Very Strange Facts About ‘Seinfeld’: From 'Nothing' to One of TV's Biggest Success Stories
Seinfeld debuted on NBC on July 5, 1989. And then? Nothing. The next episode didn’t air for another 330 days. Three more episodes followed. And then? Next to nothing. Another six months passed between the end of Season 1 and the start of Season 2. And then? Not nothing, exactly, but not fireworks, either. Another four years passed before Seinfeld reached No. 1 in the TV ratings.
Arguably no other show that would be labeled iconic, that would dominate the pop-culture discussion, and that would end its run before a Super Bowl-sized audience, took a stranger, more meandering path to success. And that’s hardly the only weird thing about how Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards) came to be something special.
Here’s the weird story of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
1. Getting fired -- and fired up
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Long Island, Jerry Seinfeld aspired to be a comic from boyhood. “I was not a very social kid, but I did get a TV in my room -- when my parents got a new TV, I got them to give me the old TV,” Seinfeld told The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast. “I had a TV in my room, and I never came out of the room again.”
After making his stand-up debut in 1976, Seinfeld was cast on the sitcom Benson. In 1980, Benson wasn’t what you’d call good TV, but it was hit TV -- and Seinfeld had a recurring role as a delivery guy. The young actor taped three episodes. When he showed up to work on his fourth, Jennifer Keishen Armstrong reported for her book, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, he was informed he’d been fired. “Never again,” Armstrong wrote, “he vowed.” If Seinfeld couldn’t control his TV destiny, like he could control the stand-up stage, he wasn’t going to do TV.
2. The late shift pays off
Another product of Brooklyn, Larry David got his start in TV as a writer-performer on Fridays, a would-be, Los Angeles-based Saturday Night Live. After the ABC show’s cancelation, David returned to New York, where he landed a writing gig on the real deal: NBC’s SNL. David liked the job, except when he hated it: None of his sketches were making it to air. One night in 1984, a few minutes before showtime, and after learning that yet another one of his bits had been cut, David told off then-producer Dick Ebersol, and quit. David immediately regretted the move, and a neighbor told him he should just show up for work the following week as if nothing had happened. David gave it a shot -- and it worked, at least, that is, until Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in 1985, and Ebersol’s hires were shown the door.
For his trouble in late-night TV, David scored paychecks, TV credits, lots of material -- and the acquaintance of actors such as Fridays’ Michael Richards and Saturday Night Live’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Oh, and the neighbor who gave David a crazy, but brilliant idea? A fellow by the name of Kenny Kramer.
3. No idea
By the late 1980s, Jerry Seinfeld had become a top-draw stand-up comic. True to his vow, he avoided TV, save for appearances on the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show and the like. Then his manager got Seinfeld a meeting with Brandon Tartikoff, then the chief of top-rated NBC. Things were about to change.
The meeting went well, and Tartikoff asked Seinfeld if he had any ideas for a TV show. Seinfeld said he didn’t. But, as it turned out, another comic friend of his did: Larry David.
4. The importance of fig bars and/or jelly in Korean delis
Back in New York, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were waiting in line at a Korean deli, riffing on, depending on the account, fig bars or jelly, when, as Seinfeld would tell the New Yorker, David told him, “This is what the show should be -- this is the kind of dialogue that we should do on the show.”
David's concept morphed from a special about two comics making fun of everything, to, per NBC’s request, a traditional, three-camera sitcom. But as things turned out, there would be nothing traditional about Seinfeld’s and David’s show.
5. The mystery of George
Then-NBC exec Warren Littlefield remembered reading Jerry Seinfeld’s and Larry David’s script, and thinking “what the hell?” But at least he was intrigued. A pilot was ordered, and casting was begun. Seinfeld, of course, was the lead; he would play a fictionalized version of himself. According to one widely reported account, an eclectic bunch of actors were considered for TV Jerry’s friend, George Constanza.
Among those reportedly under consideration were Danny DeVito, the 24-year-old Chris Rock, David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer, Nathan Lane, David Alan Grier, Brad Hall (a former SNL coworker of David’s and Louis-Dreyfus’ husband) -- and Steve Buscemi. There was one problem (or more?) with the story: Buscemi, for one, said he never auditioned.
6. The Woody Allen connection(s)
The teller of the tale about Steve Buscemi and the other reputed potential Georges was none other than Jason Alexander. When asked about the names he’d dropped in a 2015 Howard Stern interview, Alexander said he knows Chris Rock and Paul Shaffer were definitely in the mix.
Alexander said he scored the role the minute Larry David saw his audition tape, which featured the Tony-winning, Broadway star doing George as Woody Allen. David does indeed have a thing for Allen: He did his own best Allen in the filmmaker’s 2009 comedy, Whatever Works.
7. The world turned upside down
Character actor Steve Vinovich was among those who auditioned for the part of Jerry’s eccentric across-the-hall neighbor, Kessler -- a character inspired by, but not yet named for Larry David’s eccentric across-the-hall neighbor back in New York, Kenny Kramer.
Vinovich lost out to David’s former Fridays costar Michael Richards, he said, because Richards’ take on the character was just plain funnier. Another possible factor in Richards’ favor: In the midst of his audition, Richards up and decided to do a headstand.
8. The other woman
When the pilot for Jerry Seinfeld's and Larry David's The Seinfeld Chronicles was shot, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was a series regular on another NBC sitcom, Day by Day. The already-booked actress didn't miss out on the chance to play Elaine Benes -- because Elaine Benes didn’t exist.
The Seinfeld Chronicles pilot script called for Jerry and George to banter about decaf with a waitress pal named Claire -- at place called Pete’s Luncheonette. Character actress Lee Garlington won the starring role of Claire.
9. Failure? What failure?
A given in Seinfeld lore is that the show was a flop before it became a hit. But while it’s true that the likes of Larry David and Jason Alexander didn’t have high hopes for the pilot being picked up as a series, and while it’s also true that test audiences were unimpressed (“No segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again,” an NBC research memo said, per TV Guide), this is also true: The 23-minute Seinfeld Chronicles pilot won the network-screening room.
Jerry and George discussing the placement of shirt buttons? Jerry and George discussing relationship signals in the laundry? Execs laughed! Or, at least most of them did.
NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff famously was not a fan: He found Jerry and friends “too New York, too Jewish.” According to TV Guide, Tartikoff was “one of the few NBC honchos [who was] not sold on the show.”
10. The kiss of death
Ultimately, the test audience’s negative reactions toward the pilot outweighed NBC’s positive ones. The network put the brakes on the project; it did not order more episodes from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. But it wasn't exactly over, either.
The Seinfeld Chronicles pilot was packaged as a “new comedy special,” and aired in what Rick Ludwin, another Seinfeld fan in the NBC executive suite, called “garbage dump theatre”: the middle of the summer -- on July 5, 1989.
11. Creative financing saves
The pilot scored fair ratings for 1989: 15.4 million viewers. It notched a 21st-place, TV-rankings finish, just behind a rerun of Growing Pains. Jerry Seinfeld was noted as telling the New York Times that he hoped The Seinfeld Chronicles would be picked up for the 1989-1990 TV season. But he needed some help. And he was about to get it.
After the pilot's air date, NBC’s Warren Littlefield and Rick Ludwin moved around money in their development budget -- and found the cash to have Seinfeld and Larry David make four new episodes. It was on.
12. Cruel twist of fate
In TV, when a show moves from the pilot stage to a full-fledged series, it's a great day for the actors who are moving along with the project. And it's a potentially crushing day for those who aren't. The Seinfeld Chronicles was no different. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David had a lot decisions to make.
One change was painless. After the pilot, Kenny Kramer gave Seinfeld and David his blessing, and the Kessler character became Kramer. Pete’s Luncheonette, meanwhile, was written out altogether, to be replaced by Monk’s Diner. Claire the waitress was written out, too. Lee Garlington, as it turned out, made her first -- and last -- Seinfeld appearance on the pilot.
13. Things best left unsaid?
Jason Alexander recalled to Access Hollywood that Lee Garlington was doomed after she rewrote Larry David’s dialogue. Warren Littlefield, weighing in, said Claire (and, in turn, Garlington) had to go because Jerry, George and Kessler-turned-Kramer could only interact with the character if they were at the restaurant. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, told the New Yorker that Seinfeld and David got their episode order on the promise that they’d add a “real female character.”
As for Garlington? To hear her explain it, she was the victim of standard pilot-to-series reshuffling -- her contract just wasn’t picked up. She’s gone onto plenty of other work, and while she doesn’t dwell on the gig that got away, she’s never totally escaped it, either. Jason Alexander is “best friends with a friend of mine,” Garlington has said, and she sees him all the time. And not once, over the years, according to Garlington, have she and Alexander discussed whatever happened to the waitress who once --- and only once -- slung jokes with Jerry and George.
14. The importance of Alex P. Keaton
Even with Claire the waitress gone, and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David cooking up a new role, Julia Louis-Dreyfus might not have been on the market had it not been for an apparently unrelated show: Family Ties.
The Michael J. Fox sitcom shared a creator, as well as character tie-ins, with the two-year-old Day by Day. (Louis-Dreyfus even guest-starred on it once.) When Family Ties sent Fox’s iconic young Republican character to Wall Street, and ended its seven-season run in May 1989, NBC canceled its lower-rated cousin, too. Louis-Dreyfus was a free agent. But not for long.
15. The Almost-Elaines
A thirtysomething Patricia Heaton and a twentysomething Rosie O’Donnell auditioned for Jerry Seinfeld’s and Larry David’s new character creation, Elaine. So did a former college flame of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ husband: a pre-Will & Grace Megan Mullaly.
"Isn't that weird?" Mullally told Andy Cohen on Bravo's Watch What Happens Live. "I went in just a couple of times [to read with Seinfeld]. … [W]e had really good chemistry and everything, so I actually thought I was going to get it. I didn't get it. Spoiler alert."
16. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day
NBC honchos loved the idea of Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the Seinfeld series. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David did, too. Louis-Dreyfus, however, wasn’t sure. As related in a New Yorker profile, she liked Seinfeld’s and David’s writing, but the actress didn’t like that Elaine wasn’t much of factor in two of the four new scripts. It took a bowl of cereal to change her mind.
See, the skeptical Louis-Dreyfus took a meeting with Seinfeld and David, and she was soon won over. The difference-maker, she said, was that Seinfeld ate cereal during the meeting. Louis-Dreyfus thought the act made him seem “very young and casual, in a way that was appealing.”
17. The theme song you don’t know -- and the one other one you don’t really know, either
The Seinfeld Chronicles pilot featured a jazzy, keyboard-driven tune by composer Jep Epstein. For the new episodes, a new sound was sought. You may think the result was Seinfeld's signature bass-slap riff, but you'd be wrong in a way.
For the new assignment, composer Jonathan Wolff told Vice, Jerry Seinfeld told Wolff he wanted “some kind of signature, identifiable, quirky music.” Wolff produced a slap-bass riff by sampling “the organic human sounds from my lips and tongue.” Seinfeld bought it. And, yes, that's right: TV's most famous bass-guitar riff doesn't feature any bass guitar.
18. The show that literally turned Seinfeld into Seinfeld
On April 4, 1990, ABC premiered a comedy series about a high-school-aged New Yorker and his observations on life and love. Critics were generally kind, but audiences were indifferent. Were it not for one thing, the short-lived sitcom, which provided a minor, early-career role for Adam Sandler, would be lost to the TV ages. The one thing? Its name: The Marshall Chronicles.
Before the show’s seven episodes were done making it to air, The Seinfeld Chronicles, which was set to begin showing off its new episodes on NBC on May 31, 1990, blinked. Its title was shortened. To Seinfeld.
19. The start of something big? Yes -- and no.
It was right there in black and white. The newly rechristened Seinfeld, with its new diner, new theme and new actress, was a “winner,” with critics, and also with viewers. “The Stakeout,” the first of four new episodes (which, with the pilot, would comprise Season 1), finished third in the weekly TV rankings.
The episode even went on to earn Seinfeld’s first Primetime Emmy nomination (for editing). The three episodes that followed were nearly as big in the ratings. Seinfeld won a second season. And then a funny thing happened to TV’s next big thing: When Season 2 opened on Jan. 23, 1991, the series suffered, in the future parlance of George, shrinkage.
20. Missing the point
Seinfeld's second season consisted of 12 episodes. The first, "The Ex-Girlfriend," was watched by 15.6 million viewers. The last, "The Busboy," was watched by 12.5 million.
As Seinfeld struggled, NBC grew impatient with the show’s ratings and form. The powers-that-be especially hated Season 2’s penultimate episode, “The Chinese Restaurant.” We now remember that installment as the series’ first signature show about nothing. But at the time execs howled. Their complaint? Nothing happened.
21. Inside joke
Given their agitation, the NBC execs probably didn’t appreciate that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s script for "The Chinese Restaurant" featured a sly nod to NBC history.
The inside joke happens when the waiter, played by James Hong, calls out for “Cartwright,” instead of “Costanza”; Cartwright was the surname of the TV clan from Bonanza, the network’s long-running TV Western.
22. Accidental history
While Seinfeld’s nothingness was initially unappreciated by NBC, its intricate, linked storytelling was initially ignored by viewers. The episode after “The Chinese Restaurant” was “The Busboy.” Owing to NBC’s overall pique with the series, it was banished to a summer air date where it got beat by a rerun of a crime show called Jake and the Fatman. “The Busboy” would go down as the second-least-watched Seinfeld from the show’s entire network run. Too bad viewers of 1991 missed history.
The episode involved a busboy (David Labiosa) and his cat. A boyfriend of Elaine’s figured into the episode's other plot. The storylines eventually linked -- the first time that had happened in the show. Larry David himself almost missed the significance of the episode. While writing the episode with Jerry Seinfeld, the BBC recounted, David “noticed the unrelated plotlines coincidentally crossing paths … and from then on he aimed to put this effect into every script.”
While Seinfeld's second season was a fitful one, ratings-wise, the show was renewed. Season 3 would prove to be pivotal. It was marked by series of firsts -- and an outsized rivalry.
Season 3 produced the series’ first Emmy wins (for writing and editing), its first Emmy nominations for acting (for Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander) and its first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series. It marked its first season with a fall premiere and a full, 23-episode network commitment. But it was also a season of same-old, same-old: Most weeks, it couldn’t beat Jake and the Fatman. “We would get closer,” Seinfeld told TV Guide of his show’s ratings rival, “and then he would get fatter and pull away."
24. Now you hear it, now you don’t
The first episode of Season 3, “The Note,” features scat singers doing what they do best: scat singing. Specifically, the scat singers riff over the Seinfeld theme. Composer Jonathan Wolff had simply wanted to try something different. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David liked the result, and gave their blessing. So, Seinfeld scat singers! But not for long.
The new-style theme did not jibe with NBC and Castle Rock Entertainment, which produced Seinfeld. Neither company had been aware of the innovation until after “The Note” aired, CBR.com recounted. The scat singers were subsequently ordered to scat, and “The Note” became the only Seinfeld episode with a theme song.
25. Mirror trick
“The Parking Garage” was another episode that defined Seinfeld on its long road to phenom status. The Season 3 episode finds Jerry and friends trapped in a parking garage in search of their car. You probably know the feeling -- the bad, bad feeling.
The inspiration for the episode was provided by the garage at Los Angeles’ Century Square Shopping Center (now Westfield Century City). The episode, however, was shot on Seinfeld’s usual set. The set was tricked-out with mirrors in order to allow episode director Tom Cherones to make it appear that Jerry's crew were trapped in a parking maze.
26. Retooling time
Seinfeld finished Season 3 as the 42nd most popular show on broadcast TV. And while that stat doesn't make the show sound all that popular, the series was sufficiently successful enough to warrant renewal. The new season would bring a new rival.
Seinfeld spent the first part of Season 4 getting beat by Home Improvement. (Its former nemesis, Jake and the Fatman, had ended after the 1991-1992 season.) On Jan. 27, 1993, the series hit a new low: Fewer than 12 million viewers tuned in to watch “The Visa.” A week later, Seinfeld aired “The Shoes,” and zoomed to what was then an all-time high of 26.9 million viewers. Something big had happened. Tim Taylor could hurt Seinfeld no more.
27. So. Much. Meta.
Midway through Season 4, Seinfeld was moved off Wednesday -- and away the top-rated Home Improvement. The series was relocated to Thursday after Cheers, a perennial Top 10 hit. But this was not where the Seinfeld-Cheers connection ends -- or starts.
In the Season 4 Seinfeld episode, "The Ticket," George takes a swipe at Cheers star Ted Danson: “I can't live knowing that Ted Danson makes that much more than me!” Danson apparently took no offense: He would later credit Larry David with changing his career for the better via David's Curb Your Enthusiasm.
28. It's about time
“The Shoes” aired on Feb. 4, 1993. The Nielsen lift that Seinfeld got from Cheers was immediate. From that point, Seinfeld was a ratings hit. The series never looked back. Yes, after three-and-a-half years, three-and-a-half seasons and 56 episodes, the series was an overnight sensation.
Larry David would use his new power to revisit Seinfeld’s history, and retrofit episodes so that (most) everything would match up once the series began its now-inevitable life in rerun syndication.
29. Take two
Larry David didn't rewrite Seinfeld history; he remade its history. The Seinfeld Chronicles title card and theme music from the pilot? Replaced with the classic Seinfeld logo and the slap-bass-style music of subsequent episodes. And that was just the start.
The off-camera voice for Newman that David did in Season 2’s “The Revenge”? Redone with the voice of Wayne Knight, who’d been cast in the role in Season 3’s “The Suicide.”
Season 4’s “The Handicap Spot,” featuring John Randolph as George’s father, Frank Costanza? Reshot with Jerry Stiller, who’d assumed the role starting in Season 5’s “The Puffy Shirt.”
30. The survivor
While veteran character actor John Randolph was erased from Seinfeld history, Phil Bruns got lucky. The actor played Jerry’s dad in Season 1’s “The Stakeout.” Barney Martin took on the recurring role starting with Season 2’s “The Pony Remark.” But unlike Randolph's turn as Frank Costanza, Bruns' work as Morty Seinfeld stands.
Larry David never reshot Bruns' scenes from "The Stakeout" with Martin. Why? Per one popular explanation, the other actors who’d appeared in “The Stakeout,” including Jerry Seinfeld, had physically changed too much by the time the reshoot project began in the mid-1990s.
31. When one door opens ...
Seinfeld was on a roll. By Season 5, it was the No. 3 show on TV. In Season 6, it was No. 1. And the show wasn't just adding fans, it was making memorable character after memorable character. There was J. Peterman. There was Jackie Chiles. And then there was Yev Kassem, aka the Soup Nazi.
Actor Larry Thomas played the role of the "No soup for you!"-spouting cook in the Season 7 episode named for his character. As The Hollywood Reporter would later describe it, Thomas might not have been available to land the gig had things gone better for him elsewhere. On the morning of his Seinfeld audition, Thomas learned he'd lost out on a one-line role for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
32. Comedy is brutal
On May 16, 1996, more than 33 million tuned in “The Invitations” to see Seinfeld kill off one of its main character’s fiancée with poisoned envelopes. The AV Club would call it “the show’s bleakest joke.” But maybe the bleakest joke came off-camera.
As he would relate to Howard Stern, Jason Alexander had chemistry trouble with Heidi Swedberg, the actress who played George's intended, Susan. “I couldn’t figure out how to play off her,” Alexander told Stern. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus cracked that Susan should be offed, Larry David ran with the joke -- and Susan was a goner.
33. Good night, everybody
By Christmas Day 1997, Seinfeld was averaging more than 30 million viewers a week, and minting nearly as many catchphrases. Per the New York Times, the show was no less than the “most popular television comedy of the 1990s.” And to its star, namesake and co-creator, that meant it was time to go.
''I wanted to end the show on the same kind of peak we've been doing it on for years,'' Seinfeld told the Times as he announced that his show’s ninth season would be its last. ''... For me, this is all about timing. My life is all about timing. As a comedian, my sense of timing is everything.'
34. Timing really is everything
Less than three months later after Jerry Seinfeld announced his intention to end Seinfeld, the show unspooled "The Burning." The episode, originally aired on March 19, 1998, presented one of the ultimate cases of art imitating life.
The episode features Jerry advising George about showmanship, about knowing when to leave the stage -- or office meeting. “When you hit that high note,” Jerry says, sounding an awful lot like the real Jerry Seinfeld, “you say goodnight and walk off.”
35. Thanks for nothing
The Seinfeld finale aired on May 14, 1998. A reported 76 million people watched Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine jailed for repeated crimes of pettiness. Among those in the audience were TV critics -- and many were not amused. While reviewers were among Seinfeld's earliest fans, they were among the last episode's biggest detractors.
"That was it? What was that all about anyway?" Marvin Kitman wrote in Newsday. Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker, meanwhile, judged that the finale was "[l]ike taking your doctoral exam in Seinology — and about as funny."
While many critics didn't get the Seinfeld finale, another famed TV showrunner totally understood -- understood, that is, how hard TV finales are to pull off.
36. Surprise ending
In 2012, The Sopranos creator David Chase talked series finales with the New York Times. "It's just very difficult to end a series," Chase said. The TV writer, of course, had come under fire for the cut-to-black ending he'd come up with for The Sopranos. All things considered, he liked the choices the Seinfeld finale had made.
“...[T]hey ended it with them all going to jail," Chase said to the Times. "Now that’s the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner.” Now, that would've been something.
37. Not about nothing
During its original run, Seinfeld cemented a legacy as a genre-changing show that made a pop-culture dent by smartly and hilariously being about nothing. But was it? Was it about nothing?
Back in 1989, a few weeks after the premiere of The Seinfeld Chronicles pilot, the New York Times interviewed Jerry Seinfeld about his show -- a show that the outlet did not describe as being about nothing. In fact, according to the Times, the show was very much about something: namely, the "single life.” Seinfeld seemingly concurred. "The singles scene is one of the main themes of life; it seems natural to talk about it,” he said.
38. The blame game
Decades on, Jerry Seinfeld would call Seinfeld's “show about nothing” label “nonsense.” “That was made up by the press,” he said on The Hollywood Reporter podcast Awards Chatter. But was it?
Even Seinfeld would concede the press got the idea from, well, Seinfeld -- specifically, the Season 4 episode, “The Pilot.” That's the one where Jerry and George hatch an idea to pitch NBC a show “about nothing.”
39. By George!
Sometimes, to see the future, all you have to do is look to the past. Jerry Seinfeld’s ultimate destiny, for instance, arguably was right there for all to see in the very first episode of Seinfeld.
During a scene in the pilot between Jerry and Kramer (then Kessler), a black-and-white photo can spied in Jerry's apartment. The man in the picture is the comic George Burns. TV Jerry was apparently a fan. The real Jerry Seinfeld was definitely a fan.
40. That's not all folks
While George Burns won an Oscar, he was was best known for going on and on like the Energizer bunny. The cigar-chomping Burns performed into his 90s, and was booked to play the London Palladium on his 100th. An injury ultimately prevented Burns from playing the gig on his centennial, but the comedy world, including those in Jerry Seinfeld's orbit, took to the idea.
In 2004, on the occasion of Seinfeld’s 50th birthday, George Shapiro, the star’s manager, revealed he’d booked his client to play the Palladium on April 29, 2054 -- the date of Seinfeld’s 100th birthday.