February 24, 2020

Thirty Years of Seinfeld

“Seinfeld, one of the most successful TV shows ever made, turns 30 on July 5, 2019. Its pilot, “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” aired that evening in 1989, but the show wouldn’t return for nearly a full year — its second episode didn’t air until May of 1990.

Despite that inauspicious debut, the series is self-evidently one of the most influential television programs ever made; when it debuted in 1989 it entered a sitcom landscape that was still shaking off the last cobwebs of the 1970s sitcom revolution, and it suggested, boldly, that sitcoms didn’t need to be about important issues or even use traditional storytelling methods to be great. Instead, they could just focus on the minutiae of life, the little bits and pieces of larger things that add up to form our points of view. It was a show that reveled in detritus.

Easy to miss in all that, however, are the ways that Seinfeld influenced TV via its underpinnings. Jerry Seinfeld’s observational humor affected many other shows of the era, as well as many that premiered long after the series had ended. The “single people living in the big city” premise became the centerpiece of seemingly every other sitcom. But Seinfeld was so huge that it influenced television in many smaller ways, too. Here are five of them.

1) Seinfeld changed the way sitcom stories are written
It’s not terribly exciting to think about television in terms of its story structure — the combination of plot developments, scenes, and raw dramatic beats that make up any given episode of TV — but Seinfeld’s impact on television comedy is actually most pronounced in this arena. The famous “show about nothing” pitch obscured just how much structural work was going on beneath the show’s hood. Prior to Seinfeld, most sitcoms broke down into an A-story and a B-story, and the surrounding material could take the form of a so-called “runner,” a joke that continued throughout the episode and told a very loose story but didn’t do much more than that.”

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