‘No hugging, no learning’: How Seinfeld made the world a nastier, funnier place

Seinfeld, the definitive 90s show: (From left) Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards
Seinfeld, the definitive 90s show: (From left) Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards - George Lange/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Seinfeld is often hailed as the definitive 1990s TV show, so it’s always jarring to recall that it first landed in the 1980s. During that debut season, in September 1989, the biggest comedy properties in America were: The Cosby Show, Cheers, Who’s the Boss?, Roseanne, The Golden Girls and a long-forgotten Cosby Show spin-off called A Different World.

In that company, it stuck out like a homo erectus among the neanderthals. By the time it ended, nine years and 169 episodes later, no one could ever look at the sitcom in the same light.

Seinfeld struck a blow for diversity – in that it finally allowed truly terrible people the opportunity to become the star turns in mainstream comedy. From David Brent to George Bluth, Mark Corrigan to Dennis Reynolds, Seinfeld walked so that others could run.

It seemed to unearth something about human nature that rendered everything that came before obsolete – like McCartney and Lennon first hearing Heartbreak Hotel, or Stravinsky’s audience after the first performance of The Rite of Spring. There was no un-seeing the world it had brought us, and ever since comedy has come to view its role as the narcissist’s mirror.

“No hugging, no learning” was the Seinfeld writing room’s famous dictum. Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine would often end the episode being punished by the universe for their lies, yet at the same time remaining blissfully unreconciled to being better people.

George Costanza (Jason Alexander) was actively Shakespearean in his capacity to actively narrate the dark colliding forces within him. The arch misanthrope (“I don’t think there’s ever been an appointment in my life where I wanted the other guy to show up”), when, in season seven, George is set unwillingly towards marriage with fiancée Susan, he starts praying that she will die in a plane crash.

Jerry then reminds him that plane crashes are rare. “It’s something,” George replies. “It’s hope.” When Susan later dies, it is because George was too tight to pay for self-sealing wedding invitation envelopes, causing her to lick her way through a toxic amount of paper glue. George responds to her death by calling up actress Marisa Tomei and asking for a date. (“The single coldest moment in the history of television,” said Jason Alexander, who played George.)

For his part, Jerry, for all his sense of milquetoast balance, is as vapid a figure as American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman: chomping on cereal and serially dating, his emotional palette ranging between mildly annoyed and neutral, his head only full of nice sneakers and dental hygiene tips, his future turning on the next whim. Meanwhile, to true connoisseurs, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is often held up as the most duplicitous of the lot – a woman who thinks nothing of feigning deafness in order to avoid small talk with cab drivers.

Even as the show went out, a new generation of comedy writers were re-modelling their art in its image. Graham Linehan credits the intricate plotting of Father Ted and later The IT Crowd to his obsession with reverse-engineering Seinfeld.

Robert Webb and David Mitchell in Peep Show
Robert Webb and David Mitchell in Peep Show - Alamy

When Mitchell Hurwitz came up with Arrested Development in 2005, he drew on some of that intricate collision of storylines. But more importantly, he dispensed with any last common decency, to build an unrivalled ensemble of narcissistic pathologies in skin suits.

To the extent that, if you watch Arrested Development, it often feels as though you’re watching characters talking to themselves, rather than to each other. Not only is there no learning and no hugging, the message is that dialogue itself is impossible: we’re all just monologues, algorithms whirring, spinning tops bouncing off each other.

For Ricky Gervais, David Brent was a Costanza-like collision of ego and selfishness, but cranked up to an English degree of awkwardness. “George is the outstanding character,” noted Sam Bain, co-writer of Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Thick of It. “We definitely had him in mind when we were writing Mark Corrigan in Peep Show. Super Hans is our Kramer, but Mark is our George. When George is pushing children and old women out of the way when there’s a fire… it was so inspiring to see someone that bitter. It very much suits the British sensibility.”

Bain and his writing partner Jesse Armstrong (Succession) have consistently drilled down into characters who live for number one. In The Thick of It, the romantic relationship between Ollie (Chris Addison) and his Tory SpAd equivalent girlfriend stands as a piece of grim verité for the ages, the apex of London Dating: two distracted people swapping fluids in-between bouts of career anxiety, no longer even sure how this began.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer in the HBO comedy series Veep
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer in the HBO comedy series Veep - AP Photo/HBO, Bill Gray

A few years later, Veep, The Thick of It’s American cousin, was helped in this regard by its starring turn from Louis-Dreyfus, who couldn’t help bring a bit of Elaine to her cynically hapless Vice President Selina Meyer – a woman so awful she stops an aide adopting children during a campaign as he’ll be too busy at work.

By the time Tina Fey’s 30 Rock landed in 2006, the three-camera format that Seinfeld both exemplified and undermined was well and truly over. Fey’s cast of the venal, the amoral and the merely odd had a more fantastical feel, but a similar commitment to hard narcissism.

The most screamingly obvious Seinfeld homage, however, has long been It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It began in 2005. Incredibly, it’s still running. Like Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny is the story of four friends who seem to have alarmingly little to do, and treat human relations the way reptiles do arachnids. Recently the cast even recreated Seinfeld’s infamous The Contest. And, like Seinfeld, some of its own clichés have entered the lexicon: who will ever forget “because of the implication”.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The most screamingly obvious Seinfeld homage
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The most screamingly obvious Seinfeld homage - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

But as the critic Chuck Klosterman points out in his essay collection I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), the difference is that Always Sunny requires you to be in on the gag. To laugh at Charlie, Mac, Dennis and Deandra, you must first understand them as amoral sociopaths: it’s their inability to grasp the rest of us that hits the hardest.

Curiously, this was never Larry David’s intent. When he was writing Seinfeld, David emphasised scenarios that were drawn from his and his co-writers’ real lives. But what few understood was that the reactions were meant to be real too. As he records in the Seinfeld documentary, Seinfeld: How It Began, whenever he heard criticism that nobody would behave in real life the way Seinfeld’s characters do, he’d reply: “I did. That exact thing happened to me, and that’s exactly how I reacted”.

Of course, there is also a brand of US comedy that has taken gentler lessons. The likes of Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Recreation, while essentially warm-hearted, still trade in the same sense of characters who are hopelessly self-involved: the laughs come from watching their internal ego war spill out.

The sadcom: shows such as Fleabag that leaned into the bathetic quality of modern life
The sadcom: shows such as Fleabag that leaned into the bathetic quality of modern life - Luke Varley

Indeed, that world of damaged, disconsolate people has morphed into its own genre: the sadcom, first identified around 2016, it includes genuine comedies such as the animated Bojack Horseman (alcoholic, emotionally avoidant, a horse who knows that his best days are behind him), and shows such as Fleabag that leaned into the bathetic quality of modern life.

The spectrum continues into the likes of Louie, Louis CK’s loose re-working of his own problems as a middle-aged schlub, a show that barely bothered with the punchlines, but left viewers with an eerie sense that life itself is an unfunny comedy. Fifteen years after The Office, Ricky Gervais’s After Life followed it down that path, discarding the jokes in favour of the feeling. In fact, perhaps the most Seinfeldian of all the progeny is a show that never billed itself as a comedy in the first place: Succession. Seven or so vectors of self-interest bouncing around the Manhattan high life, having to deal with imploding corporate mergers while stuck at their kid’s birthday party.

Not that Jerry Seinfeld seems in a mood to take credit. Recently, he could be found decrying modern comedy, political correctness and the death of the traditional sitcom. “It used to be that you’d go home at the end of the day, most people would go ‘Oh, Cheers is on. Oh, M*A*S*H is on. Oh, Mary Tyler Moore is on. All in the Family is on.’” he told The New Yorker’s Radio Hour podcast. “You just expected [there will] be some funny stuff we can watch on TV tonight. Well, guess what? Where is it? This is the result of the extreme left and PC crap and people worrying so much about offending other people.”

The most Seinfeldian of all the progeny is a show that never billed itself as a comedy in the first place: Succession
The most Seinfeldian of all the progeny is a show that never billed itself as a comedy in the first place: Succession - HBO

If Jerry is sounding curmudgeonly – perhaps like the 70 year-old he is – well, he could yet hit the generation gap even harder, because, since 2021, Seinfeld has been on Netflix. When Friends landed there in 2018, it slowly became a sensation among Zoomers, who, too young to have watched it the first time round, became beguiled by the zippy New York glamour of its gang of pals, yet repulsed by many of their mores.

In many ways, Friends was a transitional show. It was built as an essentially 1980s-style warm-fuzzy sitcom, but by its debut in 1994, Seinfeld had shifted the tectonic plates so much that its characters affected a certain jaded, wise-cracking aspect.

Seinfeld is the exact inverse: a show invented by the clean-cut guy who perfected the “So what’s the deal with airline peanuts?” school of observational comedy, that breaks as bad as Samuel Beckett. It will be interesting to see if Gen-Z ever take the show to their heart in same way.