On this day in 1989, NBC quietly aired a comedy special on a summer evening when not many people were watching TV. Somehow, it evolved into one of the most popular and acclaimed sitcoms of all time.
In 1989, NBC asked stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld (and his writing partner, Larry David) to write and produce a 90-minute late-night special. Instead, they wrote a 30-minute script that served as the first or “pilot” episode of a sitcom. They felt that their concept — a show in which fussy, self-absorbed people obsessed over the minutia of daily life — worked better in the shorter format.
Seinfeld and David called the show StandUp, then changed it to Good News, Bad News, and then to The Jerry Seinfeld Show, and finally to The Seinfeld Chronicles. NBC aired it on July 5, 1989, as a special in primetime in the sleepy, little-watched world of summer TV.
That first episode looks a lot different from the nine-season smash hit it would spawn. For example, the character of Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) isn’t present. The sole female character is a waitress at Jerry’s hangout diner (Pete’s, not yet Monk’s) named Claire (Lee Garlington). George (Jason Alexander) is there, but he’s a real estate agent…not yet the unlucky, perpetually job-hopping guy he’d become.
Kramer (Michael Richards) is around, but his name is Kessler. (NBC was worried Larry David’s inspiration for the character, a neighbor named Kenny Kramer, might sue.)
The Seinfeld Chronicles pulled in a decent audience, but NBC weren’t sure if they wanted to make it into a full-fledged series. (Executives thought the humor was too esoteric and the plot too New York-central.) Finally, they ordered four episodes, reportedly the shortest season in network history.
One more change: Before The Seinfeld Chronicles joined NBC’s regular schedule, the network ordered a name change — to just Seinfeld — avoid confusion with an ABC show of the era, a now forgotten sitcom about a nerdy teenager called The Marshall Chronicles.
There’s a subtle reference to The Seinfeld Chronicles in the final episode of Seinfeld, which aired in 1998. As they sit in their jail cell (they were arrested and incarcerated for being cruel and selfish) Jerry and George have a mundane chat about a shirt button, until George remarks, “Haven’t we had this conversation before?” That exchange is how the show began back in July 1989.