“A show about nothing”: people have described Seinfeld that way for decades, but creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David didn’t set out to create anything of the kind. In fact, with Seinfeld himself already established as a stand-up comedian, they originally pitched to NBC a show about how a comic finds material in his day-to-day life. But in its 43rd episode, when the series had become a major cultural phenomenon, Seinfeld’s character and Jason Alexander’s George Costanza (whom David based on himself) pitch a show to television executives where “nothing happens,” and fans seized upon the truth about Seinfeld they saw reflected in that joke.
In the video essay above, Evan Puschak, known as the Nerdwriter, figures out why. It’s a cultural and intellectual journey that takes him back to the 19th-century novels of Gustave Flaubert. “Flaubert was a pioneer of literary realism, in large part responsible for raising the status of the novel to that of a high art,” says Puschak.
In 1852, Flaubert wrote a letter describing his ambition to write “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style.” Instead of wanting to “string you along with multiple suspense-heightening narrative developments,” in Puschak’s view, “he wants to bring you into the text itself, to look there for the carefully constructed meanings that he’s built for you.”
And so, in their own way, do Seinfeld and David in the sitcom that became and remains so beloved in large part with its numerous departures from the traditions the form had established over the past forty years. “It wasn’t until Seinfeld that the conventions of the sitcom were deconstructed fully, when all forms of unity, familial and especially romantic, were wholeheartedly abandoned. For Seinfeld, these additional elements were just so much fluff,” distractions from telling a story “held together by the internal strength of its comedy.” The critic James Wood, quoted in this video, once wrote that “novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it really all begins with him.” By the same token, two epochs exist for the writers of sitcoms: before Seinfeld and after. Not bad for a show about nothing — or not about nothing.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.