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July 5, 1989: ''Seinfeld'' debuts

July 5, 1989: ”Seinfeld” debuts — Jerry Seinfeld’s shaky first go at sitcom success, ”The Seinfeld Chronicles,” hit the air on NBC 13 years ago

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Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, ...
Seinfeld: Paul Drinkwater

It became one of TV’s great sitcoms — but ”Seinfeld”’s July 5, 1989, debut was hardly auspicious. What audiences saw that evening was, in fact, a rejected pilot being ”burned off” during the summer rerun season. Then called ”The Seinfeld Chronicles,” the Larry David-Jerry Seinfeld creation was, in retrospect, a work in progress: Only Seinfeld and Jason Alexander’s George seemed like their later selves, while Michael Richards’ Kramer was a caricature named Kessler and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine didn’t exist. Yet even in its rough form, this offbeat comic hybrid — alternating Seinfeld’s stand-up monologues with scenes from his fictionalized life — was an instant hit with critics.

The good reviews didn’t hurt, says George Shapiro, one of the show’s exec producers and Seinfeld’s manager. But what really saved it was that ”everyone liked Jerry. They wanted him on NBC.” The show got a second chance with a four-episode run in summer 1990. The newly named ”Seinfeld” impressed the net enough to be brought back as a midseason replacement in January 1991. This time it stuck. Returning for its first full season that September, ”Seinfeld” ascended to the Nielsen top 10 by fall 1993. In its nine years on the air, Seinfeld won 10 Emmys and introduced ”shrinkage,” ”spongeworthy,” and ”master of your domain” into the national lexicon.

By the end of the eighth season, ”Seinfeld” was still at peak popularity — without most of its stars under contract for another year. The ninth season cost NBC a then-groundbreaking $1 million per episode for Jerry, along with $600,000 for each of his costars. But not even another hefty wage hike could lure them back for a 10th season. Turning down a reported offer of $5 million a show, the marquee name decided it was time to move on.

”Seinfeld”’s finale aired May 14, 1998, and although the ultra-cynical ending — dumping Jerry and company in jail for not being Good Samaritans — displeased a lot of fans, it hasn’t kept them from making ”Seinfeld” among the highest-rated series in syndication. Strangely, those same fans have shown little interest in following the careers of the supporting cast: Sitcoms hatched by Alexander (ABC’s ”Bob Patterson”) and Richards (NBC’s ”The Michael Richards Show”) were quickly axed, and Louis-Dreyfus’ ”Watching Ellie” is currently in NBC limbo until next year.

None of which curbs enthusiasm for a ”Cheers”/”Cosby”-type reunion special, but Seinfeld isn’t interested. ”There are no plans,” confirms Shapiro, adding that his client is telling sold-out stand-up crowds they can expect a ”Seinfeld” reunion ”when all four of our careers are in the toilet.” Spoken like a true master of his domain.

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