The world after 'Seinfeld'

Television was forever changed after the iconic show hit the airwaves a quarter century ago

ppemberton@thetribunenews.com; slinn@thetribunenews.comJanuary 16, 2014 

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

COURTESY PHOTO

Jerry Seinfeld is a great observational comic, but let’s face it, he doesn’t command $100 per ticket because of his jokes about cupholders, yo-yos and airport faucets.

It’s his iconic sitcom, which debuted 25 years ago, that made him the top-earning comic in 2013. (Last year, according to Forbes, Seinfeld earned $32 million from standup performances — twice as much as Louis CK, whose tickets go for $45 apiece.)

Sure, Seinfeld was a successful comic before he played a fictional version himself on “Seinfeld.” But as witty as he is onstage, audiences will forever associate him with the series, which was far more influential than one could expect from a “show about nothing.”

Here are some of the ways “Seinfeld” and its cast, which included Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes and Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, left a lasting impression on popular culture.

It made self-gratification less taboo

Co-creator Larry David figured “The Contest” would never air.

“I just thought NBC would say there was no way we’d let you do this show,” David told USA Today in 1993. “And I would quit over it.”

He was right about one thing: Not everyone was ready for an episode about, ah … well, you know — self-love. Before the show’s first airing in 1992, nine of 10 advertisers pulled out because, come on — you just didn’t talk about that stuff on prime time. Meanwhile, the American Family Association took out ads in newspapers, warning viewers not to watch “a 30-minute program promoting masturbation.”

In the episode, the “Seinfeld” crew makes a wager to see who can abstain from self-love the longest, only to find that self-restraint is not worth the money.

As research sociologist Stuart Michaels told the Chicago Tribune at the time, masturbation was “fairly universal” to human beings. Yet, if everyone was doing it in the early ’90s, they sure weren’t admitting it. Self-gratification was still taboo — something one might jokingly accuse someone else of doing even as they did it themselves.

Apparently, the episode provided a release for the pent-up public. By the time the show re-aired five months later, one in five households was watching, and advertisers were clamoring to buy airtime. At the office water coolers the next day, co-workers jokingly asked each other if they were “masters of their domain,” proving that masturbation had finally come out of the closet.

It fostered acceptance of homosexuality

In the late ’80s, according to one academic study, roughly 70 percent of Americans believed homosexuality was “always wrong.” Yet, after watching the 1993 episode “The Outing,” Americans everywhere would amend discussions about homosexuality with the catch phrase, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

The episode proved to be ahead of its time, and members of the LGBT community often praised it for raising acceptance. But even as it seemed to promote tolerance, it also affirmed society’s fears of homosexuality.

In the episode, a journalist mistakenly believes Jerry and George are gay lovers, creating a conundrum: While Jerry and George desperately don’t want others to think they are gay, in an era of intensifying political correctness they also don’t want to be seen as homophobic. Hence, each time they adamantly deny being gay, they quickly add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Several academic papers dissected the episode, one concluding that Jerry and George “are so insecure about their virility that they use gayness to prove to themselves what they are not.”

Sure. But more importantly, the episode got people talking about homosexuality and realizing that, yeah, maybe there’s not anything wrong with that.

It changed the way we speak

If you’ve ever “re-gifted” a present, fretted about “double-dipping” a chip or shouted “No soup for you!” you’ve experienced the linguistic power of “Seinfeld.”

In the course of its nine seasons, the show enriched the English language with a seemingly endless supply of catch phrases, popularizing some terms and inventing others. It gave us new ways to describe apparel (“manssiere”/“bro”), body parts (“man hands”), conversational styles (“close,” “high” and “low talkers”) and the unfortunate effect of cold water on one’s, ahem, member (“shrinkage”).

Characters’ individual catch phrases also entered the lexicon, ranging from Elaine’s exuberant “Get out!” to Jerry’s sneering “Hello, Newman!” It’s difficult to picture George’s father, Frank Costanza, without hearing his anger management mantra, “Serenity now!”

And who could forget “yada yada yada,” the slang equivalent of “and so on” or “et cetera?” That phrase showed up in the same episode that brought us the term “anti-dentite,” meaning someone who dislikes dentists.

As for the other phrases mentioned, “re-gifting” means passing along an unwanted gift to someone else, while “double-dipping” is the socially taboo practice of dunking a half-eaten foodstuff into dip.

And “No soup for you?” That was the cry of the infamous Soup Nazi.

It created a holiday for the rest of us

For those fed up with the commercialism of Christmas, the nonsecular holiday Festivus offers an alternative way to celebrate the season.

“Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man,” Frank Costanza (Jerry Stiller) explained in the 1997 episode “The Strike” “As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way. …

“A new holiday was born … a Festivus for the rest of us!”

In reality, Festivus was created by “Seinfeld” scriptwriter Dan O’Keefe. As O’Keefe explained in his book “The Real Festivus: The True Story Behind America’s Favorite Made-Up Holiday,” the idea stemmed from an actual family tradition.

Celebrated on Dec. 23, Festivus includes the airing of grievances during dinner followed by feats of strength. (The holiday only ends when a guest manages to pin the host.) In place of a Christmas tree, there’s a plain, unadorned aluminum pole.

Festivus has gained considerable ground in recent years, as sales of Festivus poles, hats, T-shirts and greeting cards have skyrocketed.

In December, about 100 people gathered around a Festivus pole at the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison to speak out about beer, sports and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. And atheist Chaz Stevens erected a 6-foot-tall pole made of beer cans in Tallahassee, Fla., to protest an elaborate nativity scene at the Florida capitol.

Even Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul got in the act, airing his grievances via Twitter.

It changed television forever

Although many people jokingly refer to “Seinfeld” as a “show about nothing,” its co-creators never saw the show as anything so simplistic.

“To us, it’s the opposite of that,” Seinfeld recently wrote on Reddit.com.

In an era rife with workplace comedies and family farces, David and Seinfeld designed “Seinfeld” as a sitcom centered on a singular premise: “Where does a stand-up comedian draw inspiration from?” In an original twist, the comic served as the straight man in the face of his friends’ increasingly wacky antics.

Each episode featured the four main characters following separate and seemingly unrelated plot threads — often gleaned from the writers’ personal experiences — that inevitably turn out to be linked.

Continuity was key, as evidenced by frequent callbacks, recurring characters and running jokes.

So was David’s insistence that there be “No hugging, no learning.” As Entertainment Weekly television critic Ken Tucker wrote in 1998, “Seinfeld” featured “a group dynamic rooted in jealousy, rage, insecurity, despair, hopelessness, and a touching lack of faith in one’s fellow human beings.”

The show pushed physical boundaries as well as emotional ones. “We took the sitcom off the stage,” Seinfeld said in 1999. “Every week we were outside. That had never been done before.”

Most importantly, “Seinfeld” achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success — dominating the Nielsen ratings for much of the ’90s. The show won an Emmy Award in 1993, a Golden Globe Award in 1994 and Screen Actors Guild awards in 1995, 1997 and 1998. No wonder TV Guide named “Seinfeld” the greatest TV show of all time in 2013.

IF YOU GO

Jerry Seinfeld
7 and 9:30 p.m. Jan. 23
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$99 to $135
756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org

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