“The Chinese Restaurant”
First Script Read: December 5, 1990
Filmed: Tuesday, December 11, 1990
Aired: May 23, 1991
Nielsen rating: 11.7
Audience share: 21
Directed: Tom Cherones
Writer: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld
This is it - the episode that gave "the show about nothing" its nickname. Larry David, you see, was devising real-time stories for prime-time network television long before Jack Bauer was screaming, "WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?" in the halls of CTU.
The stories within the episode are utterly banal. Elaine, Jerry, and George are stopping in for a quick bite before heading off to see Plan 9 from Outer Space, "the worst movie ever made," as Jerry declares. George needs to use the public phone to call his girlfriend. Jerry recognizes a woman in the restaurant, but can't remember how he knows her. Elaine is just very, very hungry.
Confronted with this script, NBC executive Warren Littlefield was not pleased. "Nothing happens!" he recalls saying. "Am I missing pages?" David threatened to leave the show if NBC demanded alterations to the script. To the network's credit, despite their displeasure, they remained hands-off with the still-not-a-hit, young sitcom and ran the episode, although they did push it back in the schedule to late spring.
The actors, however, recognized its brilliance. Michael Richards was devastated that Kramer had no part in something he knew was important. (At that time, the character was still only seen in the apartment, although he clearly had left the building for a variety of reasons - to buy fruit or to pick up doves.) Julia Louis-Dreyfus "adored" the script. Jason Alexander thought the episode "defined the anarchy" that would typify the show.
Watching it now, with an awareness of its place in television history, is like gazing at a Van Gogh. It still mostly holds up because of its mixture of the relatable (Elaine's desperate hunger) and the absurd (the restaurant manager pronouncing "Costanza" as "Cartwright). Though it is all set in one small space, the episode doesn't feel static. The writing pops from character to character as George waits for the phone, Jerry stares at the familiar-looking woman, and Elaine moans for food.
Relatability is one of the defining qualities of Seinfeld. The movement from the relatable to absurd anarchy is the basic plot structure that the show would come to adopt in later seasons. This episode, however, peters out. The trio gives up and leaves the restaurant, moments before the manager calls, "Seinfeld, four?" The characters had left, but the show had arrived.