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Episodes About Nothing: Seinfeld’s Bottle Episodes

Seinfeld’s best episodes were the ones about nothing: the ones that embraced unremarkable social situations with absurdist nihilism, writes Henry Oliver. //

From today’s vantagepoint, it can be hard to remember how different sitcoms were before Seinfeld. The most popular comedies of the era – Cheers, Full House, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Who’s the Boss? – were all about family, friends or workmates having a problem or misunderstanding and then straightening it out, telling a few jokes and learning a few lessons in the process. But as the positive 80s approached the cynical 90s, Seinfeld turned that format on it head.

Seinfeld’s writers had only two rules: “no hugging, no learning”. With little in the way of character or plot development, no one predicted that the ‘show about nothing’ would be a hit.[1] While it took a couple of seasons to find an audience, Seinfeld soon became the epitome of ‘watercooler television’ – a show that you had to have watched to participate in small-talk at school/work the next day. And as soon as the Seinfeld’s popularity was cemented, the premise of a group of friends not being super nice to each other was softened and assimilated by the more socially adjusted Friends[2], and has become a palpable influence on nearly every good sitcom made since.[3]

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But, of course, Seinfeld isn’t literally about nothing. Something does actually happen every episode, but that something is usually some social minutia or barely-there-story that before Seinfeld was found in modernist theatre and art house films, not network sitcoms. But Seinfeld’s two bottle episodes[4] – ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ (S02E11) and ‘The Parking Space’ (S03E06) – were as close to nothing as you could get. They upped the stakes by taking the characters into a single location with a single plot, using a banal situation as a stage for the petty drama of metropolitan life, and showed how to make nothing into something millions of people would want to watch for decades[5] to come.

The Chinese Restaurant

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In ‘The Chinese Restaurant’, Jerry, George and Elaine[6] wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant. That’s all they do. Seriously. That’s it. They wait for the entire length of the show, in real time, and then, SPOILER ALERT, they leave. Nothing. Unless you count George needing to use the payphone to call his girlfriend, Elaine being super hungry and Jerry worried about missing out on going to Plan 9 from Outer Space.

In lieu of a plot, topics of conversation include:

  • Whether the city should prioritise hiring cops or garbage men[7]
  • Whether its worth lying to a family member in order to be able to see Plan 9 From Outer Space
  • How to bribe your way to a table
  • Needing to go to the toilet during sex[8]

In ‘The Pitch’ (S04E03), one of the show’s best and most meta episodes, Jerry has been asked to pitch a sit-com to NBC. Mirroring the real origin story of the show, Jerry brings in George (playing a stand-in for Larry David, the show’s IRL co-creator) to help him. George comes up with the idea of a show about nothing, referring to the events that took place in the ‘The Chinese Restaurant’:

While it obviously bought the pitch, the real NBC was concerned with ‘The Chinese Restaurant’, apparently thinking the show – which was still yet to find a large audience – had simply run out of money. But as soon as it aired, the episode was an immediate critical hit and is often considered as Seinfeld’s ‘grow the beard’[9] episode, showing it’s viewers what ‘nothing’ really meant, and what a show about nothing could do.

The Parking Garage

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After the success of the ‘Chinese Restaurant’ experiment, Larry David (who co-wrote that episode with Jerry Seinfeld) felt that he had a mandate to push the show further in content and form. If 22 minutes of waiting for a table was considered the best episode of the show so far, what was another annoying situation that we’ve all been in that David could magnify and scrutinise? What else could he get away with?

The universalism of walking around looking for your car in an enormous car park is perfect for the kind of observational comedy Jerry Seinfeld perfected. (“Have you ever noticed…”, “What’s the deal with…”.) But David’s further innovation is taking these observations to darker and more absurd places: a child George defends from a Mother who is hitting him calls George ugly, Jerry gets busted for public urination and tells the cop he has a life threatening urinary condition, George and Kramer discuss mortality[10], Elaine obsesses over how long her goldfish will last in a plastic bag full of water.

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‘The Parking Garage’ became a template for how Seinfeld would proceed. Take an unremarkable social situation and fill it with absurdity, big city callousness, liberal nihilism and 90s individualism. Also, make light of the dark, trivialising anything people are supposed to take seriously: religion, sex, friendship, loyalty, community, pride in one’s work. The blueprint is under all of the best episodes of the remaining six seasons – ‘The Soup Nazi’, ‘The Contest’, ‘The Merv Griffin Show’, ‘The Marine Biologist’, ‘The Yada Yada’ and ‘The Contest’ – and under most of the best comedies on today. Nothing hasn’t just become something, it’s become everything.

[1] An NBC executive said that Seinfeld was “too New York, too Jewish”. Early test audiences reported: “You can’t get too excited about two guys in a laundromat,” and “Why are they interrupting the stand-up for these stupid stories?”

[2] A “so-so Seinfeld wannabe,” according to an early review.

[3] See: Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, Girls, Louie and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

[4] Some terminology: A bottle episode is an episode of a TV show (duh) that takes place entirely in one location, usually involving a minimum number of actors. The form originated in the 60s’ Star Trek, when they would have entire episodes that took place in the Starship Enterprise. The Star Trek cast and crew called these ‘ship in the bottle episodes’. Bottle episodes are usually an an excuse to bang out a cheap episode to help pay more more ambitious (expensive) episodes. The Shield executive Producer Scott Brazil once called bottle episodes “the sad little step child whose allowance is docked in order to buy big brother a new pair of sneaks”.

[5] The first episode of Seinfeld aired in the US 25 years ago on 5 July 1989.

[6] Kramer does not appear in the episode because in the first two seasons he is never seen outside of the apartment building. Apparently, Michael Richards (who plays Kramer) felt aggrieved at being left out of this breakthrough episode.

[7] George: You’re never going to stop crime. We should at least be clean.

Jerry: “They should combine the two jobs. Make it one job: cop/garbageman.

[8] George: So I finally stop and say, “Tatiana, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I think it would be best if I left.”

Jerry: You said this to her after.

George: No. During.

Jerry: Oh, boy.

George: Yeah.

[9] Some more terminology: ‘Growing the beard’ is the opposite of ‘jumping the shark’. It refers to an episode when a show noticeably jumps in quality. The phenomenon is a reference to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which (I’m told) got considerably better when the character Commander Riker grew a beard at the beginning of the second season.

[10] George: Oh what’s the difference? We’ll all be dead eventually.

Kramer: Does that bother you?

George: Yeah, it bothers me. Doesn’t it bother you?

Kramer: Not at all.

George: See now that bothers me even more than dying bothers me, cause it’s people like you who live to be a hundred and twenty because you’re not bothered by it.

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