Test Pilot #51: Seinfeld
Debut date: July 5, 1989
Series legacy: One of the biggest and greatest sitcoms of all-time
First impressions mean a lot in television, and that’s why writers, producers, studios, networks, etc. put more time, effort and money into pilots than they do just about any other episode that could possibly be made. Obviously though, not all pilots are good – most are just mediocre and many are terrible – but the ingredients for a successful series remain, bubbling beneath the surface. Some of television’s most curious cases see great series come from pretty tepid pilot episodes. In the next five Test Pilot entries, we will explore a few of these cases of Bad Pilot, Good Series and think about what important changes each series made from one step to the other.
Welcome back to Test Pilot everyone. Hopefully you enjoyed the holiday yesterday and are now ready to read a little bit about a show you probably haven’t heard of before, Seinfeld. Even if you didn’t watch Seinfeld during its nine-season NBC run or if you somehow haven’t caught one or 900 episodes in syndication since then, you probably still know what Seinfeld is all about (nothing, duh). Fortunately, Seinfeld’s pilot makes for (hopefully) interesting discussion and is quite the representative of the “much better after the pilot” phenomenon. It always comes up in chatter like this, and therefore had to be part of this theme. And here we are.
Joining me today is Josh Spiegel. This is Josh’s second go-around with Test Pilot; he joined me for the Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared double-shot early in the year. Josh is a textbook example of a pop-culture obsessive. He’s been a film buff since he was a kid watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and ever since he watched The West Wing and appreciated what TV could do, he’s been just as avid a fan of small-screen fare. After growing up in Western New York, he moved to Arizona where he studied creative writing and film for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Now, he lives in the West Valley of Phoenix with his wife and five cats. (Two more and he can be just like the cat lady on The Simpsons.) In between his day job, teaching creative writing online, and devouring as many TV series and movies as possible, Josh also hosts Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast where Josh delivers in-depth reviews of Disney movies once a week. You can follow him on Twitter and listen to Mousterpiece Cinema via iTunes or at the series’ host website, Sound on Sight. Josh, start us off:
I choose to be amazed at how my brain has a strange capacity for remembering thoroughly meaningless dates and events, if only because being distressed about it would cause me more grief than anything else. Specific to this column, I knew immediately, without looking it up on Google or Wikipedia or IMDb, that May 14, 1998 was the night when Seinfeld aired its last episode. I knew not because I watched the episode, or because the circumstances of me watching it were particularly notable. What I remember strongly is wanting my evening marching-band practice to end early enough that I could get home in time to watch the clip show airing before the finale. (I didn’t get my wish and wound up plopping myself right in front of our 19-inch TV as the final montage set to, if memory serves correctly, Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” began. Because nothing typified the selfish, New York mentality evoked by Seinfeld than a Green Day song.)
Thinking back on that muggy Thursday night, I’m baffled. It’s not because I remember the date and day so clearly; it’s mostly because Seinfeld wasn’t a show I watched that often when it was airing new episodes, though in the time since then, I’ve caught up on most of the show via endless, unavoidable syndication. I was most excited for the end of an era, a climactic event like few others in my young life. I remember almost as clearly being excited to watch the Cheers finale in May of 1993, and the Bob Costas interviews afterward, despite having watched only a handful of episodes. (My excuse then was that I was 8 going on 9, and my parents didn’t let me watch tons of TV. My excuse now is…hey, look over there, something shiny!)
Like many people, I was left disappointed by the Seinfeld finale. Of course, since I wasn’t a die-hard fan of the series, I don’t know that my dissatisfaction met the levels of frustration and bewilderment from the faithful viewers who’d been on board since 1990. They, for example, may not have loved the ending but still could appreciate how the last conversation Jerry and George have, about where a button is placed on George’s shirt, tied into the opening debate the two characters have in the pilot episode. I, however, hadn’t seen the Seinfeld pilot then. Frankly, I’m not sure I ever had before writing about it here with Cory. I probably saw bits and pieces, of course, but nothing in this viewing stoked any hazy memories. Considering how the pilot, titled “The Pilot” or “The Seinfeld Chronicles” depending on which version you watch, features few plot elements or gags that resurfaced in future episodes, I imagine this isn’t a case of me blocking out a half-hour of my life.
Despite this being basically my first viewing of the Seinfeld pilot, I’m enough of a fan of the series and knowledgeable enough about recent TV history to be prepared for what would transpire. I knew that Julia Louis-Dreyfus wasn’t part of the episode, which aired in July of 1989. I knew that the show’s breakout character, Cosmo Kramer, was known here as Kessler. And I knew that the intended regular female character, a waitress played by Lee Garlington, wouldn’t make it out of the pilot for creative reasons. What surprised me, even with this advance knowledge, is that the show didn’t feel too unnatural. Yes, I found it immensely weird that Kramer was called Kessler (as Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David weren’t sure if they could name the character after David’s real-life kooky neighbor, Kenny Kramer), and that George had a weirdly sporting wardrobe in the second half of the episode. But most of the Seinfeld pilot is, if not a memorable beginning, not that bad.
“Not that bad,” though, doesn’t make the pilot particularly good. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, as it was always said, then the pilot emphasizes that excessively and detrimentally. The premise—and it’s just that, because there’s no way you could call what happens a plot—is that a woman Jerry knows is flying into New York from out of town and wants to spend time with him. Does she want to get romantic with Jerry? Does she just want to be friends? Jerry and George, along with…Kessler, analyze what this woman, Laura, has said and if there are secret meanings in how she greets Jerry at the airport. Then Jerry and Laura spend time together and he realizes she’s engaged to someone else. And that’s it.
Another reason why Seinfeld stood out so much in later episodes isn’t that the plots were labyrinthine affairs, but that each character had their own story and those stories would dovetail beautifully at the end, creating a massive, cathartic payoff. Even the episodes where the payoff didn’t come, or the script didn’t stick the landing, there was always an attempt to bridge the stories in the climax. If this pilot episode had been nearly as funny or incisive as some of Seinfeld’s best are, I could have forgiven its story-based flaws. But there’s minimal humor here, aside from a snicker or two.
There’s no payoff of any kind in the Seinfeld pilot. Granted, Jerry finds out that Laura is engaged after she has a fractious phone call with her fiancé right after he (Jerry) agreed to a likely interminable boat tour around Manhattan. This ironic ending sets the stage for the characters always making things worse for themselves in future episodes, simply by acting on the foolish hope that their actions will be for good. But the reason why there’s no payoff in the episode is that George and Kessler get woefully little to do.
George is somewhat similar to his misanthropic self, but the genuine joy he has at hearing Jerry met a woman is jarring; this guy feels like he’s from a different show, a show where “hugging and learning,” as Larry David once put it, happens on a weekly basis. The George who rants and raves at the world, the one who foists his sexual and moral repression upon humankind, is absent almost entirely from this episode. His overanalysis of handshakes and phone calls comes close, but this is not the George everyone is familiar with. And Kessler is, no surprise, mostly unlike the Cosmo Kramer who would soon burst into Jerry’s apartment each episode to thunderous applause. He gets a few quirky moments, but there’s only a few hints of the oddball who would manifest over Seinfeld’s nine-year run.
Of course, this is a pilot episode. Especially these days, television fans are aware and respectful of the fact that few shows come out of the gate as top-shelf entertainment. Whether it’s Breaking Bad or Parks and Recreation or Justified, a lot of shows that swell with fanbases didn’t start off as impressively as they became. But it’s rare for a show to retool itself so quickly, as Seinfeld did, and then become a massive hit. And there’s no doubt that by the time May of 1998 came around, and Seinfeld and David (who’d left the show after the seventh season, but returned to write the series finale), Seinfeld was the king of comedy.
I was arguably among many millions of looky-loos, watching the Seinfeld finale despite not keeping up with previous episodes or seasons. This wasn’t just the last episode of some comedy. This was, for someone my age, a MASH-level moment. Looking at the ratings for the pilot and finale of Seinfeld is another stark reminder that a) the world of television ratings has changed vastly over the last two decades and b) NBC has truly shot itself in the foot since the legitimate Must-See TV period. Seinfeld’s last episode is the third-most viewed series finale ever, behind MASH and Cheers, with over 75 million households watching. To me, the more insane number is the pilot’s rating: 10.9/19. So, 10.9 percent of American households, and 19 percent of all TVs at the time were watching the Seinfeld pilot. And with those ratings, it nearly didn’t get a second episode, let alone a second season.
Sure, it’s easy to imagine all manner of heinous deeds that NBC executives would perform for its current programming to do that well any time of year, summer or not. But think of how pretty much every network would salivate over those numbers today. Over two decades ago, Seinfeld’s prospects were very dim. In the summer of 1990, the pilot re-aired along with four other episodes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus appeared in those four) and the show was given a 13-episode second season based on the fact that roughly one-quarter of all TVs were tuned in. That’s what a reprieve looked like in 1990, and one that helped vault Seinfeld into the stratosphere. These days, shows with passionate yet not massive fanbases would all kill for ratings half that good.
The pilot itself is so slight, it fades away quickly. For completists, the episode is fascinating mostly as a curio, a historical artifact, though I imagine even they would recoil at the DVD set separating the “original” pilot from the “revised” pilot. The only difference I could spot—and maybe Cory or a commenter will point out something I missed—between the two is that the familiar theme music by Jonathan Wolff is present only in the latter. Otherwise, there’s not a single change. As it stands, the Seinfeld pilot just feels like a warm-up act to the main event the series became.
Frankly, the most impressive part of the pilot is how shrewd Seinfeld and David were in pinpointing what needed to change and how to fix it. For example, the stand-up comedy bits that were a common part of Seinfeld for its first few seasons are unnecessarily protracted here. On one hand, Seinfeld riffing about laundry or the world of dating is funny—even now, his comic timing is far stronger when he’s on a stage as opposed to being on the set of his apartment, where he struggles not to laugh at Jason Alexander or Michael Richards’ antics. But on the other hand, the episode runs 23 minutes, including those bits. It feels like padding to have Seinfeld go on and on and on in his observational style. Each stand-up setpiece emphasizes how little content this episode has; another distracting choice is director Art Wolff sometimes using extreme close-ups on Seinfeld as he rattles off one joke after another.
Also, though Garlington isn’t bad as Claire, a fairly traditional deadpan waitress at a greasy spoon, the pilot is missing Elaine something fierce. The interactions Jerry and George have with Claire are miniscule at best, despite Garlington trying to be memorably snarky. The only other female presence is Laura, who’s built up far too much by Jerry before we meet her. With future knowledge of how the two men interact, I could only scoff and raise my eyebrows when Jerry says his conversations with Laura are like the ones he has with George. She never clicks with Jerry—and even if that’s the point, it makes the episode kind of a drag. A more consistent female character would be welcome, and thankfully, Louis-Dreyfus was a boon to the series’ longevity.
Seinfeld isn’t a show that defined my childhood. I was sheltered enough that I imagine I didn’t get half of the jokes in that finale I have such a vivid memory of watching. (Say, for example, Jackie Chiles’ one-liner about Teri Hatcher’s character, the “They’re spectacular” callback. I doubt I got the full depth of that gag at age 13 going on 14, because I was nothing if not naïve in such topics even then.) But while the show feels freeze-dried from the 1990s when I see it on TBS these days, it still has enough of a potent punch to make me laugh. Even here, I snickered at a few lines, such as George’s brush-off to Kessler after the latter seems antsy to get into the commercial real-estate business. The best part of this pilot is that you can see how the show so many people still love and treasure became a paragon of half-hour comedy. The quality isn’t exactly present, but it’s not hard to see how Seinfeld and David took the concept in this pilot and ran with it for nine years.
My thoughts on Seinfeld‘s opening salvo:
I have apparently done this too often lately but an admission: I haven’t seen that much of Seinfeld. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an American citizen, so I’ve caught bits and pieces of syndicated episodes hundreds of times. Yet as far as full episodes go, I’ve probably only watched 15, maybe 20. I know I can’t “truly appreciate” the sitcom because of my limited viewing experience but I tried to make up for a little bit with watching a slew of clip compilations on YouTube before checking in with the pilot. That’s what YouTube was invented for, correct?
In any event, as I said in the introduction to this piece, the struggles of Seinfeld‘s earliest days are fairly well-known at this point. I’m aware of the fact that the series itself eventually addressed these realities with a fictionalized version of the story in Seinfeld and the new book from former NBC President Warren Littlefield spends multiple chapters talking about the rough road Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and company had in getting their peculiar comedy to the airwaves. On the off-chance you aren’t too familiar and don’t want to do the research: This pilot, then titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, aired in the summer of 1989, NBC waffled on picking it up to series but eventually did—with a measly four-episode order. Along the way, there was some tinkering (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine being added, Kessler becoming Kramer, etc.) and finally, Seinfeld debuted a summer later. Yada, yada, yada, history.
Because of this wonky, windy development and scheduling, the beginnings of Seinfeld have taken on something of a weird life. Based on what I’ve read previously and what I read recently in Littlefield’s book, Top of the Rock, I assumed that “Good News, Bad News” (or “Pilot” or “The Seinfeld Chronicles”) would be this strange, unfamiliar and straight-up unfunny shell of what Seinfeld would actually become. I expected that even in my moderate knowledge of the comedy’s rhythms, conventions and strengths, this episode would pale in comparison. In short, I expected this to be awful.
It is not awful.
Clearly, there are elements in this episode that don’t work—or at least don’t work as well as they do in later efforts. Other things, like Elaine, aren’t present at all. Nevertheless, the bones (of which, as Josh mentioned, are quite bare) of this episode line-up pretty well with the vibe and cadence of Seinfeld as a full series. Instead of a disastrous, nearly-series-killing outing, this episode is more like a typical just-fine pilot: Rough in spots but amiable and promising. Perhaps “The Seinfeld Chronicles” suffers from retroactive analysis, particularly when compared to what kind of ground Seinfeld would later cover—and break. But this episode isn’t some entirely invalidated exercise because later episodes and seasons ended up being much, much better. As a comparison to a more contemporary text (that we’ll cover here in soon), this pilot episode is still better than what we saw in the first episode/season of Parks and Recreation.
Of course, that’s some faint praise. There’s good here, there’s bad here. The first half of this episode is much stronger than the second half, as the opening two scenes with Jerry and George could, mostly, fit alongside many of their other conversations. Maybe Lee Garlington is trying a smidgen too hard but I like Claire the Waitress. For some reason, I really enjoyed George’s pissy line about the orange indicator ring on the decaf coffee. And the whole sequence at the laundromat snapped along at a rate that was almost like the one it would later perfect. Much like the indicator line, I laughed quite a bit at George stepping away from Jerry’s speech, looking at all the other people in the laundromat and asking them if they had any questions.
The whole “show about nothing” rhetoric has been beaten into the ground for far too long but as Josh pointed out, this pilot is very, very light on plot. However, I found that base simplicity to be charming. I’ve more later-season episodes of the series (for some reason) and a lot of Curb, so I’m used to the intricate narrative-weaving Larry David prefers. That approach is great in its own right and obviously served Seinfeld well as time passed. Still, the minimalism present in these first 23 minutes is impressive. Not counting the stand-up bits that drag on far too long, especially the last one, there are only six scenes here: Jerry and George eating (1), Jerry and George at the laundromat (2), Jerry and Kessler at Jerry’s apartment (3), Jerry, George and Kessler at Jerry’s apartment (4), Jerry and George meeting Laura at the airport (5) and Jerry and Laura back at his apartment (6). Six scenes isn’t much. It’s economical, and I like it.
Unfortunately, as I said, the episode’s second half tails off, despite the aforementioned economical storytelling. Kessler is not Kramer, both in name and in character. Michael Richards brings the same kind of bizarre energy to the role but the character is definitely less electric and more just plain-weird. Watching this episode, one would assume that George would absolutely be the stand-out character, not Kessler/Kramer, something I’m not actually sure became to pass once the latter was re-calibrated (not that George isn’t beloved). Kessler doesn’t completely derail the episode’s already snail-like movement but he does impede it, and the last third hits like a thud because Laura is not appealing at all. Pamela Brull isn’t that great in the role and there’s next-to-nothing on the page (as far as we see it) so the whole story just sort of fizzles out. In some ways, that’s the point, Jerry just cannot understand women. The end doesn’t really work on its own merit and then the episode closes with overextended footage from Seinfeld’s stand-up routine, which is fine free of context but mostly sags the episode further.
Still though, “The Seinfeld Chronicles” (or whatever you want to call it) is not offensively bad. Heck, I wouldn’t even call it bad. It’s just a comedy pilot. And like so many that came before and after, Seinfeld worked out the kinks in its voice and found the right cast of characters to express that voice. I’ve noticed that we tend to over-emphasize the poor quality of middling or poor pilots (or even first seasons) once a series gets really good. I hate that Parks and Rec pilot but it’s not like there are no redeeming pieces there. The first season of the American Office isn’t terrible. Both series improved in year two, but in retro-retrospect, we’ve probably gone back and been too harsh.
The comedy might have gotten dramatically better, and done so quickly, but the Seinfeld pilot still has its slight charms. As someone who hasn’t seen that much of Seinfeld, I will note that watching this episode made me want to immediately watch more. That in itself means that this one did its job.
Conclusions on legacy: Obviously, the whole series deserves all the admiration but this pilot somewhat works as well