You’re probably well aware that the beloved NBC sitcom Seinfeld turns 25 years old on Saturday, between TBS airing the so-called best episodes of the series and the incredibly wonderful tributes that all of us TV and pop culture junkies are writing this week. Of course, it’s only technically the 25th anniversary. Yes, the pilot episode, “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” debuted on July 5, 1989, but people basically hated it and NBC passed, as we watched in the embellished stories of episodes like “The Pitch” and “The Pilot.” Fortunately, an NBC executive/living saint named Rick Ludwin had faith and gave the show enough money to finish its first season.
It wasn’t until June 28, 1990 that the pilot re-aired to slightly better ratings and NBC decided to order a second season, but that’s all just a matter of semantics. The bottom line is that if Ludwin hadn’t enjoyed what he saw in the pilot, we would have never celebrated Festivus, determined whether or not we were sponge-worthy, made a bet that we could be the kings of our castles, or shouted, “I was in the pool!” anytime someone laughed at our shrinkage. In fact, Ludwin must have had Matrix-like vision when watching the pilot, because to be as blunt as possible, it stunk.
As one of the many people who still watches Seinfeld reruns daily on TBS, I admittedly cringe when the network resets the series and airs episodes from the first two seasons, as well as some of the third. (“The Dog” and “The Fix-Up” are two of my least favorite episodes, but “The Boyfriend” and “The Pez Dispenser” are two of my favorites, so go figure.) The first season, though, is impossible to watch, not because it’s necessarily terrible, but when you’ve watched the entire season more times than the number of years you’ve been alive, you can’t go from watching Kramer drop a rubber ball filled with oil out of a window to him spoiling the Mets game for Jerry. In Season 1, Michael Richards was still way more Stanley Spadowski than he was “Kessler,” which was Kramer’s original name (that was later jokingly explained away in “The Betrayal”). And George… hoo boy. George was the f*cking worst.
That’s the thing about almost every pilot and first season, though. They’re always terrible once you watched a show’s glory years. I love Parks and Recreation but I flat out refuse to watch the first season, and there are a few 30 Rock episodes that haven’t aged well. Even going back and watching old episodes of Cheers (which rounds out my threeway tie with Seinfeld and 30 Rock for the greatest sitcom of all-time) is off-putting because Ted Danson’s chest hair threatens my manliness. But just as anniversaries are about celebrating and remembering, I believe they’re about second chances. Or, in this case, 159th chances.
This morning, I put on my best pair of sweatpants and made myself a bowl of cereal – I had no velvet to ensconce myself in, sadly – and I watched the pilot episode of Seinfeld once again to see if it is still as bad as I’ve always remembered it to be. Short answer: Yes, but… Long answer: Let’s go ahead and break it down.
So Much Standup
Like most sitcom episodes, the Seinfeld pilot was about 22 minutes long, but most sitcoms don’t feature random standup routines breaking up the monotony of the characters’ daily nonsense. The pilot featured four standup bits that were :54, 1:16, 1:37 and 1:48 in length, give or take a few seconds for my bad math. That’s about five and a half minutes of standup or a quarter of the episode. I guess it’s important to establish that Jerry is a standup comic in the first episode so people know that he’s supposed to be funny and insightful when he’s not being ridiculously insecure and pathetic.
Still, one of the original complaints from viewers was that the witty standup material was being interrupted by the boring fluff in between, so they probably learned to focus on developing the characters a little more.
Introducing George Costanza
What a time 1990 must have been for Jason Alexander. Between wanting him to be punched in the face in Pretty Woman, and then celebrating when he was bitten and punched in the face for being a Rapey McRaperson, I can’t imagine that people were excited when the Seinfeld pilot was shown a second time, but he at least added a little star power. I’d love to know if anyone watched Pretty Woman in theaters in March and then tuned in to NBC in June and saw Alexander’s face and thought, “That’s the obnoxious, annoying rapey dude from Pretty Woman! I can’t imagine he gets any more annoying,” and then watched in shock as he did.
Early George Costanza was a horrible character. Even watching it this morning, I was thinking, “What kind of pathetic human being needs this bossy, whiny dick hanging around him 24/7?” I kept hoping Julia Roberts would pop up and bite him again. Also, what the hell is he wearing here:
Is that something from the Sears amateur bowling collection? Of the outfits that he wore in this episode, the purple shirt was the least offensive, and yet the button on it somehow ended up becoming the Alpha and the Omega of the series. Simply fascinating.
What was also interesting about the George and Jerry dynamic was that in between the standup bits, they were both in two public locations, where they displayed one of my favorite least favorite TV tropes – “This world is ours, you’re just living in it.” The laundromat is fantastic because the background extras are in on it, even stopping what they’re doing to react to Jerry’s nonstop whining about this girl Laura from Michigan. But the airport scene reminded me of the thing that drove me nuts about Friends, how there’s a core group of people dominating one spot with their loud conversations and stupid antics, and not a single person stops them and says, “Yo, shut the f*ck up!”
In fairness, that might just be my own personal problem of believing that everyone should speak in six-inch voices in public settings. Shout out to my third grade teacher for instilling that in me, whatever that old lady’s name was.
And What About that Kramer Guy?
Again, “The Betrayal” taught us about how Jerry and Kramer originally met as neighbors, when Jerry made the mistake of telling Cosmo that he’s welcome to anything in his apartment. I never thought that Kramer came into his own and became a spectacular character until after that whole Los Angeles plot that was as forgettable as anything from the first two seasons. But in this first episode, he was already at 100% with the tactlessness and mooching, and he even had the quirky mannerisms going. If anything, I think he was still somewhere in the middle of evolving Spadowski into an intelligent idiot, so that didn’t stop him from coming off as a total a-hole.
If this show had remained a sausage fest between Jerry, George and Kramer, it probably would have been awful based on the pilot versions of their characters. Well, unless…
Kramer Had a Dog
I always forget that Kramer had a dog that drank from Jerry’s toilet. What if that dog had talked? I think that would have been pretty amazing.
There’s No Elaine, Only Claire
The original plan for Seinfeld was to develop Claire the professional waitress as the main female presence on the show, and she certainly had the sassiness of a modern Flo, what with her sneaky switching of the caffeinated and decaf coffee on George. Yeah, that would have remained fresh over the course of 10 seasons. Not (#SickBurn). Fortunately, just to make sure there was a little something extra to break up Jerry’s whining, George’s general obnoxiousness and Kramer’s aloof stupidity, they’d add Elaine Benes for the first season’s fourth episode, “Male Unbonding,” so she could be equally awkward in her development.
Also, Laura is Visiting from Michigan
Absent from my very scientific ranking of Jerry’s girlfriends was Laura, the strangely-dressed woman whom Jerry met in Michigan and then whined about to George when she let him know she’d be visiting. If Jerry had been as uncertain and pathetic with all of his eventual girlfriends as he was with the confusing and ultimately engaged Laura, he’d have ended up marrying Corinne after “The Marine Biologist,” and settled for a lifetime of her verbal and physical abuse.
Side note: Corinne was the worst. How the hell was Jerry trying to get with her at any point? That was easily one of the most unbelievable moments of the entire series. George pulling a golf ball out of a whale’s blowhole was more believable. Kramer turning a lesbian was more believable. It still drives me nuts.
Final Updated Grade: C+
Maybe it’s because anniversaries like this get me feeling even more nostalgic than usual*, but I enjoyed the pilot a lot more this morning than I have in the past. There’s a good chance that I just remembered it being terrible and that’s why I’ve refused to watch it for so long, but it was definitely a lot better this time. It still wasn’t all that great, and I’d have never watched the second episode in 1990 based on how terribly annoying George was, but I’m glad that one NBC exec had the balls to let it find its place on TV.
*Stay tuned for my new series, “Hey, Remember This Specific Day In 1992?” which debuts on NBC’s new “Worst Ideas Wednesdays” this fall.