For nine years, Seinfeld set the standard in TV comedy, earning raves from critics and fans while leaving a legacy that’s still being chased by all comers. With that said, Seinfeld wasn’t perfect, and the show suffered a huge loss when Larry David resigned as the showrunner after its seventh season, leading to its most imperfect period as Jerry Seinfeld took full creative control of the show. Here’s a look at some of the reasons for that stumble in quality…
The Show No Longer Began With Jerry’s Stand-Up Routine
This may seem like an insignificant change, but it’s fairly indicative of the direction that the show was going in. For it’s first seven seasons, Seinfeld was grounded firmly as a show about a moderately successful comedian and his silly group of friends. As we all know, it was a “show about nothing,” but it was also a show about the average, everyday adventures and annoyances that we all experience; like being stuck in a parking garage and waiting forever for a table at a restaurant. Seinfeld took those typical happenings and tweaked them just enough to turn them into memorable comedy moments that retained their relatability. Which is not an easy line to walk.
During those last two seasons, the show began to slowly venture away from that foundation, heading toward wackier territory. How did the disappearance of the stand-up bits foreshadow this? Because it was a subtle indicator that seemingly big parts of the show — like Jerry’s occupation — were no longer as crucial as they had been in the past. The show was more about Jerry and the gang’s increasingly wacky adventures.
The Show Became A Bit More Surreal
The surrealism that was on display shows the more fantastical and broad realm that the show was heading toward. Under Larry David’s direction, Seinfeld was a semi-realistic depiction of New York life. Now, the show was willing to flirt with pure fantasy. Consider “The Frogger,” in which George attempts to preserve his Frogger high score by carrying a giant arcade machine across the street. The scene is filmed to look like the Frogger video game as George tries to avoid getting splattered by passing traffic. It’s the kind of not particularly realistic moment that would have seemed out of place in the early years, but which had become surprisingly common towards the end of the show’s run.
“The Chicken Roaster,” is another example of this. Kramer slides toward insanity in the episode, thanks to the beams of light coming off the Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant sign. Obviously, Kramer had always been a bit off-the-wall, but the writers took it to another level by doing a “switcheroo” episode that put Jerry in Kramer’s apartment and, for the most part, into his character. While it may feel in character for Kramer to give himself to a chicken chain despite its mind warping sign, does Jerry becoming Kramer feel like the kind of more grounded story that dominated in the early days of the show?
What about, “The Butter Shave?” Here, Kramer begins using butter as shaving cream and enjoys it so much that he spreads butter all over his body, not realizing that he will begin to cook after laying out in the sun. This, of course, leads to a disturbed Newman seeing Kramer as a turkey in a memorable moment and an out-of-character sight gag for the show.
The Show Tried A Little Too Hard To Create Memorable Catchphrases And Moments
Seinfeld had plenty of memorable catchphrases that earned their place in the lexicon during it’s nine-year run, with “spongeworthy” and “master of your domain” ranking among the best. But during the last two seasons, the show seemed driven in its effort to find any phrase that might catch on with the public. Take, for instance, “The Yada Yada,” which aired in April of 1997 near the end of the second-to-last season. After that episode, the saying instantly gained popularity and became a common catchphrase; but when you consider how many times it was said in the episode, and how the idea was repeated endlessly, it felt like a self-conscious attempt to create “a thing.” They doubtlessly succeeded, but it felt un-organic.
Continuing this theme, let’s look at Elaine’s terrible dancing (above) in “The Little Kicks.” Elaine’s dancing isn’t just bad, it’s legendarily terrible. Everyone remembers the scene, and it became an iconic moment for the show, but no one dances like that in real life. I mean, I’m a pretty awful dancer myself, but no one dances like that. Once again, the show seemed to be self-consciously trying to make something happen. It was the late ’90s equivalent of trying to “go viral.” Honestly, I’m surprised Julia Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t re-enacted this scene with Jimmy Fallon. I’m sure it’s coming.
Episodes Tended To Rely On A Particular Gimmick Or Broad Phrases And Concepts
We discussed “The Frogger” earlier, and, quite honestly, it’s not a bad episode, but everything that happens before George tries to cross the street with the Frogger machine is a set-up to that one sight gag.
Another Season 9 episode, “The Merv Griffin Show,” finds Kramer discovering the set pieces from The Merv Griffin Show inside a dumpster. Naturally, Kramer then takes and uses these bits to recreate the set so he can film his own talk show in his apartment. Again, not a bad episode, but it’s clearly based on nostalgia and novelty: “Hey, look. The Seinfeld gang is hanging out on the Merv Griffin set! How whimsical!” With that said, at least it’s a full concept. Many of the Seasons 8 and 9 episodes seem as though they were constructed to service a specific phrase. “Serenity Now!” for instance.
The show also seemed to draw inspiration from itself in the later years. Elaine dating a guy who is the opposite of Jerry in the Season 8 episode, “The Bizarro Jerry,” seems like it’s in the same family as the Season 9 episode, “The Cartoon,” where George dates a girl that looks like Jerry, does it not?
Did Seinfeld get significantly worse without Larry David around? It depends on your perspective. The show was still funny in its final two seasons, and it still created a lot of memorable moments. But it’s hard not to look at this era and see that the show was laboring to create iconic episodes and scenes while losing its ability to put out naturally brilliant episodes like “The Contest” and “The Puffy Shirt.” Maybe that’s a direct result of David’s exit, or maybe the expectations tripped up the show and forced Seinfeld to be what the remaining creative team thought people expected and not what they, themselves, wanted it to be.
Either way, you have to wonder if Jerry Seinfeld was aware of this, and if it had something to do with why he walked away from a boatload of money and TV’s top-rated comedy after just two seasons without David. And while audiences may have clamored for more Seinfeld at the time, in retrospect, it seems like Jerry Seinfeld made the right call. Had Seinfeld carried on without David any longer, it would have veered dangerously close to self-parody.