The confused millennial’s guide to ‘Seinfeld’

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Greetings, millennials! Have you heard that Hulu just bought syndication rights to Seinfeld—a sitcom whose series finale aired in 1998—for $180 million, or a million bucks per episode?

If so, you may be a little confused. You did, after all, flip the hell out when Tumblr unveiled its “Seinfeld mode” last year, and your main exposure to the cultural touchstone till then was probably in the form of Twitter parody accounts. Why would anyone care about this ancient show, let alone fork over what amounts to the GDP of a small island nation for it? Well, I’m a 30-year-old, and I’m happy to explain Seinfeld’s enduring relevance. 

Here’s a quick primer.

The main characters

Much of the show is set in the New York apartment (like an artist’s loft, but with fewer people and bedbugs living in it) of Jerry Seinfeld. Jerry is a stand-up comedian, which is what they had in the ’90s instead of Vine. His BFF is George—the short bald asshole who most recently negged you on OkCupid. There’s also his ex-girlfriend Elaine, who invented normcore, and his neighbor Kramer, the CEO of a hot new startup called Kramerica Industries. Occasionally, Jerry is tormented by another neighbor and nemesis named Newman, who works for U.S. Postal Service, a fictional organization whose mysterious purpose is never explained.    

The unexplained cascades of laughter

Throughout an episode you will notice sounds of laughter that emanate from the screen rather than your face. Do not be alarmed. Before single-camera sitcoms like Arrested Development and 30 Rock became the norm in the mid-aughts, human beings lacked the ability to discern for themselves what was funny. Indeed, many of us lacked even the basic anatomical equipment to express our amusement vocally. The omnipresent “laugh track” assured viewers that they were watching a comedy and simulated the comfort of sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers all looking at the same thing—much like Twitter does now. Fun fact: This “laughter” was actually recorded on a Foley stage using marbles and sheets of aluminum.

The phrases (or “jokes”)

Seinfeld has brought several notable turns of phrase into the American lexicon. Even those insulated millennials who have studiously avoided interacting with Generation X their entire lives will doubtless have heard a few bon mots, including but of course not limited to:

When you hear someone utter these words (or anything along these lines that seems fraught with pop cultural baggage), your best course of action is to nod and say: “Oh, that’s my favorite one!” This is all the average old Seinfeld fan wants to hear—that you know and approve of what they’re talking about. Meanwhile, best to decline any invitation to a “Festivus” party.

The things that make no sense

As with many humorous entertainment concepts, mishaps and misunderstandings abound. But some will seem utterly alien to you. Why are these people unable to contact friends who haven’t arrived at the movie theater yet? Why does this man think a tape cassette—i.e., a small plastic rectangle with two holes in it—will help him delete an embarrassing voicemail he left for his girlfriend? And what in the the fuck is a voicemail? (Basically, an audio text message that is neither received nor answered.) Well, you can relax, as there’s nothing to “get” here. It’s all part of Seinfeld’s commitment to surrealism, in the vein of Samuel Beckett and Marcel Duchamp. This is why it is often referred to as “a show about … something.”

The dating

In olden times, long before Tinder, Grindr, Snapchat, Yik Yak, Whisper, and whatever sexting app with bullshit privacy settings you’re using right this minute, a more ornate form of courtship was practiced among American adults, and Seinfeld is faithful to its every detail: People magically acquired a new significant other who was wildly out of their league once per week, then pinpointed their most superficial personal flaw and obsessed over it until the relationship could be grandly torpedoed—just in time for a replacement girlfriend or boyfriend to swoop in at the start of the following week. Contemporary romantic options like “hookups” and “marriages” were largely nonexistent until the George W. Bush administration.

Well, now you know what’s going on in Seinfeld, and why it is not only better than Game of Thrones but the crowning achievement of post-agricultural civilization. Hope that clears everything up for you whippersnappers! Oh, and one last thing—if you come upon some weirdly meta episodes about the characters trying to put together a sitcom pilot for NBC, that’s actually part of a documentary about how the show was created. Real life is so much stranger than fiction, isn’t it? [Tries to dramatically exit, hits head on door, spins around, falls. Cue laughter.]

Photo via Chris Brown/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

Miles Klee

Miles Klee

Miles Klee is a novelist and web culture reporter. The former editor of the Daily Dot’s Unclick section, Klee’s essays, satire, and fiction have appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vanity Fair, 3:AM, Salon, the Awl, the New York Observer, the Millions,  and the Village Voice. He's the author of two odd books of fiction, 'Ivyland' and 'True False.'