‘Seinfeld’ at 25: How the show about nothing became a huge hit

Earlier this week, a former NBC sitcom made headlines by improbably returning from the dead, thanks to a website most people didn't even know was in the streaming video business. But the story of how “Community” will live again on Yahoo isn't nearly as far-fetched as the tale of another NBC Thursday sitcom, which few of the executives at the network understood, which was considered too weird and self-referential to ever succeed, and which – unlike “Community,” the little cult engine that could – actually turned into the most popular show on television.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Let's look back at some of the key markers on the road from when NBC premiered a pilot called “The Seinfeld Chronicles” – 25 years ago this Saturday, in fact – to when the show that became “Seinfeld” turned into a pop culture-altering smash:

* On July 5, 1989, NBC aired “The Seinfeld Chronicles” pilot, starring Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comic who'd done well in several “Tonight Show” appearances, but who had a limited resume as an actor (he'd been fired from a small role on “Benson” a few years earlier) and even less as a writer (where he teamed up with his largely unemployable friend Larry David to create the show). “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” with Seinfeld as a fictionalized version of himself, obsessing on the minutiae of life, plays like a very rough outline for what the series would become under its shorter name: there's no Elaine, Kramer is called Kessler (and has a much more low-key, almost depressed demeanor), Jerry and George hang out at a different coffee shop (and interact frequently with Claire the waitress, who was supposed to be the show's fourth main character), etc. This was back in the days when networks used the summer to air pilots they hadn't ordered to series, and NBC's then-president Brandon Tartikoff worried that it was “too Jewish.” Hence, the pilot airing after the season on the night after a national holiday, with no follow-up planned.

* Rick Ludwin, the head of late night, who had enjoyed Seinfeld's “Tonight” stints, saw some potential in the show. Though no one in primetime could do anything with “Seinfeld,” Ludwin scraped together some money from his own budget to produce four more episodes. (As Jason Alexander would describe it years later in “Top of the Rock,” former NBC president Warren Littlefield's chronicle of the Must-See TV era, “They ordered four episodes. The whopping four. The confidence four.”) His department would oversee “Seinfeld” for its entire run, rather than the executives normally in charge of current primetime programming.

* The Confidence Four – with Julia Louis-Dreyfus added to the cast as Jerry's ex-girlfriend Elaine – didn't air until the following summer, after the end of the official network TV season. Again, this seemed to be the rest of NBC trying to dump Rick Ludwin's baby in an out-of-the-way place. Littlefield has also admitted that he thought the show wouldn't attract viewers away from the coasts.

* But the episodes happened to be airing after reruns of “Cheers” – then one of TV's biggest hits, and a comedy that performed well in repeats, back in the days when people still watched network repeats – and they did well enough that NBC finally ordered something more resembling an actual season: 13 episodes, which debuted the following spring.

* Executives, and many television critics, hadn't been without cause to be skeptical of the show in its early days. Of the five episodes that aired over that first year, only “The Stake Out” really resembles what the show would become, and it took until late into that 13-episode second season that the genius of the low-concept storylines became truly apparent. “The Chinese Restaurant” – plotless even by “Seinfeld” standards, with the entire episode involving the gang waiting to be seated for dinner – started to change minds in both the press and the executive ranks. Maybe Seinfeld and David really did know what they were doing, after all. And airing on Wednesday nights in-season, without the pressure of following “Cheers,” allowed the show to both get better and build word of mouth.

* This, in turn, made “Seinfeld” the ideal candidate to be groomed as a “Cheers” successor once Ted Danson announced his decision to call it quits as Sam Malone. NBC moved “Seinfeld” to Thursday nights midway through its classic fourth season – a season that gave us “The Contest” (the gang competes to see who can remain “master of their domain” the longest), “The Outing” (Jerry and George are mistaken for a gay couple by a reporter) and “The Junior Mint” (Kramer's desire to snack while observing surgery causes complications for Elaine's boyfriend), plus the year-long arc of Jerry and George trying to create a “show about nothing” very much like the one we were watching them on.

* In the five seasons after it succeeded “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” never ranked lower than third among all shows on television, was first overall twice, including in its final season – and could have stayed that way for several more years if Seinfeld, like Danson before him, hadn't decided to move on – and was hailed as one of the greatest comedies to ever air on television.

That is a ridiculous story, and one that was held up for years after as an example of the value of networks demonstrating patience with low-rated shows. If both “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” could go from worst to first, the theory went, why couldn't “Arrested Development” or “Parks and Recreation” or, well, “Community”?

Of course, the TV business has changed an awful lot in these 25 years. The audience is so fractured that it's hard to make anything a hit, and all but impossible for a marginal performer to become a success. Even something like “The Big Bang Theory,” which took several years to become a genuine hit, and a few more to become the monster it is today, was at least a solid performer from the start. It had a real audience base to build on.

Also, yesterday's marginal performer would be today's smash hit: in 1989, “The Seinfeld Chronicles” drew ratings comparable to what top hits like “The Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS” get today. If “Community” pulled in even the 17.7 million viewers “Seinfeld” averaged in its first full-length season, the fan catchphrase would be “16 seasons and a movie,” at least. It's easier to get from 17 million viewers to 30 than it is to get from 4 million to 17.

For a while after “Seinfeld” ended, there was silly talk of a “'Seinfeld' curse,” because Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards all starred in failed sitcoms. That wasn't a curse, but simply the law of averages. A monster hit like “Seinfeld” is the exception, not the norm, regardless of era. Few actors are lucky enough to star in one successful show, let alone two or three. And in time, actors and producers with “Seinfeld” DNA have done just fine for themselves. “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” created by and starring Larry David, has been a classic of this century for HBO. Louis-Dreyfus had a healthy run on “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and seems to have a stranglehold on Emmys for as long as “Veep” is around. Seinfeld himself is so rich he doesn't need to do another TV show, and instead does interesting little projects like his “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” web series.

Many networks tried to copy “Seinfeld,” including NBC. (Seinfeld always believed that “Friends” was a naked rip-off of his show, minus the rules he and David established against hugging and the learning of lessons.) But neither the show nor its bizarre path to success were easily replicable, other than on “Curb” (which is essentially about a world where George Costanza is obscenely wealthy and immune from consequence), which even managed to provide a better “Seinfeld” finale than the one David wrote for the original show. 

Which, again, speaks to what a weird, wonderful beast “Seinfeld” was. How did that show about nothing become something that everyone wanted to watch for a few years? Because it was great, but also because it was in the right place at the right time a bunch of times in a row. 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com