takes a Regular Slot on NBC Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite the fact that its early episodes received low ratings and tepid reviews, Seinfeld, a situation comedy about a New York stand-up comedian and his eccentric friends, was picked up by NBC for a full season in January of 1991. The show ran for nine seasons and became one of the most popular, acclaimed, and innovative television comedies of all time.

Summary of Event

Stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld had garnered a considerable audience in the 1980’s through live performances and on television shows, such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He had developed a reputation for observational humor, which focused on the small incongruities and oddities of life, rather than the political or obscenity-fueled comedy that was popular with many of the other 1980’s-era stand-up comedians. The programming heads at NBC were suitably impressed with Seinfeld’s previous work to offer the comedian his own network comedy special. Seinfeld (television program) Television programs;Seinfeld Television;comedies [kw]Seinfeld Takes a Regular Slot on NBC (Jan. 23, 1991) [kw]NBC, Seinfeld Takes a Regular Slot on (Jan. 23, 1991) Seinfeld (television program) Television programs;Seinfeld Television;comedies [g]North America;Jan. 23, 1991: Seinfeld Takes a Regular Slot on NBC[07990] [g]United States;Jan. 23, 1991: Seinfeld Takes a Regular Slot on NBC[07990] [c]Radio and television;Jan. 23, 1991: Seinfeld Takes a Regular Slot on NBC[07990] Seinfeld, Jerry David, Larry Alexander, Jason Louis-Dreyfus, Julia Richards, Michael Ludwin, Rick Tartikoff, Brandon

Instead of a special, however, Seinfeld and a fellow comedian, Larry David, began to devise a situation comedy (sitcom). David was almost Seinfeld’s polar opposite. Whereas Seinfeld’s onstage demeanor was sunny and wry, David possessed a dark and sometimes self-loathing sense of humor, which he made no effort to hide from audiences. He often berated crowds for not reacting as he thought they should. As a result, unlike Seinfeld, David was not a very successful stand-up comic. However, other comedians had a great deal of respect for his daring and unwillingness to compromise. David also had experience in television, first as a performer on Fridays, a short-lived imitation of the successful National Broadcasting Company (NBC) show Saturday Night Live that aired on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and then as a writer for one season on Saturday Night Live. During the latter, he later claimed, his work was so poorly received by the executive producer that only one of his sketches was ever performed on the show.

Seinfeld and David decided to create a show that, on the surface, resembled their lives and their friendship. They proposed to the network a show called The Seinfeld Chronicles, with Seinfeld essentially playing himself, a stand-up comedian who lived alone in New York City. The show they proposed would focus more on conversation than plot and action. Network president Brandon Tartikoff was unimpressed, but Rick Ludwin, vice president of late night, variety, and specials programming, saw promise in Seinfeld and David’s idea and agreed to put up the money for a pilot episode.

With production company Castle Rock Entertainment on board, Seinfeld and David began putting the pilot together. To costar with Seinfeld, character actor Jason Alexander was cast as Seinfeld’s friend, George Costanza, who was modeled after David. Michael Richards, who had performed with David on Fridays, played Seinfeld’s across-the-hall neighbor Kramer, who was based on an eccentric former neighbor of David.

Seinfeld, Alexander, and Richards starred in the pilot for the show, which was then titled The Seinfeld Chronicles. The pilot was not well received by test audiences. NBC was also unimpressed with the pilot and initially declined to pick up the show. The episode aired without fanfare on July 5, 1989. However, Ludwin thought the pilot showed promise and urged Tartikoff to give the show another chance. Only four additional episodes of the show, now called Seinfeld, were ordered by the network. These episodes aired the following season in May-June, 1990. The network had requested that Seinfeld and David add a woman to the cast. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a performer on Saturday Night Live during David’s ill-fated season, was chosen to play Elaine Benes, Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend, with whom he maintained a platonic relationship.

The four episodes were not highly rated, although some critics began to take more notice of the show. It was becoming clear that Seinfeld and David had created a rather unique sitcom. As part of the show, Seinfeld and David interspersed scenes of Seinfeld performing his stand-up act. The material he performed was related in some way to the plot of that episode. The idea behind this was to show how incidents from the fictional Seinfeld’s life would, in turn, inspire his stand-up comedy routines. The show drew comedy from the little annoyances of life, a method that was rarely seen on television. Even in these early episodes, Seinfeld and Alexander were seen eating in their favorite diner, discussing the minutiae of life. Additionally, the show gave David an outlet for his darker comic sensibilities; the cast was often seen behaving selfishly and cravenly, their schemes usually failing at the episode’s end.

The cast of Seinfeld (from left to right): Michael Richards, Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jason Alexander, backstage at the forty-fifth Emmy Awards in September, 1993. The show won for Outstanding Comedy Series.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Seinfeld and David had also decided to make Seinfeld, despite its name, an ensemble show. They realized early that they had four talented, distinct comic performers on hand and could craft the show around all of them. Alexander, who had initially played George as a Woody Allen-type neurotic, began to play the character as desperate and devious, yet still somehow sympathetic. The character of Kramer proved to be an ideal vehicle for Richards’s specialization in broad physical humor. Louis-Dreyfus, with her quirky portrayal of Elaine, showed that she could more than hold her own as the only woman in the cast. Seinfeld, the least experienced actor of the four, had no problem giving a lot of the screen time, and jokes, to his costars.

Also, during the four-episode run, Seinfeld and David had devised a clever device for the show: Each of the four characters would have a separate plot line, with the four plot lines coming together at the end of the show. This was unusual because most sitcom episodes had a primary storyline, the “A” story, and a smaller subplot, the “B” story.

Significance

Seinfeld would soon gain footing with both critics and the public. By the fourth season, the show was fast becoming one of the most successful and acclaimed sitcoms of its time. It was a regular presence in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings and won several Emmys. Seinfeld became a touchstone of popular culture, spawning countless catchphrases that entered parlance. All four cast members became huge stars, especially Seinfeld. The show itself changed the direction of sitcoms; fast-paced shows about single life in urban environments began crowding the airwaves. Many other stand-up comics were lured to network television to try carrying comedy shows. However, very few of the shows that were influenced by Seinfeld had the same staying power as the original. Overall, critics cited Seinfeld as containing some of the wittiest dialogue and sharpest satire of its time. When, at the end of the ninth season, the show’s final episode aired, it was one of the most heavily hyped, and watched, series finales in the history of television. Seinfeld (television program) Television programs;Seinfeld Television;comedies

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lavery, David, and Sara Lewis Dunne, eds. Seinfeld, Master of Its Domain: Revisiting Television’s Greatest Sitcom. New York: Continuum, 2006. A collection of essays on the show, written by a number of television scholars and critics. Contains an episode guide, as well as a list of the many catchphrases from the show.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tracy, Kathleen. Jerry Seinfeld: The Entire Domain. Secaucus, N.J.: Birch Lane Press, 1998. A highly readable biography of the comedian that provides a thorough look at the genesis of Seinfeld. Contains an episode guide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wild, David. Seinfeld: The Totally Unauthorized Tribute (Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That). New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998. A lighthearted look at the show, with an episode guide, trivia, and interviews with celebrities. None of the main players are interviewed, but the book concisely sums up the history of the show.

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