In her best-selling new book, “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” author and TV historian Jennifer Keishin Armstrong details the origin and lasting impact of “Seinfeld,” whose influence on TV and pop culture, more than any other show that premiered all the way back in the late ’80s, continues to this day.
“Seinfeldia,” according to Armstrong, describes the “special dimension of existence, somewhere between the show itself and real life,” where the show continues to live on in bizarre events like a 2014 minor league baseball game’s “Seinfeld” appreciation night — which saw three women convulsing on the diamond in competition for the best “Elaine dance” — or in the life of Kenny Kramer, the real-life inspiration for the show’s Kramer, who makes his living leading bus tours of “Seinfeld” sights in New York City.
Outside of its radically persistent fandom, “Seinfeld” was, more than anything, one of the most electrifying and influential programs in television’s history.
Business Insider talked to Armstrong recently about her book and how the show revolutionised the medium of television in ways that we still see today.
Read on to see five ways that “Seinfeld” changed the course of American TV:
In 'Seinfeldia,' Armstrong describes how 'Seinfeld' cocreator Larry David initially conceived of the program as a single-camera, film-like show without a studio audience, which would have been a radical departure from the television norms of its day.
'TV's so weird, really. In the beginning, the reason we have that weird sitcom, live-audience approach is because they basically didn't know what to do on TV at first, so they started doing plays,' Armstrong told Business Insider. 'They didn't understand that people might get it and not need audience members with them to help.'
Ultimately, David had to compromise on his vision, but 'Seinfeld's' innovative combination of multi-camera and single-camera footage still opened the floodgate of possibilities for cinematic television programs like AMC's 'Breaking Bad,' FX's 'Louie,' and the many other shows that have since utilised a single-camera approach.
'They just showed how cool it could look,' Armstrong said, describing the impact of the show's single-camera segments, like when the gang hits 'the town' -- a Los Angeles set built to look like New York City -- or searches for their car hopelessly in a parking garage for an entire episode. 'It was like a movie, and people got it even when they were shooting on location.'
The lasting cultural and financial impact of 'Seinfeld' is evident in the show's years of lucrative reruns, its blockbuster Hulu deal, and in strange post-'Seinfeld' stories like Kenny Kramer and his bus tour.
''Seinfeld' really created its own economy,' Armstrong said. 'And it keeps going. The thing is almost like a money-printing machine at this point, for anyone who gets involved with anything to do with 'Seinfeld.''
The show was a massive financial success during most of its years on the air, making NBC $A187 million per year at its peak. By the ninth and final season, Jerry Seinfeld was earning $A1.3 million per episode. NBC executives tried to get Seinfeld to return for a tenth season by offering him $A6.25 million per episode, but the comic turned it down.
Nonetheless, the show's high-stakes negotiations had already changed the way that other successful shows, like NBC's 'Friends,' would have to pay their stars.
'(The 'Friends' cast) famously asked for a million dollars per episode for all of them, and in solidarity, none of them would sign unless they all got it,' Armstrong said. 'And I think the precedent was Jerry Seinfeld.'
In its fourth season, 'Seinfeld' deftly took on a taboo subject in the masturbation-centric episode 'The Contest.' At the time, censorship and social mores wouldn't allow the show to say 'masturbation' outright, so the four friends instead competed to see who could remain the 'master of their domain.'
'('Seinfeld') gave us ways to talk about these weird little parts of life that were kind of not talked about at the time,' Armstrong said. 'You wouldn't want to talk about masturbation, per se, in mixed company as they say, but to say 'master of my domain' makes it funny and makes you able to kind of talk about it in polite society.'
Armstrong explained how 'The Show About Nothing' achieved its universal appeal and lasting influence through Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld's innovative approach to comedy that paradoxically speaks to everyone.
'The 'nothingness' that they talk about being about is really not nothing,' Armstrong said. 'It's actually everyday stuff. And I think that's what keeps us coming back to it, and that made it a hit, a fairly widespread mainstream hit at the time. Yeah, they may be sort of elite New Yorkers. They might not be the best, most admirable people. But they're dealing with these everyday irritations that we all really relate to.'
In the series finale, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are put on trail and ultimately imprisoned for all of their 'wrongdoings' throughout the show's nine seasons.
Many fans were disappointed by the finale and resented that the series ended with their favourite characters in such a predicament, but Larry David, who wrote the episode, wanted to demonstrate that the four friends were actually bad people all along.
At the time, people weren't used to rooting for an 'antihero.' And black comedy was reserved for indie movies, not network TV.
'I think they helped bring in that 'antihero' phase that we got so strongly starting with 'The Sopranos,'' Armstrong said about the finale. 'They really laid the groundwork for the idea that Americans are perfectly fine with watching main characters who are not necessarily grand heroes.'
With its rapid-paced, quick-cutting, music-led style, 'Seinfeld' was ahead of its time in the 1990s, leading to frenetic hit shows like 'Arrested Development,' '30 Rock,' and 'Parks and Recreation.'
'I think 'Seinfeld' was really sort of a harbinger of the way we watch television now,' Armstrong said. 'It's more of the aesthetic of what television is now, versus what TV looked like when it started in the '90s.'
The show also experimented with complex story structures that hadn't previously existed on television, but which have since become the norm.
'They didn't have just an 'A-B' storyline, even though it's 22 minutes,' Armstrong said. 'There's an 'A-B-C-and-D' story. There's a lot. They really packed a lot in and also made sure that sitcoms could be smart, and since then we've had a lot of fascinating, innovative half-hour shows.'
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