Seinfeld is one of the biggest and most popular TV series of all time. It’s been described as “the number one reason the ‘90s ruled” (take that, Friends!) and named by the Writers Guild of America to be the second best written television series ever made, behind only HBO’s iconic mafia drama The Sopranos. Throughout season 4 of Seinfeld, there’s a storyline where Jerry and George pitch a TV sitcom to NBC brass, much like the real Jerry and his friend Larry David had done to get Seinfeld on the air, and they pitch their idea as “a show about nothing.” This became the term that people have used to describe the show for years to come, much to the surprise of the show’s writers, who saw it as a throwaway joke and not an accurate representation of their show. As Seinfeld himself explained, “The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us, it’s the opposite of that.” So, here are 15 episodes that prove he’s right – 15 episodes of Seinfeld that prove the so-called “show about nothing” was really a show about everything.
15. The Cheever Letters
The Seinfeld episode in which a love affair is accidentally exposed between Susan Ross’ WASP-y upper class father and the great John Cheever is a brilliantly socially relevant one. It’s one thing to do a gay rights episode about a young gay person living in a progressive world, but this affair happened a long time ago, back when homosexuality was seen as a disease. Gay people had a very close-knit community, because they had to keep all of their relationships and interactions a secret, and a lot of them, like Mr. Ross, had wives at home. For Seinfeld to address this in an episode was a ballsy and conscientious move, and they should be commended for it. And it’s not a homophobic episode – the shock that the family has when they discover this is merely out of the surprise of it all, not because they frown upon same sex relationships. Mr. Ross says that Cheever was “the most wonderful person” he has ever known and that he “loved him deeply.” There’s nothing stereotypical or offensive or homophobic or ignorant or misguided about that – it’s just love, like any other kind.
14. The Merv Griffin Show
This episode hardly ever gets discussed, but it’s really creepy. While Kramer’s off building the set of The Merv Griffin Show in his apartment and pretending to be a talk show host, Jerry dates a girl with a vintage toy collection that she won’t let him play with. So, he drugs her, she passes out, and he plays with her toys. And then he invites George over and they get her all liquored up until she passes out and they both play with her toys. It’s a very obvious allegory of date rape! Date rape is a difficult area, because some people think it’s okay. Based on people’s reaction to this episode, you’ll be able to weed them out. At least Kramer disagrees with it: “Wait a minute! You mean to say that you drugged a woman so you could take advantage of her toys?”
13. The Cigar Store Indian
Seinfeld was always very upfront in its approach to race. Since all of the cast and writers were white, they couldn’t comment on what it was like to be a racial minority in New York – it wasn’t their place to say. But they could, however, comment on how white people approach the delicate topic of race and the kinds of discussions they have about it. In “The Cigar Store Indian,” Jerry buys a racist wooden statue of a Native American chief and offers it as a gift to Elaine, as a peace offering, but of course, he offends her friend Winona, whose Native American ethnic background he was not aware of. After that, he makes a series of embarrassing faux pas in which he misspeaks and accidentally says racist things. It’s a satire of political correctness and racial tensions.
12. The Chinese Woman
In this episode, George’s phone lines get crossed with a woman named Donna Chang, who Jerry gets talking to and eventually scores a date with. He tells Elaine, “I love Chinese women,” to which she replies, “Isn’t that a little racist?” But he says, “If I like their race, how can that be racist?” It’s one of the most common misconceptions that white people have about the tenets of racism. Even Kramer says, “I dig Asian women.” The episode and the jokes in it play on the idea that interracial dating is “hip” and “cool,” and Asian women are inherently sexy. But then, when Jerry meets Donna, he’s disappointed to find out she’s a white chick from Long Island whose full name is Changstein. Except she doesn’t just have a Chinese-sounding name – she wants to be Chinese. She pronounces the word “ridiculous” as “ridicurous,” which is a little racist and weird, but very funny and brings light to an odd phenomenon that being Chinese is something “hip” or “cool” that white people might want to do to not be so vanilla.
11. The Andrea Doria
In the Seinfeld episode “The Andrea Doria,” George is perturbed to discover that the apartment he’s been promised is going to be given instead to a survivor of the SS Andrea Doria. George does not consider the sinking of the ship to be that much of a disaster, since there were only 51 deaths. “51 people?!” he says. “That’s it?! I thought it was like a thousand!” When Kramer tells him there were over a thousand survivors, George replies, “That’s no tragedy! How many people do you lose on a normal cruise? Thirty? Forty?!” The episode comments on what counts as a tragedy, like how many people have to die for it to be considered a disaster, in relative terms. The episode aired five years before 9/11, which George would consider to be a real tragedy.
10. The Beard
This episode sees Elaine posing as the girlfriend of a gay man in order to convince people that he’s straight, but she finds herself becoming attracted to him, so she begins trying to “convert” him. There’s a misconception that permeates through Seinfield that you can switch your sexuality back and forth easily – the idea of “changing teams.” Susan Ross went from straight to gay to straight. It’s simply not true. Sexuality is a spectrum, but it doesn’t work like that. However, there is one important social issue highlighted in “The Beard.” The fact that the man needs to use Elaine as a beard for a work function in order to show them he’s straight sheds light on the issue of homophobia in the workplace, which is a big issue now and was an even bigger issue back in the ‘90s. Also, interestingly, this episode featured Jon Gries, better known now as Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, as a guest star.
9. The Visa
The episode “The Visa” follows on from “The Café,” in which Jerry tried to help out a Pakistani business owner who opened a café with all the world’s cuisines on its menu. Jerry recommended that he focus on just Pakistani food, so he changed everything and sunk a bunch of money into it, and still, he failed. He blamed Jerry for his failure, but Jerry turned it around by getting him a job at Monk’s Café and an apartment in his building. In “The Visa,” the Pakistani man, Babu Bhatt, gets his immigration papers mixed up in the mail and ends up getting deported. The situation is played for laughs, but it points out the key flaw in the inhumane immigration system in America. Jerry gets the blame again, but he can’t be blamed for the U.S. government’s shortcomings.
8. The Handicap Spot
“The Handicap Spot” tackles discrimination against disabled people, as George callously takes a handicap spot in the mall parking lot, and also shows the general public consensus toward the disabled community, as everyone besides the key four characters rallies behind them to protest George’s parking. This episode is also interesting in that in the Costanzas’ living room, you see the fateful copy of Glamour magazine that became George’s undoing in “The Content.” Plus, it was the first appearance of Frank Costanza, and in some cuts of the episode, Frank is played by John Randolph, whose take on the character is much different – specifically less shouty – than Jerry Stiller’s. Thankfully, they reshot the episode with Stiller in the role, so you can still hear his soothing yelling.
7. The Dinner Party
While Kramer and George are off getting some wine to bring to a dinner party that they don’t actually end up attending, Jerry and Elaine are waiting for a latka in a bakery. While they wait, Jerry buys himself a black and white cookie, and it actually leads to a moral philosophy lesson, using the cookie as a metaphor for race relations. Jerry says, “The thing about eating the black and white cookie, Elaine, is you want to get some black and some white in each bite. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate, and yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.” Elaine sarcastically replies, “Your views on race relations are fascinating. You really should do an op-ed piece for the Times.” Jerry replies, “Look to the cookie, Elaine. Look to the cookie.” We should all be looking to the cookie. Later, Jerry’s stomach hurts from the cookie and he says, “I think I got David Duke and Fahrikan down there,” to which Elaine makes the point, “Well, if we can’t look to the cookie where can we look?” Like many great people who have tried to bring black and white people together and create racial harmony – Dr. King, for example – Jerry was assassinated (in a way) by the cookie.
6. The Puerto Rican Day
“The Puerto Rican Day” is an particularly special episode of Seinfeld in that it was the last one to air before the ridiculously hyped series finale. Since Larry David was writing the finale, this was the last episode that would have input from the staff, so they made it a joint effort and the episode ended up having ten credited writers, more than any other episode. It was controversial at the time, leading to protests and complaints and boycotts, thanks to a scene in which Kramer accidentally burns the Puerto Rican flag and then stomps on it in a desperate attempt to put the fire out, right in plain sight of a bunch of Puerto Ricans celebrating Puerto Rican Day. The Puerto Rican community was outraged. But if you think about it with a little perspective, the point being made here about the controversial and maligned act of flag-burning, is that the intention behind burning a country’s symbol is what makes it bad, not the act itself. Kramer didn’t mean to burn that flag – in fact, until then, he had been lapping up the Puerto Rican culture at the parade. It’s actually quite philosophical.
5. The Pitch
Comedy television has become meta in recent years. In Community, Abed always refers to the Greendale study group like they’re in a TV show (which they are) and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia always does slyly self-aware episodes like “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award,” but that all started with Seinfeld. The whole genesis of Seinfeld was from when Jerry Seinfeld was a standup comic working out of clubs in New York and NBC executives approached him about the possibility of making a show for them. In that show, he starred as himself, a standup comic working out of clubs in New York. It was already a meta idea – not many shows starred celebrities as themselves until then. Now, every comic in the business is desperate for a network to let them make “their Seinfeld.” As if the meta-ness of the show itself wasn’t enough, at the start of season 4 in the episode “The Pitch,” Jerry is approached after a set by some NBC executives to discuss the possibility of making a show for them. In the show within a show, Jerry stars as himself, a standup comic in New York. And who’s to say that an episode of that show wouldn’t have seen fictional Jerry approached by NBC executives to make a show for them? It’s an endless cycle of combining real life and fiction, blurring the lines between them. It doesn’t seem like much, but this episode revolutionized the postmodern approach in comedy. And ironically, this is the episode that brought the term “show about nothing” into circulation.
4. The Sponge
The Seinfeld episode “The Sponge” addresses the topic of birth control, which is still somewhat taboo even today in this day and age, let alone back in the ‘90s. The episode jokes about how everyone has their own favorite form of contraception. Men don’t like the feel of condoms, so they prefer women to use birth control, and women all have their own personal preference for birth control. In the episode, Elaine finds out that her own personal preference, the Today Sponge, is going out of manufacture, so she buys out damn near the entire stock of it in New York. Then, with a limited supply of birth control, she has to interview candidates for sex. It’s the epitome of the “My body, my choice” credo.
3. The Couch
Elaine was always fighting for feminist issues on Seinfeld. Considering she had to get by as the only female in the cast, she was one strong and fierce lady. In “The Couch,” Elaine fights for a woman’s right to choose what she does with her own body. Yep, it’s an abortion episode. She walks out of a restaurant in protest when she finds out the owner is pro-life, and it even leads to the end of a really great relationship that she has with a guy named Carl. They seemed to be in love, but as long as Carl doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own body and her own life, she can’t be with him. The episode empowers women and spreads a liberal pro-choice message – how’s that for a show about nothing?
2. The Wizard
In “The Wizard,” Elaine dates a guy named Darryl who looks white, but exhibits traits of African-Americans and keeps African cultural items in his apartment. The Seinfeld writers had always wanted to do an episode about race, but couldn’t get the tone right until this idea came along. Elaine wants to know if Darryl is black, because she likes the idea of being in an interracial couple and thinks it’s cool and hip. Whenever she discusses it with her friends, they keep asking themselves, “Should we be talking about this?” The awkwardness with which the white characters talk about race is the biggest sociological takeaway from this episode. Tim Delaney wrote in his book Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld that this episode “does a wonderful job of illustrating the delicate nature of discussing race, even when it’s between friends, who assumingly, are not racist.” Fordham University’s Albert Auster wrote, “If the series did have one strong point in its dealings with race, it was with the embarrassment and uneasiness that middle class whites often feel about the issue.”
1. The Outing
The Seinfeld episode “The Outing” almost never got made. The writer pitching it to Jerry Seinfeld was telling this whole storyline that seemed awkward and homophobic about Jerry objecting to being reported in the media to be gay, and Jerry didn’t think it would work or it would be too offensive to the gay community, until he realized that the writer was interspersing his pitch with the phrase, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” and saw a way to make the episode work. And thus was born another Seinfeld catchphrase. The episode manages to satire both political correctness and homophobia at the same time, and for bringing awareness to the struggles faced by the LGBTQ community, especially in the ‘90s, it was awarded a GLAAD Media Award. Bravo.