Time & Attendance
Jun. 28, 2012
It was called “the show about nothing,” yet over nine seasons Seinfeld mattered very much to millions of TV viewers.
On the surface, it would seem that a show whose main characters were not exactly workforce go-getters would not provide many workplace stories, but that’s where you’d be wrong. Seinfeld, in fact, had much ado about something when it came to employment matters.
Indeed, it should be of little surprise that the award-winning sitcom topped 63 other contenders in Workforce Management’s Pop Culture bracket challenge.
Certainly, the numbers verified the readers’ verdict. During its final four seasons on the air, Seinfeld ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the Nielsen Media Research ratings.
Created by stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld and writer Larry David, Seinfeld introduced such cultural landmark phrases as “Yada, yada, yada,” “No soup for you” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Many of the episodes were based on the writers’ real-life experiences, such as “The Revenge” episode where George Costanza (Jason Alexander) quits his job only to realize later that he didn’t think things through, so he shows up the next day and acts as if nothing happened. In real life, David reportedly pulled the same stunt while working as a writer on Saturday Night Live, but he had better results with the strategy than George did.
Jerry Seinfeld’s real-life persona as a stand-up comic did share a show business/entertainment element with a pair of comedy heavyweights from TV’s earlier days: I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. But unlike those shows, Jerry’s comedy career was merely a backdrop to the funny business on the show. Many Seinfeld shows barely mentioned Jerry’s stand-up gig, and its characters were not united by work.
Yet Chuck Ross, managing director of Workforce sister publication TVWeek, noted that Seinfeld “certainly had a lot of shows about the workplace,” be it restaurants, car repair shops or courtrooms.
And some of the show’s supporting characters actually had regular jobs. Jerry’s nemesis, Newman (Wayne Knight), for instance, worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier. In one episode, he and Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) devise a scheme to use a mail truck to bring a bevy of bottle caps to Michigan to collect 10 cents apiece from the deposits, instead of the 5 cents they get in New York. We’re guessing human resources would have a field day with that one.
But the main characters’ jobs were just as important to the plot lines. Jerry, for one, provided ballast as a stand-up comic.
George, on the other hand, was anything but stable. He was not beyond pretending to be an architect or an importer/exporter. He rotated between unemployment, imaginary jobs and his best-known position, assistant to the traveling secretary for the New York Yankees.
In one episode, George actually got hired after telling off Yankee owner George Steinbrenner for making bad baseball personnel decisions over the years. As the show progressed, George, ever the opportunist, realized his best career move would be to leave his car in the Yankees’ parking lot after he locked his keys in the vehicle. By leaving his car, Steinbrenner thought George was the first one in and the last to leave. Of course, George didn’t take windshield fliers and bird droppings into account when he hatched the plan.
When Elaine Benes (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) asked him, “What do you do all day?” George quickly answered, “Not much.” He also provided a key bit of advice for office workers everywhere: “When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy.”
While George at least got out into the workforce, Kramer was mostly relegated to living in his apartment. He briefly filled in as a hansom cab driver, telling a group of Japanese tourists that Central Park “was designed in 1850 by Joe Pepitone,” an outrageous line that certainly would have surprised park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Also, Pepitone, the one-time Yankees first basemen, was not born until 1940.
He also held jobs as a department store Santa and a bagel-maker. We learn in the final season that Kramer had worked at H&H Bagels, and that he was the only employee who stayed on strike for a full 12 years hoping for more dough. He finally returned to his job when the minimum wage was raised, but Kramer soon went back on strike when the shop wouldn’t let him take the made-up holiday Festivus off. Usually, however, Kramer was out of work. When he announced, “I’m retiring,” Jerry answered in disbelief, “From what?”
Elaine was the only main character to hold a traditional 9-to-5 job. She was a copy writer for Pendant Publishing and later an editor for the J. Peterman catalog, where her hatred for the movie The English Patient nearly ended her employment there.
Unlike many shows, Seinfeld left the air while still a hot property. But through syndication, DVD and YouTube, fans of Seinfeld still have many opportunities to view a show that helped their own quality of life—both in and out of the workplace.
Richard Rothschild is a writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. Comment below or email email@example.com.
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