“It was a weird thing to do,” Jerry Seinfeld acknowledges. “No. 1 television shows don’t go off the air.”
But in this case, it did.
After nine years on NBC, “Seinfeld,” one of the most successful TV sitcoms of all time, voluntarily ended its run with a one-hour finale that aired May 14, 1998. In its final season, the series finished at the top of the ratings, beating out “ER,” and attracted an audience of more than 75 million for its last episode.
Jerry Seinfeld’s comments on why he decided to end his hit show, despite “living high on the hog then” - including an offer by NBC of a staggering $5 million per episode if he’d return for another season - are from an interview and a round-table discussion with his co-stars that are included with “Seinfeld: Season 9,” a four-disc DVD set to be released Tuesday (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $49.95, not rated). Like previous “Seinfeld” DVDs, it’s packed with commentaries, interviews, bloopers, deleted scenes, animated episodes, trivia and more.
In the round-table talk, Seinfeld, along with Jason Alexander (who portrayed George Costanza), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine Benes) and Michael Richards (Kramer), plus co-creator Larry David, reminisce about their work together and the series’ final year.
David, who contributed so much to the show’s irreverent tone and dark sense of humor, had left the series after the seventh season, but was invited back by Seinfeld to write the series finale.
The conventional wisdom is that “Seinfeld,” while remaining funny during its last two years, fell slightly from the heights it had reached with David. There was a similar reaction regarding the much-hyped series finale, which left many viewers and critics underwhelmed.
I disagree. Just as Season 8, the first without David, scored with Elaine’s memorable dance at an office party, Kramer’s addiction to nicotine, “The Bizarro Jerry,” “The Yada-Yada,” Jerry’s “anti-dentism” and much more, Season 9 is packed with comedic treasures.
As Seinfeld, director Andy Ackerman and others point out in various “Inside Look” segments, the creative forces decided to take more flights of fancy in Season 9, departing from the somewhat realistic settings for previous episodes. And NBC’s deep pockets led to more locations and more daring, and expensive, filming.
“Finance wasn’t an issue,” says Ackerman, pointing out that when they asked for an elephant for the scenes set in India in “The Betrayal” episode, NBC provided one. Similarly, when the crew drew up an elaborate overhead shot for “The Frogger” involving dozens of cars, it was no problem.
Season 9 began spectacularly with “The Butter Shave,” a brilliantly written and acted episode in which Elaine and her boyfriend Puddy (Patrick Warburton) repeatedly break up and get back together during a long plane ride; Kramer begins to use butter for shaving and other purposes, all the while tormenting the olfactory-attuned Newman (Wayne Knight); George gets a job at a sporting goods company and convinces his new boss that he’s handicapped, and Jerry takes a “dive” at a nightclub show to expose Bania (Stephen Hytner), an inferior comic.
In “The Betrayal,” the “Seinfeld” team came up with one of the series’ all-time best episodes. The famous “backwards” episode, in which scenes run in reverse order, was made two years before Christopher Nolan’s similarly structured suspense movie, “Memento.” As writers David Mandel and Peter Mehlman explain, it’s actually a tribute to playwright Harold Pinter and his play, “The Betrayal,” which runs backward in showing the deterioration of a relationship. (One of the DVD’s bonus features allows you to watch the episode forward instead of backward, i.e. in chronological order.)
The episode is in part about the gang traveling to India for a wedding, but the time-reversing allows for a cameo appearance by George’s deceased fiancee Susan (Heidi Swedberg) and a wonderful final scene in which we learn why Kramer has always used Jerry’s apartment and all that’s inside it as his own.
“We’re neighbors. Come on in. What’s mine is yours,” are Jerry’s fateful words to Kramer when they first meet.
Other classic moments in Season 9 include Jerry developing a silly voice (“Hellooo!”); Frank Costanza’s (Jerry Stiller) “Serenity Now” mantra and Festivus celebration; Kramer filling his apartment with the set and furniture from “The Merv Griffin Show”; George’s bogus “Human Fund”; Elaine and Puddy’s disagreement over religion; Kramer and Mickey (Danny Woodburn) becoming fake patients for medical students, and the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
As for the David-penned series-ender, which involved the gang surviving a near-plane crash and being stuck in a small Massachusetts town where they run afoul of a new “good samaritan” law and go on trial in a case covered nationally by Geraldo Rivera, it was a creative way both to bring back memorable characters from past seasons and to come full circle.
In the trial, in which the Fab Four are defended by Kramer’s former lawyer, Jackie Chiles (Phil Morris), they face a stream of character witnesses who testify to their callousness, indifference, cynicism and general anti-social behavior. These appearances ingeniously allow for clips of the original transgressions to be shown along with the new testimony, giving viewers many fond memories of episodes past.
And the final scenes, in which Jerry and George replicate an inane discussion about shirt buttons they had in the series’ very first episode, and Jerry wraps it all up with some observational stand-up comedy in prison, make a near-perfect conclusion.
Finally, for those who haven’t been collecting these individual “Seinfeld” seasons on DVD, Sony will also release Tuesday “Seinfeld: The Complete Series” ($283.95). It’s a mammoth 32-disc box containing all 180 series episodes, a 226-page “Official Coffee Table Book” and more.
That’s one whole lot of nothing.