Cinema and Media Studies Seinfeld
Paul Arras
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0346


Co-created by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and his friend, also a stand-up comic, Larry David, Seinfeld (1989–1998) ran for nine seasons on NBC. The show was initially designed around Jerry (Seinfeld, playing a version of himself), but his three friends, George (played by Jason Alexander and based loosely on Larry David), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Kramer (Michael Richards) would feature just as prominently. The four unmarried characters would gather at Jerry’s Upper West Side apartment or the neighborhood diner to commiserate on the challenges of their social and professional lives, talking and scheming their way through failed relationships, crazy parents, annoying acquaintances, and eccentric bosses. Television critics picked up on the show’s quality almost immediately, but a larger audience was slow to find Seinfeld. After the pilot scored infamously low with a test audience, NBC was about to pass on the show before its late-night division stepped in to fund it for primetime programming, providing a budget for a meagre four-episode first season. The next year, NBC remained cautiously supportive with a twelve-episode order, and by season three, the first full season, the show was catching on. Season four, which included a serialized, self-referential plot about Jerry and George creating a sitcom for NBC, won the show its only Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. By season five, it reached third in the Nielsen ratings, finishing either first or second in every season thereafter. The language of the show entered the cultural zeitgeist, and terms like “soup Nazi” and “sponge-worthy” remain part of the American lexicon. The much-hyped final episode ultimately scored the fourth largest audience for a series finale in history—over 75 million viewers. The episode eschewed a happy ending in favor of a more deserved fate for the four characters, who are punished for their nine seasons of selfish behavior. The finale received mixed reviews from critics and fans, and is remembered as a letdown. Overall, Seinfeld is considered one of the greatest sitcoms in television history, lauded for its writing, which was groundbreaking for its complex and interwoven plots, and for its comedic style, finding humor in the minutiae of daily life—it was known affectionately as a “show about nothing.” However, as the multifaceted scholarship on Seinfeld reveals, that nickname is misleading.

General Overviews

When Seinfeld first debuted in 1989, the study of television was still a fairly nascent academic field, and sitcoms were rarely given serious attention. Literature on the show thus began to emerge in the years after Seinfeld’s series finale. As an efficient overview of the series and its significance in television and American culture, Austerlitz and Yates 2014 is a useful starting point for scholars unfamiliar with the show. Several monographs provide overviews of the series, and, given the large fan base that serve as potential readers, all of the books are written accessibly, while still offering more depth of information and insight than can be found in fan guides. Armstrong 2016 is a best-selling cultural history of the show written in a narrative style based on both interviews and published sources. Similarly structured around the development, content, and legacy of the show, Arras 2020 is slightly more analytical, as is Mirzoeff 2007, which is unique in its British perspective on the series. More scholarly depth and range can be found in Dunne and Lavery 2006, a rich anthology of essays that critically explore many different aspects of the show. When it was first published in 1999, Irwin 2009, the first Open Court’s “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series, launched the trend of using a popular television show to introduce readers to more complex academic subjects and ideas. That anthology uses Seinfeld to teach philosophy to students and other lay readers. Delaney 2006 and Ghent and Grant 2020 do the same with sociology and economics, respectively.

  • Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

    Aimed at a popular audience, this book constructs a narrative history of the series and its cultural legacy primarily through interviews with the show’s writers and production crew.

  • Arras, Paul. Seinfeld: A Cultural History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

    An accessible book that describes the development of the show, analyzes the content and themes of the series, and explores Seinfeld’s legacy on television and in American culture.

  • Austerlitz, Saul, and John Yates. “Seinfeld: ‘The Pitch.’“ In Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community. By Saul Austerlitz and John Yates, 225–241. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014.

    Tidy overview of the series, its background and significance. Useful for researchers looking for a quick introduction to the show.

  • Delaney, Tim. Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006.

    Accessible and lighthearted in tone, this book is aimed at introductory students of sociology and general fans of the show alike, but serves the latter more than the former as it does not offer much conceptual depth.

  • Dunne, Sara Lewis, and David Lavery, eds. Seinfeld: Master of Its Domain. New York: Continuum, 2006.

    A wide-ranging anthology of essays from television scholars with analysis on topics including genre, race, gender, and more.

  • Ghent, Linda S., and Alan P. Grant. Seinfeld and Economics: Lessons on Everything from the Show About Nothing. London: Routledge, 2020.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429274305

    Analyzes and explains the characters’ behavior through the lens of basic economics. Aimed at a general reader and intended to introduce economic theories to students.

  • Irwin, William, ed. Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing. Chicago: Open Court, 2009.

    Originally published in 1999, this was the first of the successful, and often imitated, Pop Culture and Philosophy series. Aimed at a popular audience, the book uses Seinfeld to introduce key philosophers and ideas.

  • Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Seinfeld. London: BFI, 2007.

    Part of the British Film Institute’s TV Classics series, this short book analyzes the show from an explicitly British perspective. Of note, chapter 4, “Too Jewish,” argues that anti-Semitism is to blame for the show’s failure to catch on in Britain.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.