Thirty years ago this summer, Seinfeld hit the airwaves with two rules, or anti-rules really, for its writers: no hugs and no learning. These rules turned inside out the tenets of the classic American sitcom, which were always about hugs and, more or less overtly, about learning.
A show seemingly about everything, from Keith Hernandez to Snapple, Seinfeld is in an important sense a show about nothing, as the tagline from the episode "The Pilot" makes explicit. It is a show about characters whose lives lack any fundamental point or meaning: no real connection to others (no hugs) and no direction whatsoever (no learning).
In another sense, it is a show that was about pure comedy, particularly about humor expressed through witty articulation in speech. In its dialogue, Seinfeld is a throwback to old Hollywood comedic films and the routines of Abbott and Costello.
Looking back at the show now, it's interesting how these two purposes conflicted and cooperated to make Seinfeld both enduring and relevant to life today.
In the first sense, Seinfeld anticipated and reflected the malaise and disconnection of our contemporary world, where we find ourselves increasingly isolated from one another and from larger source of meaning and purpose. In the second sense, Seinfeld just made us laugh, whether through sophisticated irony in language or with the simplest physical comedy.
The show's care with language is especially noteworthy in its depiction of sexual matters. At a time when dimwitted stand-up comics opt for the crudely literal and crassly direct, Seinfeld, while hardly prudish, excelled at the art of suggestion.
The paradoxical character of Seinfeld's comedy is the result of an astonishingly successful creative alliance between two very different comedic geniuses: Larry David, whose nihilistic comic mentality is on full display in his own HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Jerry Seinfeld, whose verbal comic dexterity is prevalent in the lighthearted banter of his stand-up routine and in his popular show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Although it started slowly, Seinfeld gained both an enormous following and critical acclaim, ranking second in the Writers Guild of America list of best-written TV series. The top-ranked show is The Sopranos, making Seinfeld the best-written comedy ever. The writing, the physical comedy, and the chemistry among the characters could easily distract from the nihilism of the show's anti-rules, whose consequences are nonetheless palpable for anyone paying attention.
No hugs. Relationships inevitably break up and for the most trivial of matters. Marriage, which presupposes at a minimum the capacity to imagine a life intimately connected to another person, is impossible for these characters. Indifference to human suffering and loss is on display in nearly every episode — the most dramatic example of which is the callous and flippant response to the demise of George's fiancée, Susan.
No learning. As if to drive home this point, the final episode, with the characters in jail, has Jerry repeating a remark from the first episode about a button on George's shirt. Even a trial and jail have not taught these characters anything. The finale summed up what the unhappy but funny endings of nearly every episode had already indicated. The cruelty and narcissism of the characters would never get them what they wanted, and they would never learn anything from their failures.
In its focus on the miserable individualism of its main characters, Seinfeld anticipates the world we increasingly inhabit, a world in which our ties to one another and our faith in anything larger than ourselves seem tenuous at best.
Pop culture is at its most perceptive when it discovers latent features of our culture, things that are just beneath the surface, and draws them out through character, plot and dialogue. This show about nothing was ahead of its time in deeply insightful ways. It understood who we were becoming.
Yet in its sheer delight in comedic language, in the shared repartee among verbally skilled characters, it hearkens back to classic American entertainment.
Such a combination has never been seen before or after. Is it the best comedy ever? Perhaps. It certainly made us laugh.
And 30 years later, it's still making us think.
Thomas Hibbs is president of the University of Dallas and author of the book Shows About Nothing. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.