Airing from 1989 to 1998, the long running NBC sitcom Seinfeld is often considered to be “a show about nothing.” Of course, anyone who’s watched a single episode of the series knows that this couldn’t be further from the truth. While the core four characters themselves – Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer – may lead pretty aimless lives, each episode is distinctly centered around specific themes, motifs, and events.
In the sense of a true sitcom, Seinfeld follows the days in the lives of these characters who are, for all intents and purposes, pretty terrible people. But they’re pretty terrible people who also happen to be downright hilarious, often by associating certain objects with bizarre events, or coining terms that never existed before to adequately describe awkward everyday situations.
In the thirty years since Seinfeld premiered, Seinfeldian short hand has come to permeate popular culture. Here are the ten most influential examples.
The Soup Nazi
In the season seven episode “The Soup Nazi,” the gang encounters Yev Kassem, the owner of a new, trendy, incredibly delicious soup restaurant that they become obsessed with frequenting. Unlike other restaurants they’ve gone to over the years, however, Kassem’s restaurant comes with very, very strict rules: if you don’t order your soup in the correct way, you’re banned for life.
As a result, as the episode title itself shows, Yev becomes known as “The Soup Nazi,” best known for screaming “No soup for you!” whenever someone dares not to abide by his harshly enforced rules. This character, and that line, are both arguably two of the most well known things from the entire series.
In Seinfeld‘s ninth and final season, one of the series’ most iconic inventions was introduced. The episode “The Strike” primarily centers around Kramer finally returning to work at a bagel restaurant, after being on strike for a decade. However, as amusing as that overall conceit is, the real highlight of the episode is provided by George’s father, Frank Costanza, and the December holiday he created: Festivus.
Celebrated every December 23rd, Festivus is a day meant for the airing of grievances, complete with a ceremonial Festivus pole and feats of strength. It’s also perhaps best known for the catchy slogan “A Festivus for the rest of us.”
The Puffy Shirt
Let’s be honest: the 1990s weren’t exactly the pinnacle of high quality fashion design or wise sartorial decisions. But few outfits on Seinfeld were as garish and downright ugly as the infamous puffy shirt, popularized by the second season episode aptly titled “The Puffy Shirt.”
As a result of his inability to understand Kramer’s quiet talking girlfriend, Jerry inadvertently agrees to wear a glorified pirate shirt on national television, which understandably leads to much hilarity and horror when he realizes the error of his ways. The image of Jerry in the overly frilly top has become so iconic, that certain DVD boxed sets of the series contain a miniature version of the shirt.
The Yada Yada
Long before the concept of the internet’s favorite “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read), there was the yada yada. The eighth season episode “The Yada Yada” introduces the vernacular concept, which allows an individual to skip over – conceptually, at least – boring details that may not interest the other party.
However, as the episode reveals, the yada yada is most often actually used to conceal sordid subjects that the listener may actually want to know more about. So there’s some wonderful shade about the usage of the term, giving the speaker a little more power than the listener. Understandably, the usage of this phrase has become so prevalent in common speech that it’s oftentimes even hard to remember that Seinfeld was what popularized.
The Jerk Store
George Costanza has never exactly been the best at this whole talking thing. Often too slow to get the right quip on, or too oblivious to read through what people are really saying to him, George is Seinfeld‘s lovable loser. And one of the clearest examples of that fact comes in the eighth season episode “The Comeback.”
Ever neurotic and obsessive, George spends much of this episode trying to think of the perfect witty response to a colleague’s demeaning remark about his eating habits. When George was aggressively eating shrimp, his coworker snarked, “The ocean called, and they’re running out of shrimp.” What does he come up with? “The jerk store called, and they’re running out of you.” Perhaps not the most effective response, seeing as he sets himself up for further embarrassment; but certainly a memorable, and easily quotable one.
The Pez Dispenser
Pez dispensers may have existed since long before Seinfeld began airing, but there’s no denying that a particularly iconic scene in an episode of the series’ third season contributed to a real surge in their popularity. In the episode “The Pez Dispenser,” Jerry is childishly amused by a Tweety Bird Pez dispenser in the middle of George’s girlfriend’s piano recital.
Rather than keep his amusement to himself, however, he distracts Elaine with the adorable little yellow bird, causing her to burst into hysterical laughter, as he continues to act a total fool and make all sorts of gestures with the Pez dispenser. As a result, George’s girlfriend botches her performance, and the Pez dispenser is forced to live in quiet infamy for the rest of the episode – until it drives someone into addiction, in another unrelated storyline.
Frank Costanza, George’s larger than life father, is arguably one of the series’ most cartoonish characters. Always good for a laugh, and reliable for displaying truly bizarre and often inappropriate behaviors, Frank is at his loudest and most ridiculous in the ninth season episode “The Serenity Now.”
In this episode, Frank, dealing with some high blood pressure, begins to rely on the use of the phrase “serenity now” in order to try and keep his cool. Of course, words don’t really do much of anything, especially when you’re as easily excitable and quick to anger as Frank – and, eventually, Kramer, too. Both characters soon give up on serenity, instead screaming the phrase at the top of their lungs while fully embracing their rage.
The Cheap Envelopes
From the moment Heidi Swedberg’s Susan Ross was introduced on Seinfeld, it was clear that her character didn’t belong at all to the world of these four main characters. But the show forced her into it all the same, putting her and George in a relationship, despite George’s almost constant unhappiness and inability to leave it. Eventually, George and Susan become engaged to be married.
But all of that changes in the season seven finale, “The Invitations,” in which Susan suddenly passes away after licking toxic wedding invitation envelopes – all thanks to George’s preference for cheap, old envelopes. The scene itself is arguably one of the most well remembered and oft discussed in the entire series.
The Close Talker
The importance of personal space is something that pretty much everyone can relate to. The fifth season two part episode “The Raincoats” perfectly summarizes this feeling with the introduction of Elaine’s boyfriend, Aaron, as played by Judge Reinhold. Aaron is a perfectly well meaning and nice guy, but he just so happens to have one truly obnoxious habit.
Whenever talking to anyone at all, regardless of whether he knows them or has just met them, Aaron gets right up in their personal space, almost face to face with them as he gives them a little too much of his attention. And thus, the dubbing of “close talkers” – people you really wish would learn how to read the room and pick up on basic behavioral cues before they try to get to know you a little too close for comfort.
Could any list of pop culture references created by Seinfeld possibly be complete without the inclusion of the man, the myth, the legend himself, Cosmo Kramer? We don’t think so.
There aren’t very many characters from television history, sitcom or not, where you can simply refer to a character by just one part of their name – Kramer – and have almost anyone instantly understand what you’re trying to talk about. Larger than life, quirky beyond reason, eccentric and twitchy and loud as they come both verbally and in his style, Cosmo Kramer is the true goldmine character of the series.
Based loosely on the real life individual Kenny Kramer, Cosmo Kramer – whose first name was a mystery for most of the series’ run – is basically the walking, talking representation of every bizarre thought a human being could have, all put on display. And that’s what makes him so instantly, permanently iconic.