For "a show about nothing," Seinfeld definitely gave us plenty: Close talkers, low talkers, regifters, Festivus, snacking double-dippers, the Soup Nazi, puffy shirts and the Manssiere support undergarment for men – not that there's anything wrong with that.
On Friday, TBS gives us 30 ways to celebrate the 30th anniversary on the day of the premiere – July 5, 1989 – by airing 30 Seinfeld episodes. Most of your favorites are on the list at the end of this post – "The Contest," " "The Parking Garage," "The Junior Mint," "The Soup Nazi," "The Marine Biologist," "The Invitations," "The Bizarro Jerry," "The Implant," "The Hamptons," "The Chinese Restaurant," "The Abstinence," "The Puffy Shirt" and "The Yada Yada." (They air 6 a.m.-to 9 p.m.)
Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards starred in the brilliant pop culture phenomenon for nine seasons. Seinfeld was the nation's No. 1 show for three seasons, including its last year (1997-98).
And the beginning was so humble and implausible. The July 5, 1989, telecast was a one-shot broadcast of the pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles. A second episode didn't air for another 11 months.
In fact, there was almost no series at all. When Seinfeld, an up-and-coming comedian, met with NBC executives in 1988 to discuss possible TV projects, he didn't have a clue what he wanted to do, says Rick Ludwin, who was vice president for late-night and specials at NBC Entertainment headquarters in Burbank, Calif.
"We had the initial meeting with Jerry in my office," said Ludwin, a 1970 Miami University graduate. Seinfeld, 34, was asked if he wanted to do a prime-time series or host a late-night show. Seinfeld replied: "I really don't have any ideas. My whole goal was to get a meeting like this."
Ludwin was the NBC executive who championed the show from its inception. So I asked him to share his insights and memories (again) about Seinfeld, which was No. 1 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows Of All Time in 2002.
After returning to New York, Ludwin says Seinfeld was sitting in a Korean deli with comedian pal Larry David making fun of stuff when David said that's what Jerry should do for NBC. "Jerry came back to L.A. and pitched an idea of a situation comedy about what a comedian does when he's not on stage, and how he gets his ideas," Ludwin says.
The first script NBC received from Seinfeld and David was called Stand Up. Ludwin donated his copy to Miami's King Library Special Collections in 2013, along with 14 other Seinfeld scripts (including "The Contest") other memorabilia, and digitally re-mastered tapes of 30 Studio 14 live shows Ludwin hosted his senior year (1969-70) on WMUB-TV.
The critical response to The Seinfeld Chronicles encouraged Ludwin to take two hours from his TV specials budget and allocate it to Seinfeld and David for four half-hour sitcom episodes. It's believed that the four-episode renewal "was the shortest (smallest) order ever for an episodic television season," he says.
The four aired May 31 through June 21, and earned a 13-show order for a "second season," which arrived Jan. 23, 1991. (Ludwin stresses that he had several unused hours of TV programming in his budget, and that – contrary to "an urban legend that's not accurate" – he did not cancel a Bob Hope special to fund Seinfeld.)
The TBS tribute starts with "The Chinese Restaurant" (6 a.m. Friday) from May 23, 1991, the 11th show produced. It's an example of how Seinfeld took creative risks: The half-hour show plays out in "real time," as Jerry, Elaine and George wait to be seated in restaurant. Seinfeld also dared to tell a story backwards; to make of fun of the George and Kramer characters; and to satirize pitching a sitcom idea to NBC, his network.
"The Chinese Restaurant" also is notable for the absence of Kramer. For the first few years, Seinfeld opened and closed with Jerry performing stand-up in a nightclub as the "framing device" for that episode's storylines. But it came at the expense of having subplots for each of the four characters.
"Early on, Larry and Jerry decided that there should be a storyline for each of the four principals. With the intertwined storylines, so much was packed into it, the scripts were very thick. So they had to cut out the opening monologue to accommodate the four principals," Ludwin says.
That's what made Seinfeld unique – juggling four story lines per episode, with a surprise payoff for each. The show also was blessed with the perfect core cast who could do wonderful physical comedy, too (Kramer's entrances into a room; Elaine's dancing; George's outrages).
Seinfeld also had a great recurring cast: George's parents (Estelle Harris, Jerry Stiller); Jerry's parents (Barney Martin, Liz Sheridan); Newman (Wayne Knight); dentist Tim Whatley (Bryan Cranston); attorney Jackie Chiles (Phil Morris); Elaine's boyfriend David Puddy (Patrick Warburton) and her boss J. Peterman (John O'Hurley).
What helped propel Seinfeld to No. 1 was the addition of George's parents, Estelle and Frank Constanza. "The older generation had characters to watch, and it became a multi-generational hit. It was bulletproof," Ludwin said.
It was Frank Constanza who gave us the "Festivus for the rest of us" holiday (8 p.m. Friday).
David left after the seventh season in 1996. Seinfeld returned for two more seasons as TV's No. 1 prime-time series. Seinfeld turned down $5 million per episode from General Electric, which owned NBC at the time, to stick around for a 10th season.
"Jerry just felt, 'We're not going to be able to surprise the audience in a 10th season.' He wanted to go out the undefeated champ. I have to admire Jerry for that creative decision, not to disappoint the audience. A good comedian knows when to get off the stage. I didn't try to convince him to come back, because I felt the decision was the right one," Ludwin says.
Seinfeld was a "career highlight" for Ludwin, the Cleveland native who has given generously to his alma mater. Miami's TV studio in Williams Hall, where Ludwin returns each year to talk to students, was named the Richard A. Ludwin Television Production Facility in March.
"I thought Jerry's comedy was very relatable. He was very telegenic, he looked good on camera. He had been doing stand-up comedy for about 10 years, and had a definite point of view and style. We thought he was ready," he says.
Who knew that Seinfeld would become a classic that has never left TV for 30 years?
"I thought we had a good show on our hands. Did I know it would be a huge hit? Did Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David know? No, none of us knew it would turn into a monster hit."
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Here's my guide to the 30 episodes on TBS Friday, July 5:
6 a.m.: "The Chinese Restaurant": A "real time" episode when Jerry, Elaine and George wait to be seated at a Chinese restaurant.
6:30 a.m. "The Pen": While in Florida, Jerry gets into an argument with his parents' neighbor over an "astronaut pen."
7 a.m.: "The Parking Garage": Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer forget where they parked and wander around a huge mall parking garage.
7:30 a.m.: "The Red Dot": George buys Elaine a marked-down cashmere sweater as a thank-you gift.
8 a.m.: "The Subway": Weird encounters on the New York subway system: A semi-naked man, a power outage and an attractive woman who robs George of his money and clothes.
8:30 a.m.: "The Pitch": Jerry and George pitch their idea for a TV show about "nothing" to NBC executives. The Stu Chermack character (Kevin Page) is based on Ludwin; NBC programmer Russell Dalrymple (Bob Balaban) is NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield.
9 a.m.: The Bubble Boy": Jerry gets lost en route to visiting a fan with an autoimmune disease.
9:30 a.m.: "The Contest": Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine vie at self-denial. Are you the master of your domain?
10 a.m.: "The Implant": The one should be called "The Double Dipper." George double dips his chip in dip, while Jerry dumps his new girlfriend Sidra (Teri Hatcher) because she has implants.
10:30 a.m.: "The Junior Mint": Kramer and Jerry think they killed a surgery patient with Junior Mints.
11 a.m.: "The Puffy Shirt": Jerry inadvertently agrees to wear a silly puffy, pirate-like shirt on Bryant Gumbel's Today show designed by Kramer's girlfriend, a "low talker" whose soft voice is difficult to understand.
11:30 a.m.: "The Marine Biologist": While posing as a marine biologist, George saves a beached whale by removing Kramer's golf ball from its blowhole.
Noon: "The Opposite": By going against his instincts, George experiences immediate success with women and a job offer from the New York Yankees.
12:30 p.m.: "The Hamptons": Jerry's old girlfriend sees George naked during a weekend at the beach. Shrinkage!
1 p.m.: "The Big Salad": George is upset that his girlfriend gets credit for him buying a large salad for Elaine; Jerry worries that his new girlfriend once dated Newman.
1:30 p.m.: "The Fusilli Jerry": Kramer makes a sculpture of Jerry from Fusilli pasta; Puddy puts the moves on Elaine; the DMV gives Kramer the wrong license plates.
2 p.m.: "The Soup Nazi": Jerry's favorite soup vendor won't serve his new girlfriend or Elaine. No soup for you!
2:30 p.m.: "The Sponge": Elaine gets picky about her men after her favorite birth control method is discontinued.
3 p.m.: "The Rye": George's and Susan's parents first dinner together ends with George's dad taking home the rye bread gift he brought to the party.
3:30 p.m.: "The Invitations": George's fiancé Susan suffers fatal consequences from his cheap wedding invitations; Jerry dates a woman just like him (Janeane Garofalo).
4 p.m.: "The Bizarro Jerry": Elaine's boyfriend has friends who resemble George and Kramer.
4:30 p.m.: "The Little Kicks" Nobody has the heart to tell Elaine she's a terrible dancer.
5 p.m.: "The Chicken Roaster": Kramer gets hooked on Kenny Rogers' Roasters chicken, while the restaurant sign keeps him up all night.
5:30 p.m.: The Abstinence": George becomes a genius when his new girlfriend requires their abstinence; Kramer turns his apartment into a smoking lounge.
6 p.m.: "The Comeback": George seeks the perfect comeback after a coworker insults him.
6:30 p.m.: "The Yada Yada" George realizes his girlfriend's slang glosses over vital information; when Jerry criticizes Kramer's dentist (Cranston), he calls Jerry "an anti-dentite."
7 p.m.: "The Serenity Now": Jerry's new girlfriend (Lori Laughlin) urges him to express his emotions.
7:30 p.m.: "The Merv Griffin Show": Kramer rescues the Merv Griffen Show set and puts it in his apartment; Jerry's new girlfriend won't let him touch her awesome toy collection.
8 p.m.: "The Strike": George's father invents a new holiday, "a Festivus for the rest of us," which features the annual Airing of Grievances; Kramer returns to work at the bagel shop after a 12-year strike.
8:30 p.m.: "The Frogger": Jerry dates a girl who finishes his sentences; Elaine eats Peterman's cake; Kramer helps George steal an arcade game on which he still has the highest score for Frogger.