How Seinfeld, the Sitcom Famously “About Nothing,” Is Like Gustave Flaubert’s Novels About Nothing

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jacques Der­ri­da on Sein­feld: “Decon­struc­tion Doesn’t Pro­duce Any Sit­com”

What’s the Deal with Pop Tarts? Jer­ry Sein­feld Explains How to Write a Joke

Watch a New, “Orig­i­nal” Episode of Sein­feld Per­formed Live on Stage

Sein­feld & Noth­ing­ness: A Super­cut of the Show’s Emp­ti­est Moments

Sein­feld, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Ricky Ger­vais Dis­sect the Craft of Com­e­dy (NSFW)

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.

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