Perhaps George Costanza described the plot of his own show best: “It’s about nothing.”
For a series with such an underwhelming slogan, the impact “Seinfeld” has had on television, comedy, and culture is difficult to underestimate. It comes as little surprise, then, that Jerry Seinfeld’s return to New York has garnered so much media attention.
After focusing largely on acting since “Seinfeld” went off the air in 1998, the famed comedian will be making a symbolic return to both New York City and stand-up comedy with a mini-tour of the five boroughs, which began last night with his show at the Upper West Side’s Beacon Theater. Seinfeld will be appearing in a different borough every Thursday night through Nov. 8, when he will perform at Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Theatre.
Although most fans know Seinfeld from his namesake TV show, co-created with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Larry David in 1989, the entertainer initially made his name and developed his signature style in the New York stand-up scene in the late 1970s. Unlike other prominent comics at the time, such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor, Seinfeld emphasized everyday experience rather than broader social issues.
“What we’re seeing in his [Seinfeld’s] stand-up is a shift towards … something that’s not really about political or social issues, but rather the minutiae of daily life—observational humor where it’s autobiography that really provides the framework for comedic observation,” said Robert King, an associate professor of film studies who teaches classes on comedy. “That, then, obviously feeds into the show ‘Seinfeld,’ but it also feeds into the orientation of stand-up today, which remains largely observational—which remains grounded in this sense that comedy comes out of autobiography.”
When “Seinfeld” premiered on NBC, it introduced viewers to its creator’s signature focus on the petty annoyances of everyday life. Episodes centered on topics as seemingly mundane as lost socks or waiting in lines, creating a sense of absurdity and meaninglessness. Producer Larry Charles famously described the show’s philosophy of humor grounded in observation rather than moral lessons as “no hugging, no learning,” representing a clean break from the family sitcoms that had once dominated the airwaves.
In addition to its characteristic concern with the everyday, “Seinfeld” also derived much of its humor from its unique setting: New York City.
In the world of “Seinfeld,” “New York … is a collection of very idiosyncratic and strange, crazy people who are all, in their own ways, outsiders—who all in their own ways have a series of obsessions that set them apart from all sorts of other people,” Jeremy Dauber, associate professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture, said. Dauber incorporated “Seinfeld” into the syllabus of his own class, “Humor in Jewish Literature,” along with the work of other Jewish comedians like Woody Allen.
Dauber noted that “Seinfeld” incorporated Jewish identity into the sitcom. In the world of the show, “New York is Jewish,” Daubner explained. “Even if you’re not Jewish and you live in New York, you’re Jewish. ‘Seinfeld’ decreed this kind of sense of what New York was as a Jewish place in presenting New York as that same kind of world that he and his couple of friends have,” he said.
But the show is accessible, irrespective of religion. Characters like the now-famous Soup Nazi and locations like Columbia’s beloved Tom’s Restaurant incorporated New York into the show long before programs like “Sex and the City” hit the air.
Evangeline Morphos, Columbia U. associate professor of professional practice in film, cites the accurate depiction of the city as an essential element in the humor of “Seinfeld.” Morphos recalls Seinfeld’s famed monologue on socks going missing from the laundromat. “I lived in the same block as Seinfeld, and, honestly? The dry cleaner would take my clothes and wear them,” Morphos said.
The Soup Nazi was also based on a real-life example: “Years ago, one of the great audition places in New York was in the West 50s. And you’d go across to this soup place, and you had to be prepared, because that guy was a nightmare. And of course, it is the Soup Nazi! We’ve been there,” Morphos explained.
To many students at Columbia, however, the impact of Seinfeld’s comedy is far less immediate. Seinfeld’s sitcom went off the air in 1998 after an impressive run of nine seasons, and his last stand-up special, “I’m Telling You for the Last Time,” was released that same year. Nonetheless, Seinfeld’s career has had an enduring impact on the way much of Generation Y experiences humor, including several Columbia comedians.
“Seinfeld and Larry David were the first people that showed me the funny people are the same as the smart people,” Orli Matlow said. Matlow is involved with Jester, a humor magazine, and takes improvisational and sketch comedy classes at New York’s famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Matlow cited Seinfeld as one of her most prominent comic influences. “When I sit down to write jokes … it just comes from a knee-jerk reaction in my everyday life,” she said. For Matlow, Seinfeld depicted “the comedian’s process as not isolated from the world, but really of the world.”
Contemporary viewers can find humor that is “of the world” in nearly every popular sitcom of the past decade. Tune in to an episode of “Friends,” and you will probably find Rachel, Ross, Monica, and the gang worrying about being on time for an event, what outfit to wear, or how to interact with a former childhood friend—in other words, exactly the kind of mundane issues that “Seinfeld” made fair game for television humor.
“He [Seinfeld] would have these conversations like, ‘How do you know when you’re in a relationship? Do you have a standing date for Saturday night, is it implied, is it this or that? How long do you have before you can return a gift?’” Dauber said. Seinfeld’s humor, he continued, has “this extremely detail-obsessed focus, almost legalistic perspective of how we all operate in our daily lives, taking these minutiae and turning them into the subject of great investigation and speculation.”
Seinfeld’s comic success stems not only from the content of his humor, but also its style. Bob Vulfov, member of improv group Fruit Paunch, and co-writer of XMAS!7, said, “Comedians our age tend to swear and curse, and he’s this beacon of a comedian who still can be hilarious and extremely influential without needing to be completely inappropriate.” Vulfov explained, “When you see him do stand-up live in the Comedy Cellar or something, he’s still very clean and appropriate, and that’s something I think anybody can appreciate—a person who can be funny without being too offensive.”
Part of the Seinfeld shtick of “not doing anything” is the legitimate idea that the method behind his comedy is just as deceptively unintentional as the sitcom.
“As much as I love ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘Colbert,’ they don’t mask biases, and the setup of the joke is just to serve as the setup to the joke, whereas in ‘Seinfeld’ the setup is funny in and of itself,” Matlow said.
Seinfeld’s return to stand-up coincides with a recent resurgence in the medium’s popularity, demonstrated by the runaway success of comics like Louis CK, star of FX’s “Louie,” and Marc Maron, the host of the podcast, “WTF with Marc Maron.” “To a certain extent, the idea of Seinfeld now returning to New York … I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly closing the loop, between these two cycles of stand-up booms, but it’s certainly drawing a line or a connection between these two periods,” King said.
Both as the creator of one of the most influential television sitcoms to date and as a comedian in his own right, Jerry Seinfeld’s impact on humor has only gained force since “Seinfeld” aired its last episode over 14 years ago. And if the number of tourists taking photos outside of Tom’s is any indication, that reputation is here to stay.