For a show about nothing, it sure was something. The NBC sitcom Seinfeld charmed viewers for 180 episodes throughout nine seasons from 1989 to 1998 by leaning into the banal realities of the everyday. During its run, Seinfeld averaged a staggering 30 million viewers each week, with more than 76 million people tuning into the finale.
The brainchild of comedian Jerry Seinfield and writer-producer Larry David, the original idea was to create a 90-minute special meant to air in Saturday Night Live’s time slot. But as the two got to work, they realized that was a long time to sustain their idea about a show about a comedian, so it turned into a half-hour sitcom.
“The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material,” Seinfeld said in a Reddit AMA in 2014. “The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it’s the opposite of that.”
However it’s described, much of the lovability of the show rests in its strong characters — Seinfeld playing a fictionalized version of himself, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his sarcastic ex Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as his insecure best friend George Castanza, and Michael Richards as his oddball neighbor Cosmo Kramer.
Here, we look back at 10 facts about the groundbreaking sitcom.
Elaine Wasn’t in the Pilot Episode
The first episode was missing a significant part of the famous foursome: Elaine. However, there was another female character: a waitress named Claire who worked at the diner where Jerry and George would hang out.
Even with Claire in the pilot, it’s widely reported that Elaine came to be because the first episode was “too male-centric.” While Rosie O’Donnell, Patricia Heaton, and Megan Mullaley were all considered for the part, it was Louis-Dreyfus’ close ties to David during their joint time at Saturday Night Live that led to the gig. When David came to her with the Seinfeld character, Louis-Dreyfus was “immediately intrigued” by the writing. “It was unlike anything on television at the time,” she said.
Kramer’s Name Was Originally “Kessler”
In season four, during the whole show-within-a-show plot, there’s a storyline in which Kramer will only let himself be depicted if he can play himself. As it turns out, that was based on a real situation that Seinfeld dealt with at the start of the show.
The comedian had based the wacky character of his real neighbor Kenny Kramer, who would only let him use his name if he could play himself. So in the pilot episode, Richards’ character is referred to as “Kessler.” After it was worked out — and the real Kramer was paid $1,000 — the name was switched.
The Theme Song for Each Episode Is Different
For the first seven seasons, every episode started with Seinfield doing a stand-up routine. But what only eagle-eared listeners will notice is that the theme song was made to match those monologues, which means every single episode had a slightly different one. Composer Jonathan Wolff used instruments like the bass — plus his fingers and mouth to improvise the sounds — and synced them to Seinfeld’s stand-up timing to build a simple melody that could easily start and stop for jokes.
“I have no idea how many themes we did for Seinfeld…” he told Great Big Story. “The timing, the length, had to be adjustable in a way it would still hold water and still sound like the Seinfeld theme.”
Elaine’s Hair Was Inspired by Helena Bonham Carter
Elaine’s curls were one of her most distinctive features, and Louis-Dreyfus had gotten the idea from an unusual place: Helena Bonham Carter in the 1985 film A Room with a View. “I thought it was incredibly beautiful, and it was,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “I thought, that’s how I’m going to do my hair, it’s so incredible. That’s where that thing came from, the big wall of hair. And it kept growing and growing.”
Jerry Stiller Wasn’t Always George’s Dad
So much of George’s character is enveloped by his parents, played by Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller, but Stiller wasn’t the elder Constanza from the start. In the first appearance of the character in season four, he was played by veteran TV, film and theater actor John Randolph. While Alexander says he adored Randolph, he thought that “John actually looked more like my grandfather than my father.”
After one episode, they moved on to a second actor who “wasn’t noteworthy” before Stiller officially came along in season five. “He’s my favorite character on the show,” Alexander said. “He doesn’t even know how good he is.” He added that Stiller often had trouble remembering his lines, but that worked out for the best. “The lines would come back to him in little stutter steps, so they would come out in little stutter steps — what you were seeing was his own growing anxiety and frustration with his own memory that got translated into the disdain for the world that Frank Constanza had.”
The Soup Nazi May Not Have Been a “Seinfeld” Fan
With everyday life so often inspiring the storylines, one of the most famous was the Soup Nazi who insisted his customers order in a very particular way or else “no soup for you!” Spike Feresten, who wrote the episode, had often visited Al Yeganeh’s soup shop, now called The Original Soupman, on 55th Street in New York City and experienced the stern service himself.
“He was kind of a mean guy, but on that day he said, ‘No soup for you!’” Feresten said. “I was so bewildered, like, ‘What? I don't understand, I've got money, you're selling stuff.’” It made for perfect comedy fodder.
But Yeganeh was not a fan of the depiction, telling CNN the use of the word was a “disgrace to the human race.” That said, he eventually used the sitcom’s success to draw visitors to his restaurant, even including its hashtag in the store’s Instagram bio.
Louis-Dreyfus Practiced Elaine’s Dance in a Mirror
In the season 8 episode “The Little Kicks,” it was simply written that Elaine had really bad dance moves — but Louis-Dreyfus did her homework. “The night before the table read, I had the script and frankly I just stood in front of a mirror and tried to do movements that looked really bad,” she said. “People approach me about the dance all the time.” Her response: No way.
The First and Last Conversations Between Jerry and George in the Series Were the Same
In a full-circle moment, the first scene of the series started in a coffee shop with Jerry telling George that a button on his shirt was too high and that it “makes or breaks” the shirt since it’s in “no man’s land.” And in the very last scene of the finale, when they’re all sitting in a jail cell, he alludes to it again, saying: “The second button is the key button. It literally makes or breaks the shirt.”
As the camera pans back, George says, “Haven’t we had this conversation before?” to which Jerry ends the series with “Maybe we have.”
The Puffy Shirt Is in the Smithsonian
The most memorable wardrobe item from the sitcom is no doubt the ruffled shirt that Jerry agreed to wear during a Today show appearance that Kramer said “looks better than anything you own.”
Now that memorable item is part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History collection, though it wasn’t the first item that was offered. "The producers offered Jerry's apartment refrigerator covered with magnets,” museum curator Dwight Blocker Bowers said. “We realized that this was too ungainly an object for the museum to accommodate. We countered with the puffy shirt because it is a costume representative of the show and of its leading player.”
The Four Stars Made the Decision to End the Show
The show’s mark on pop culture remained strong throughout its run, but it was the cast who knew it was time to wrap things up. Seinfeld called his three costars into his dressing room during season nine and they just looked at one another and knew.
“We've had a lot of good fortune here. Maybe we shouldn't push our luck too far,” he said. “And we all agreed that this was the right moment. And I remember it's the only time we all got together in a dressing room, the four of us, to make that decision. That was powerful.”
It’s a decision Seinfeld doesn’t regret, recalling when a cab driver once asked him why they ended on top. “I said to him, well, I was at a point we had done it for nine years and I realized I could go off the air right now and the show could be a legend,” he said. “I could be a legend of the sitcom world or I could make some more money." And that’s why the show remains a legend.