Seinfeld is a sitcom that originally ran for nine seasons on NBC, from 1989 to 1998. It was created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the latter starring as a fictionalized version of himself. Set predominantly in an apartment building in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in New York City, the show features a handful of Jerry’s friends and acquaintances, particularly best friend George Costanza (Jason Alexander), former girlfriend Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and neighbor across the hall Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards).
Seinfeld was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment. In syndication the series has been distributed by Sony Pictures Television since 2002. It was largely co-written by David and Seinfeld with script writers, who included Larry Charles, Peter Mehlman, Gregg Kavet, Andy Robin, Carol Leifer, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer, Steve Koren, Jennifer Crittenden, Tom Gammill, Max Pross, Dan O’Keefe, Charlie Rubin, Marjorie Gross, Alec Berg, Elaine Pope, and Spike Feresten.
Seinfeld began as a 23-minute pilot titled The Seinfeld Chronicles. Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, developed by NBC executive Rick Ludwin, and produced by Castle Rock Entertainment, it was a mix of Seinfeld’s stand-up comedy routines and idiosyncratic, conversational scenes focusing on mundane aspects of everyday life such as laundry, the buttoning of the top button on one’s shirt and the attempt by men to properly interpret the intent of women spending the night in Seinfeld’s apartment.
The pilot was filmed at Stage 8 of Desilu Cahuenga studios, the same studio where The Dick Van Dyke Show was filmed (this was seen by the crew as a good omen), and was recorded at Ren-Mar Studios in Hollywood. The pilot was first screened to a group of two dozen NBC executives in Burbank, California in early 1989. It did not yield the explosion of laughter garnered by the pilots for the decade’s previous NBC successes like The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls. Brandon Tartikoff, was not convinced that the show would work. A Jewish man from New York himself, Tartikoff characterized it as “Too New York, too Jewish”. Test audiences were even harsher. NBC’s practice at the time was to recruit 400 households by phone to ask them to evaluate pilots it aired on an unused channel on its cable system. An NBC research department memo summarized the pilot’s performance among the respondents as “Weak”, which Littlefield called “a dagger to the heart”. Comments included, “You can’t get too excited about two guys going to the laundromat”; “Jerry’s loser friend George is not a forceful character”; “Jerry needs a stronger supporting cast”; and “Why are they interrupting the stand-up for these stupid stories?”
When NBC announced its 1989-90 primetime schedule in May 1989, The Seinfeld Chronicles was not included, but supporters of the show did not give up on it. The pilot first aired on July 5, 1989, and finished second in its time slot against the CBS police drama Jake and the Fatman, receiving a Nielsen rating of 10.9/19, meaning that the pilot was watched by 10.9% of American households, and that 19% of all televisions in use at the time were tuned into it. The ratings did not exhibit regional skew that Tartikoff predicted, much to the encouragement of the show’s supporters. Despite the poor test results, Ludwin cancelled one of the Bob Hope specials budgeted for that season so that the entertainment division had the money to order four more episodes of The Seinfeld Chronicles, which formed the rest of the show’s first season a move without which Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal later stated there would be no Seinfeld. Although this was a very low order number for a new series (the smallest sitcom order in television history), Castle Rock failed to find any other buyers when it shopped the show to other networks, and accepted the order. The show was renamed Seinfeld, but it would not return to the airwaves until May 30, 1990, and it would be another three years before it became a Top 5 ratings success. Preston Beckman, who was in charge of NBC’s research department at the time, reminisces, “The show was different. Nobody had seen anything like it. It wasn’t unusual for poor-testing shows to get on the air, but it was very rare that they became hits.” Seinfeld and David did not see the memo for several years, but after they became aware of it, they hung it in a bathroom on the set. Seinfeld comments, “We thought, if someone goes in to use this bathroom, this is something they should see. It fits that moment.”
When it was first repeated on June 28, 1990, it received a rating of 13.9/26. These ratings were high enough to secure a second season. NBC research showed that the show was popular with young male adults, a demographic sought after by advertisers. This gave NBC an incentive to keep broadcasting the show. One DVD reviewer, Britt Gillette, wrote that “this initial episode exhibits the flashes of brilliance that made Seinfeld a cultural phenomenon.”