Seinfeld pulled off an unusual combination of feats during its dominant 1990s run on NBC: It was regarded as unassailably cool, but it was also a massive hit with tens of millions of viewers. It was risky, but mainstream. It was almost canceled at least twice, but it went on to run for nine years and change television comedy forever, a story I tell in my book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.
That’s why it has a lot to teach us about innovation—lessons that can be adapted from their ’90s origins to today’s crowded marketplace of ideas:
- Have faith in promising opportunities, even if you don’t know where they’re headed. The show’s star and co-creator, Jerry Seinfeld, said it best: “Seinfeld is something I learned to do because I was given the opportunity. Then the show spiraled off into this whole other entity that I knew I had to serve because it had its own desire to be something.” He took the offer when NBC asked him to create his own show, then consulted someone he thought might be able to help—his fellow comedian Larry David. Together, they made Seinfeld, which took some time to evolve into the landmark of TV comedy it became. That never would have happened if Seinfeld had said no to NBC just because he didn’t know how to make a sitcom.
- Create distinctive moments and images. When the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team held Seinfeld nights in recent years, fans knew exactly what to do: They came dressed in flowy, floral dresses and teased their hair to participate in the Elaine dance-off, evoking a 1996 episode in which the character, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, displays a remarkably unattractive dance style. They wore bushy wigs and smoked pipes in homage to Jerry’s manic man-about-town neighbor, Kramer. They slipped into puffy, pirate-style shirts like the one Jerry once reluctantly wore to fulfill a promise. These images had echoed through decades of Seinfeld reruns and streamings to land here in the 2010s as vibrant as ever—because they were so indelible and unique. They were Seinfeld, and nothing else.
- Lean into your superpower, even if it seems mundane to you. The seed of Seinfeld began in a Korean deli late one night in November 1988 as Seinfeld and David roamed the aisles, riffing on the unusual foods and products they found, including Korean jelly. (Why jelly? Did it also come in spray and foam?) David had a vision: “This is the kind of discussion you don’t see on TV.” The idea of two (very funny) guys talking about everyday stuff became the starting point for the “show about nothing.” Your special abilities might seem workaday to you, but they might be exactly what distinguishes your work. Learn to recognize them—or ask a friend what makes you stand out.
- Find inspiration in real, everyday life. Almost every character and plot point on Seinfeld started in one of the creators’ or writers’ lives. The character of Kramer began with Kenny Kramer, David’s across-the-hall neighbor in Midtown Manhattan when David was writing the pilot episode. George’s neuroses came from David himself, and the two shared many escapades, including the time when George quit his job dramatically, regretted it, and re-appeared at the office the following Monday, acting as if nothing had happened. (David did this at Saturday Night Live.) Elaine and Jerry’s romance-turned-friendship originated with David’s similar relationship with Monica Yates, daughter of novelist Richard Yates. (Richard would serve as the model for Elaine’s cantankerous novelist father.) Starting with real-life inspirations gave the best Seinfeld moments a grounded feeling no matter how crazy the twists and turns ultimately became.
- Find and treasure your champions. Seinfeld would have died an early and quiet death if not for Rick Ludwin, the executive who oversaw late-night and special programming at NBC. Because he’d been the one to initially recruit Seinfeld after seeing the comedian perform on late-night shows, he ended up shepherding David and Seinfeld’s first script, called The Seinfeld Chronicles, onto the air in 1989—in the dead zone of summer, the day after the 4th of July holiday. It was meant to end there, but Ludwin argued for four more episodes the following summer, which he financed by cutting a Bob Hope comedy special from his budget. It was then that Seinfeld (as it was now called) showed some ratings promise as it aired after reruns of the hit show Cheers, which was enough for it to get 12 episodes the following year. Finally, others at NBC besides Ludwin saw that it had potential, and it went on to become one of the defining shows of the decade.