“Greatest” is always debatable, but over the many re-runs, Seinfeld seems to be the most enduring sitcom. It has stood the test of time (proven by the many re-runs) and always retains its freshness when viewers watch it again and again.
The simple answer as to why and how of it is this - “Nothing”. The show doesn’t hinge on a charisma of a central character (like in TBBT) or relationships between characters (“Friends”) or a well-defined setting (“The office”).
The episodes in themselves don’t depend on a great story (which keeps you interested) – the events are mostly the “excruciating minutiae” that we live off-screen (and hate to the core) – and yet we find ourselves tickled and amused over 180 episodes. That’s the magic trick here.
However interesting a character – after 4-5 times of watching, you stop being interested. Same applies to situations or plots. The freshness just disappears. ‘Seinfeld’ ended up being fresh because it depended on neither - the nothing was filled with a dose of everything else.
The above is the short answer. The three things I find in Seinfeld, that haven’t been quite matched by other sitcoms are:
- Philosophical Clarity
- Symphonic Plot Construction & Interaction
- Endless Observational Material to Tap From/Into
Philosophical Clarity - Nihilism
If Larry David is listening to a couple at the airport saying good-bye to each other.. the wife says “Call me once you land so I know” to the husband – Larry David is usually thinking “Don’t worry, if the plane crashes we’ll know.” And he expects that all the wife should be telling the husband was “nothing”.
When Jerry listens to the pilot announcing “We’re floating 35k feet up in the air and that we’ll fly at 800 kmph and reach in 2 hours”, Jerry’s natural reaction is to want to go and tell the pilot “I’m having this bag of peanuts..thought I might as bother telling you what I am doing”.. Since the pilot’s communication has no “useful” or “actionable” information to Jerry, he finds it funny and reckons the pilot rather say “Nothing” and just do his job.
At the heart, they both ridicule any kind of “accepted” or “prescribed” social behavior – but that behavior pervades all facets of daily life – which itself, (according to their view – and yours, if you like it )amounts to “nothing”.
This just let them establish a complete “no hugging, no learning” approach with no regard for people or relationships (or the viewing audience – it requires a certain arrogance to make people watch you wait for 22 minutes outside a Chinese restaurant)
Symphonic Plot Construction & Interaction
The writers came up with situations – that are idiosyncratic and crazy, but the plots in each episode (particularly in the later seasons) in a neat, often symmetrical fashion with some added funny bonuses
Eg: “The Outing” – While one plot has Jerry convince his girlfriend he isn’t homosexual, George is trying to get out of a relationship by acting as if he is homosexual.
In “The Abstinence”, George’s life increasingly gets better without sex, while Elaine’s progressively gets worse – Core Idea being how the concept of sex alters/pervades one’s life.
In “The Conversion”, George has to take a supreme “romantic” step (converting to Latvian Orthodox) to get his girl, while Kramer has to stink himself up with garlic so his girl would turn him down.
In “The Pool Guy”, George goes from constrained to “Independent George”, while Uncle Leo’s relationship forced Jerry to go from “Independent Jerry” to “Locked-Up Jerry”
In “The Engagement” - the episode begins with the thought of marriage – George takes the dive to progressively “deteriorate” to marriage. Courtesy Kramer, Jerry manages to escape and progressively gets back his freedom and groove.
Can keep going on and on
Jerry Seinfeld famously likens his stand-up writing to song-writing – rhythm, meter, pitch, the works. As in music, the notes and the delivery have to be perfect. Think of a show’s episode as one of Bach’s counterpoint symphonic works – each plot a tune in it’s own right. In Bach’s music, each instrument (or tune) has an identity of it’s own – but listening to all tunes play together takes you to an elevated level of musical harmony – similarly in each episode of Seinfeld, the plots have individual impact, interact well with the other parallel plots and harmonize to provide much greater joy and delight.
Endless Observational Material to Tap From/Into
Sounds stupidly simple. Though, we often find ourselves doing “nothing” – we are actually doing something or the other at any point of time – and the sum of these somethings makes up everything our life stands for. The show’s “nothing” gets it weight from the infinite social observations that make for interesting hearing – thanks only to the 50+ years of stand-up writing and delivery experience of Jerry Seinfeld, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander and the show’s six main writers.
The writers of 'Seinfeld' were indeed master of their domain.