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Still Nothing to It, Still Nothing Like It: 'Seinfeld' Debuts on DVD

By Tom Shales
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page C01

If you think you're nostalgic about "Seinfeld," imagine how NBC feels. The sitcom was once an important building block in NBC's indomitable Thursday night lineup, part of a profitable tradition that went back to the 1980s, when "The Cosby Show" was the kind of pivotal hit that "Seinfeld" later became.

It's common now for CBS to beat NBC and win Thursday nights, bringing the once-mighty peacock to its knees -- if peacocks have knees, that is. The loss of "Friends" hurt the network competitively too, of course, but "Seinfeld" was the jewel in the crown, a show with broad popular appeal and a glittering critical reputation.

Elaine obsesses over the meaning of a New Yorker cartoon in a '98 episode. (J. Cohen)

_____More on 'Seinfeld'_____
Seinfeld Leaves His Mark on History (The Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2004)
'Seinfeld': A DVD About Something (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 16, 2004)
Get Out! 'Seinfeld' on DVD (The Washington Post, Nov. 21, 2004)

Today it's possible to watch "Seinfeld" reruns every day, two or three times a day in some markets. "Seinfeld" has become the "I Love Lucy" of its era; most of the episodes can be watched over and over and still be funny. For those who can't get enough even with all the reruns, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has come to the rescue with "Seinfeld," the first of several planned sets of uncut "Seinfeld" episodes on DVD. The package, released Tuesday, contains hours of "extras," among them interview snippets with Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, who created the show; many others who appeared on the show; and such rarities as the original pilot, which looks little like "Seinfeld" as America came to know and love it.

Tonight NBC celebrates "Seinfeld" -- or perhaps celebrates (i.e., plugs) the DVD release -- with a one-hour special, "The 'Seinfeld' Story," at 10 on Channel 4, presumably one of the last things to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving day. By uncanny coincidence, however, the interview clips in the special are the same interview clips one finds on the DVDs; they're just shorter, usually, and there are far fewer of them. What we really have here is an example of cross-promotion, but it's hard to get one's dander up while laughing, and as always, "Seinfeld" even chopped into pieces and served up like a comedy tossed salad will make you laugh.

Our joy over "Seinfeld's" success is nothing, of course, compared with that of David and Seinfeld, who were the key creative forces and who by now may have been enriched to the tune (oh happy tune) of $1 billion each. Yes, it's quite possible; a sitcom in first run profits the network, but a sitcom in reruns profits those who made it. Neither David nor Seinfeld needs ever work again, but that has hardly stopped them. Seinfeld continues to do hilarious, diamond-bright comedy concerts and David produces and stars in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," a partly improvised and cleverly innovative sitcom on HBO.

Larry David is famous for being a neurotic sourpuss, but even he must have by now allowed himself moments of unbridled glee. Hey, even if there was some bridling, it would take an awful lot of it to tarnish the experience. When NBC approached Seinfeld about doing a series in the first place, and Seinfeld approached David about joining him, David reacted with his usual droopy nonchalance: "I didn't have any money, and I said, 'Sure, fine.' "

The special tonight and the DVDs (which are hugely confusing to navigate through) tell us plenty about "Seinfeld" that even we loyalists may not have known: It originally was to air as a one-time 90-minute special in the "Saturday Night Live" time slot; Rosie O'Donnell was among those considered for the role of Elaine before it went -- thank heaven -- to the adorably funny Julia Louis-Dreyfus; David and Seinfeld concocted the formula for the show while eating at diners and shopping at a Korean grocery store; Cosmo Kramer, played by the very serious and Emmy-winning Michael Richards, is based on Kenny Kramer, a neighbor of David's in New York who is among those commenting.

Making wisecracks to one another in the diners and the Korean grocery store eventually inspired David to tell Seinfeld, "This is what the show should be: just making fun of stuff." Seinfeld liked the idea of filling it with "nonsense and idiotic conversations." The first version of the pilot that resulted from this new partnership, "The Seinfeld Chronicles," was "pretty disastrous" when screened for a sample audience, says former NBC president Warren Littlefield.

There are clips not only from early, primitive versions of the sitcom but also from such marginalia as Seinfeld's first appearance as a stand-up comic on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" on May 6, 1981. Johnny flashed Seinfeld the okay sign at the end of the routine and told him to "take a bow," and you can see Seinfeld, though hardly the emotional type, all but glowing with joy. Getting the nod from Johnny was like being knighted. Seinfeld was essentially being told: "You now have a career. It is yours to screw up or not."

When "Seinfeld" began, it was neither an instant hit nor an instant classic. In fact it tended to be talky and self-consciously weird. It took about three seasons for everything to jell and for the show to evolve into the masterpiece it became -- the jumble of plotlines that became a daffy tapestry by the time each episode came to a close. Instead of story "arcs" lasting a few weeks, the whole season might be an arc, with loose ends from several episodes tied up in the season finale. What you'd seen was an 11-hour, 22-act comedy movie, one with lulls and rough patches but also magnificent high points and tours de force, whether for Seinfeld, Richards, Louis-Dreyfus or the indefatigable Jason Alexander, whose manic portrayal of George Costanza was one of the greatest performances ever in situation comedy.

He never won an Emmy, unfairly enough, but then Richards won three in that category. They couldn't give Emmys to everybody on the program -- and yet, really, they should have found a way.

The DVD sorts out all the history, but then it somehow becomes all tangled up again. What survives and triumphs are those masters of their domain, the episodes themselves, and the insistently witty work that went into them. For years, network executives have waited for "The Next 'Seinfeld' " to come along. It hasn't. Maybe it never will. So far, the only "next 'Seinfeld' " is "Seinfeld" itself.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company