Seinfeld was one of the greatest television shows of all time. It was hilarious and quite unlike anything that had been seen before. It became such a classic, pervasive piece of pop culture that, today, if you were to say a line from the show (such as “yada, yada, yada” or “no soup for you”) to someone who was an adult in the ’90’s, you’ll likely get an instant laugh, giggle or chortle as they recall a scene that they likely saw a dozen times or more.
Due to its incredible popularity, it’s easy to forget that it took several seasons for the show to find its stride and become a hit. A look at Seinfeld’s pilot episode demonstrates where the show started and provides five surprising things.
1. It Was The Seinfeld Chronicles
Seinfeld was originally conceived as a 90 minute special that would chronicle how comedians create their stand-up material. Later, co-creaters Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (on whom the character George Costanza was based and would have his own hilarious HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm) repurposed the idea as a series called The Seinfeld Chronicles, which portrayed a fictional life of Seinfeld. The series pilot debuted on NBC with this title on July 5, 1989.
The title wasn’t the only noticeable difference in the appearance of the show. The Seinfeld Chronicles also aired with different theme music, a piece of forgettable 80’s-style synthesized dreck. The main sets, Jerry’s apartment and the diner where Jerry and George ate, were also different from the sets that were used afterwards.
2. No Elaine, Only Claire
Seinfeld is not the same show without its four cast members: Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louise Dreyfuss, with all but Jerry winning an Emmy performance award.
It’s quite the shock, then, that Dreyfuss, and her character Elaine Benes, are nowhere to be seen in the pilot episode.
Instead, the fourth credited cast member is Lee Garlington, who played Claire, the waitress at the diner where Jerry and George ate in the episode’s first scene. The character is only present in this scene, to provide a female’s perspective on the conversation and to serve regular coffee (rather than the requested decaf) to George.
When the series was later picked up by NBC, Garlington was dropped and Dreyfuss was introduced late in the second episode as Elaine. Apparently, there is some dispute as to the reasons for the change. Some say it was because Larry David was angered when Garlington re-wrote her only scene. Others say it was because Elaine was sexier. The more probable reason is that, from a storytelling perspective, Elaine’s character, as Jerry’s ex-girlfriend and current friend, could interact more often with the gang than Claire, who would have been tied to scenes in the diner.
As a side note, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has stated that she has never seen the Seinfeld pilot episode and never will, thinking that it would be unlucky to do so.
3. He’s Kessler and He Has a Dog
Michael Richards’s character, Kramer, is one of the most memorable television characters of all time. For most of the series, the eccentric, charismatic, and tactless character was known simply as “Kramer” (until the sixth season when it was revealed that his first name was Cosmo).
Well, except for the pilot episode, when the character is named “Kessler.”
That’s not the only difference with the character. In the pilot, Jerry suggests that, amongst his many quirks, Kramer (sorry, Kessler) is a hermit, joking that he hasn’t left the building for ten years. He also has a dog, which was in the episode because an early version of the script had Jerry doing a bit about dogs in his stand-up.
By the second episode, Kessler was Kramer and the dog was gone.
4. Jerry Is Different
By the end of the series, Jerry was infamous for his obsession with neatness and cleanliness. He was frequently appalled when his friends and dates acted in uncleanly ways. In fact, on several occasions, he dumped girlfriends who committed untidy acts. including two women who become involved with toilet water (one accidentally had toilet water splashed on her and another used a tooth-brush that, unbeknownst to her, fell in the toilet).
The Jerry in the pilot is not exactly the same Jerry.
For instance, in the first scene set in Jerry’s apartment, we see him sitting down to watch a taped Mets game while wearing the above outfit. Not only is the outfit an eyesore, but it also consists of sweatpants, something for which Jerry gives George grief later in the series.
In addition, Jerry doesn’t blink when Kessler’s dog heads into Jerry’s bathroom and drinks the toilet water. In fact, Jerry actually heads into the bathroom while the dog is in it and closes the door on both of them.
It’s hard to imagine that this is the same Jerry we see later.
Have I mentioned his outfit is an eyesore?
5. Stand-up Sit-com
As stated above, one of the Seinfeld’s concepts was to portray how comedians imagine their material for their stand-up routines. As a result, almost all of the Seinfeld episodes aired short stand-up scenes over the beginning and end credits, with the jokes pertaining to the episode’s topic.
The pilot, as did other episodes in the first season, relied on such scenes to a far greater extent, using four scenes: at the beginning, two interspersed throughout the episode and one at the end.
In addition, all of the pilot stand-up scenes are noticeably longer than those in other episodes. For instance, in the episode “The Contest” in Season 4 (arguably the greatest Seinfeld episode ever and the one that made the show a household name), the two stand-up scenes were approximately thirty seconds long.
In the pilot, each of the stand-up scenes ran an average of a minute and twenty seconds long, with the final stand-up scene, where Jerry discusses how men are unable to read women’s signals, lasting two minutes. The show’s credits didn’t roll until this scene was over.
Overall, the pilot had some laughs, but it wasn’t hilarious. The plot had Jerry dealing with a woman he met at a gig in Michigan. The woman is visiting New York for work and wants to see Jerry while she is there. Throughout the episode, Jerry struggles to read the woman’s signals. Is she in town for a booty call? Or does she just need a Sexless Innkeeper?
NBC decided to re-air the pilot in 1990, with the small changes mentioned above. The repeat airing did well enough to convince NBC to order a first season of four episodes (which indicates their hesitancy — most seasons are 22 episodes long). With this order, the show made changes and, with some time, became one of the best sit-coms of all time, if not the very best.
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