More than 17 years after the last episode aired, Seinfeld is still everywhere.
Even if you didn’t hear about the show’s gigantic $180 million deal with Hulu, its residual effects on pop culture have become hard to escape. Be it in the form of classes, interviews, Super Bowl commercials, or speeches from politicians, we are reminded of the ’90s’ most acclaimed sitcom wherever we look. On the Internet too, Seinfeld has retained a certain fascination; new technology, same nothing, if you will. And it’s been interesting to see how Jerry Seinfeld himself has embraced entertainment’s changing landscape with the popular webseries Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
However, while Seinfeld is still everywhere both online and off, it’s hard not to feel that for the digital generation, the show’s influence has been waning. Consider the disparate sensibilities that led to what is easily the strangest episode of Comedians in Cars, starring YouTube sensation Miranda Sings. Or look at the outrage certain teens felt when Tumblr imitated the Seinfeld logo in honor of Festivus last year. And of course, Jerry Seinfeld’s recent attack on political correctness didn’t exactly help frame his sense of humor as fitting in with modern comedy. Sadly, for many millennials, Seinfeld is just confusing.
According to the Daily Dot’s Ben Branstetter, in addition to the fact that Seinfeld is mostly unserialized, and therefore not ideal for binge-watching, it’s because TV shows like Friends essentially watered down what Seinfeld did and spread that formula throughout the masses. “The babbling humor of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer has aged very poorly, precisely because it was so influential,” writes Branstetter. “Shows like Friends… copied much of Seinfeld’s format and writing style, and in fact, the first season of Friends was largely made up of rejected Seinfeld spec scripts.”
But fear not, millennials. Although there are plenty of episodes from Seinfeld that have not aged well, many others still work splendidly. Why? For one thing, the characters of Seinfeld aren’t that far off from the antiheroes younger TV viewers have grown up with over the past decade. “Before Seinfeld, there were never any sitcoms that let their characters be purely selfish, treating the rest of humankind as a resource or obstacle while standing back and observing their shenanigans with a jaundiced detachment,” writes Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz.
However, there is another reason that Seinfeld should be able resonate with the Internet generation. As Daily Dot Opinion Editor Nico Lang points out, “the genius of Seinfeld isn’t just that it transgresses social norms, but that it’s firmly rooted in the common experience of the everyday.” According to Lang, Seinfeld is less a show about nothing than it is a show about everything.
Although the world has changed a lot in the 17 years since Seinfeld went off the air, some things will always be the same. With all 180 episodes of the show going up on Hulu today, here are 11 which prove that to be true, presented as a kind of beginner’s guide for the Internet generation.
1) Season 2, episode 6: “The Chinese Restaurant”
“The Chinese Restaurant” is the rare Seinfeld that takes place in only one space, and it is all the better for it. While a subplot about George trying to call his girlfriend from a pay phone doesn’t work as well in the age of cellphones, the story’s true impetus is just as familiar as ever. For anyone that’s ever been trapped in a long line, or stuck on the phone, or waiting for a table, this episode is for you—which is also to say it is for everyone.
2) Season 3, episode 13: “The Subway”
“The Subway” is significant because it is the first episode of Seinfeld to give each character their own storyline, a feat which the showrunners went on to accomplish again and again. But it also plays well framed through the lens of the the mundane turned into a hellish nightmare. Simple tasks like a city commute often become meticulous and arduous tasks on Seinfeld. The journey our four main characters experience in this episode becomes an all-out odyssey, and while your own routine trip to work might not yield such comical results, it is the claustrophobia of the situation, similar to the scenario in “The Chinese Restaurant,” that really makes the humor soar.
3) Season 4, episode 11: “The Contest”
It is at this point, in season 4, where Seinfeld really gets going. Perhaps the show’s most famous episode, “The Contest” also remains just as resonant as ever. It’s funny in some ways to think of Jerry Seinfeld being so concerned with PC culture, because “The Contest,” which is probably Seinfeld’s riskiest episode, is fairly innocent by today’s standards. In the end though, “The Contest” doesn’t need to be too racy, because it’s also so purely goofy. Although Jerry’s girlfriend, Marla, ends up thoroughly creeped out by the end of the episode, there’s something incredibly relatable about watching Seinfeld’s four central characters trying to resist self-satisfaction (Kramer is out the fastest, pleasuring himself in record time once he gets the inkling to.) To be fair, the whole thing is a little creepy, but it’s also undeniably hilarious. And the fact that Seinfeld has to dance around it all for network standards actually makes it that much more hilarious, as if the audience is in on the lurid competition themselves.
Bottom line: Masturbation will always be funny.
4) Season 4, episode 17: “The Outing”
Seinfeld couldn’t care less about social justice. But “The Outing” succeeds in spite of this, because its discussion of sexuality is so brutally honest.
When Jerry and George are mistaken in an article for lovers (Kramer’s reaction: “I thought we were friends! I mean, how could you two keep this a secret from me? Come on, Jerry, the masquerade is over!”), they immediately go into straight-guy panic. The writers inserted the phrase “…not that there’s anything wrong with that” so LGBT viewers wouldn’t get offended, but what this mantra really did was show how even when straight people try to be accepting of homosexuality, they can end up coming off as pejorative and misinformed.
Besides being a thoroughly clever spin on the sitcom trope of misunderstandings, “The Outing” is a fantastic piece of television about the nature of identity as well. George and Jerry are not gay, and even though there isn’t anything wrong with being gay, they remain desperate to affirm their heterosexuality. This episode also asks questions about privacy, and how much we really need to show the world to express who we are.
5) Season 5, episode 2: “The Puffy Shirt”
The thing that really makes “The Puffy Shirt” stand out today is the way the Internet has made embarrassing incidents like the one in this episode’s climax that much more common. When Jerry agrees to wear a puffy shirt designed by Kramer’s girlfriend, Leslie, on the Today show, he ends up humiliating himself and her in the process. It’s easy to imagine how if this episode aired in 2015, Jerry’s public meltdown would have gone viral, pushing his shame even further. But “The Puffy Shirt” works as it is because when it comes to fashion faux pas, no one is ever very forgiving—especially when you’re wearing something that ugly.
6) Season 5, episode 10: “The Cigar Store Indian”
Like most sitcoms of the ’90s, Seinfeld is an almost blindingly white show, so its discussions on race were, naturally, infrequent and very limited. However, going back to the whole “PC culture” issue, “The Cigar Store Indian” provides an interesting diversion about how white people think, or rather don’t think, when interacting with individuals of a different skin color.
The main conflict here surrounds Jerry’s crush on Elaine’s Native American friend, Winona. At first, he offends her, when he tries to give Elaine a cigar store Indian as a gift, not even pausing to consider how offensive this object really is. Eventually, he ends up correcting himself, and trying to win Winona back, but he still can’t get out of his own way when talking about matters of race. As is the case with many white people, Jerry becomes living proof that most of the time, “well-meaning” just isn’t enough. This is Seinfeld though, so there’s no hugging and no learning when it’s all over. Just a lot of bad decisions, and the cosmic hilarity surrounding them.
7) Season 5, episode 20: “The Hamptons”
The best thing about “The Hamptons” is how female-centric it feels. The primary focus of the episode (other than a really ugly baby and Kramer poaching lobster traps) is the concept of “shrinkage”—another very useful Seinfeldism. George is embarrassed when Jerry’s girlfriend, Rachel, sees him naked after getting out of the pool and accidentally catches a glimpse of his, shall we say, shrunken manhood. She laughs awkwardly and apologizes, but it doesn’t end there for poor George, as Rachel tells his girlfriend, Jane, about his size problems, prompting her to leave their Hamptons getaway in the middle of the night. George eventually decides to get back at Rachel by putting lobster in her eggs, which, as a kosher-keeping Jew, is a big no-no.
George comes out looking even worse than usual in this episode, which is really saying something. You’d almost feel bad for him if he wasn’t, well, George. Seinfeld frequently discusses the difference between men and women, but given that the show does this more often than not through a male perspective, it’s nice to see the guys literally cut down to size in this one.
8) Season 6, episode 11: “The Switch”
Ah, the dating world. Seinfeld was never better than when it was exploring the myriad ways people screw up and overanalyze relationships, and this is on full, glorious display in “The Switch.”
It’s a simple premise, really. Jerry is dating a woman who doesn’t laugh. This of course offends his delicate sensibilities as a comedian. However, when he meets his girlfriend’s roommate, who not only has a great laugh but possesses many of the other qualities prized by the superficial man, he begins to consider the unthinkable. He enlists George to help him come up with a plan to break it off with the current girlfriend, so he can begin seeing the roommate, and they arrive at an absurd scheme wherein Jerry proposes a ménage à trois. However, the plan backfires when both women end up being into the arrangement, leaving both Jerry and George forced to admit that neither of them would have the sexual competency to pull this off.
What makes the central plot of the episode great is that you probably know someone that this has happened to. Heck, maybe it’s happened to you. You meet someone, you like them, and then you meet their friend, whom you end up liking better. As Seinfeld concluded, there’s no good way for this kind of situation to end, and all we can really do is laugh in our collective misery.
9) Season 7, episode 6: “The Soup Nazi”
This is another episode that you’ve probably heard of, even if you’ve never seen it. Seinfeld’s seventh season is its most plot-heavy next to its fourth, and when all’s said and done, one of its most well-executed. But what makes “The Soup Nazi” great is that it doesn’t rely on the storyline from the rest of the season to set up what is surely one of the show’s many instantly memorable episodes.
Penned by Spike Feresten, one of Seinfeld’s more distinctive voices, “The Soup Nazi” is that rare piece of pop culture that just lingers after you finish watching it. There are a million different occasions when you can bust out the phrase “No soup for you!,” and almost all of them will be fitting. If you’ve merely heard about this one, but never taken the time to sit down and watch it, stop what you’re doing and put it on right now. It’s a surefire winner for those of us that get hangry when we’re unable to get the food we so desperately want.
10) Season 8, episode 19: “The Yada Yada Yada”
Another episode which coined a phrase that went immediately into the lexicon, “The Yada Yada Yada” is interesting because the storyline revolving said phrase may actually be the least interesting part of the entire episode.
For those not in the know, the episode’s title refers to a non sequitur George’s girlfriend, Marcy, uses when she wants to skip over a part of a story during conversation. Neurotic that he is, George soon becomes convinced that she is using “yada yada yada” as a fill-in for sex—with her ex-boyfriend. The best part of the discussion around the phrase comes when Elaine admits that she’s yada yada’d sex before. “I met this lawyer, we went out to dinner, I had the lobster bisque, we went back to my place, yada yada yada, I never heard from him again.” “But you yada yada’d over the best part,” Jerry retorts. “No, I mentioned the bisque,” quips Elaine slyly.
With the departure of Larry David after season 7, seasons 8 and 9 of Seinfeld took a detour into increased absurdity, and this episode is also a prime example of that. The other great storyline in “The Yada Yada Yada” revolves around a recurring character named Tim Whatley, played brilliantly by Bryan Cranston. In this appearance, Jerry becomes convinced that he’s converted to Judaism for the jokes. Once again, this offends Jerry as a comedian, and he responds with some dentist humor which convinces Kramer he’s the one being prejudiced. “You’re an anti-dentite,” he tells Jerry. The episode ends with Jerry making a crack about dentists to a prospective love interest, played by Will & Grace’s Debra Messing, who turns out to be a real anti-semite/racist.
Once more, as we continue to discuss where the lines are in humor, “The Yada Yada Yada” proves that you don’t have to be “anti-PC” to have a frank, not to mention hysterical discussion about what’s acceptable in comedy.
11) Season 9, episode 8: “The Betrayal”
“The Betrayal” is basically Memento before Memento. As a story about about Jerry sleeping with George’s girlfriend unfolds backwards during a trip to India, Senfeld executes one of its most ambitious and more fascinating episodes.
For anyone that thinks of Seinfeld as the epitome of the “traditional” sitcom, this is an essential episode to look at. It demonstrates that the boundaries of television were already being pushed long before the structurally ambitious shows of our current golden age. And it should also demonstrate to any Seinfeld detractors out there that the show is not only still funny, but still revolutionary when held up to anything that’s come before, or since.
Photo via Orin Zebest/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman