Seinfeld: Not that there's anything wrong with repeats

It is 12 years since the US sitcom ended, but the money keeps rolling in: $2.7bn of it. Gerard Gilbert reports

No wonder Jerry Seinfeld has that big, fat, goofy grin permanently plastered across his face – or indeed that the star and co-creator of the hit '90s sitcom Seinfeld always seems more laid back than a row of hospital beds, even as his comeback TV show, The Marriage Ref, goes down the critical and ratings pan. For that matter, no wonder that The Marriage Ref has been renewed for a second season despite its dismal reception. It's all about, in a word, syndication.

Addressing a recent conference in New York of potential investors, Barry Meyer, the chairman of Warner Brothers Entertainment, which has the rights to the Seinfeld series, finally revealed the earnings that re-runs of the show made for parent company Time Warner since it went off air 12 years ago.

Repeats of the 180-episode sitcom have raked in $2.3bn (£1.6bn) on regular TV channels and a further $380m on cable – and a fair chunk of that (its exact size unknown but let's say enough to buy a Premier League football club each) goes to the co-creators and part-owners of the title, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, of subsequent Curb Your Enthusiasm fame. It's a miracle Seinfeld even bothers to climb out of bed any more.

In fact the comedian has kept a remarkably low profile since the glory days of misanthropic buddies Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, doing stand-up, penning children's books and starring in commercials for American Express and Microsoft Windows. By the workaholic standards of the previous decade, this was semi-retirement.

But when he has ventured into more ambitious projects, the reaction has been underwhelming. Bee Movie, the 2007 animated feature he wrote and voiced, was deemed (inevitably) to lack a sting, while that $300m ad campaign for Microsoft Windows, featuring Seinfeld and Bill Gates in a variety of bizarre situations, baffled with its meta-brilliance.

Now Seinfeld's eagerly anticipated return to prime-time television, The Marriage Ref, has bombed. NBC was so excited by the show that it aired it to a massive captive audience immediately after this February's closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. The captive audience was duly unanimous in holding its nose.

"The most God-awful mishmash of a comedy-variety show," Time magazine's TV critic opined as he reviewed the show in which three celebrities (the revolving cast has included Madonna, Tina Fey, Larry David, Ricky Gervais and Seinfeld himself) comment on the real-life marital strife of ordinary couples, as relayed in video clips. Seinfeld apparently came up with the idea during a row with his wife, Jessica, asking a friend who was present to act as a referee in the dispute. You hope she's still a friend.

"Painful, pointless, obnoxious" was another newspaper being nice, while the Baltimore Sun asked: "Who knew Seinfeld could be this unfunny?" and perhaps you can see that latter point when, confronted by a video of a woman who would only allow her husband to have sex with her when he had done the housework, Larry David suggested he visit a prostitute instead. Actually David is one of the spikier contributors – his co-counsellors Madonna and Ricky Gervais sounding sheepish and lame in comparison.

Seinfeld has remained calm amid the brick-bats, as has NBC, which commissioned a second series of The Marriage Ref just as its ratings hit a new low. The reason for their equanimity is all there at the top of this article – Seinfeld doesn't need the money and NBC is confident that show will pay for itself many times over in syndication.

"I would be surprised if [Seinfeld] looked at any reviews or cared about ratings numbers," Sean L McCarthy, editor of the Comic's Comic blog, recently told the New York Post. "This is him doing something he wanted to do and he didn't have to do it."

Poor Jerry. No, actually, poor George, Elaine and Kramer – or Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards, as they are less well known. Seinfeld's co-stars on Seinfeld didn't qualify for a cut of the syndication riches and their post-Seinfeld careers have led to a legend of a curse. Each tried to launch new sitcoms with themselves in the starring roles, and each new show was quickly cancelled. Louis-Dreyfus headlined a sitcom created by her husband, the comedian Brad Hall, called Watching Ellie, in which she played a cabaret singer, and which aired for only two seasons before losing its voice.

The actress did achieve a starring role success in her own right as a newly divorced single mother in the 2006 CBS sitcom (recently cancelled after four seasons) The New Adventures of Old Christine. In her acceptance speech after winning an Emmy with the show in 2006, Louis-Dreyfus exclaimed: "I'm not somebody who really believes in curses, but curse this, baby!"

Jason Alexander's self-penned 2001 sitcom Bob Patterson, about a motivational speaker, didn't motivate viewers enough to survive more than five episodes. He didn't have much better luck with Listen Up!, about a sports journalist. Michael Richards, who played Cosmo Kramer, Jerry's eccentric, scene-stealing neighbour in Seinfeld, also had a flop sitcom, The Michael Richards Show, before deciding to return to his roots in stand-up. And therein lay his particular downfall. At a comedy night in Los Angeles in 2006, an audience member recorded Richards racially abusing hecklers. Despite very public expressions of regret, the damage was done.

So perhaps if Seinfeld and David felt as if they owed their former colleagues a pay-day with that much-heralded Curb Your Enthusiasm Seinfeld reunion, so be it. But when Time Warner announced those astonishing re-run revenues, Barry Meyer adding that the company's backlist of titles was a "library that keeps giving", the company was airing a commonplace wisdom – that syndication is where the real money is.

Popular shows like Seinfeld, Friends and (I'm afraid) Two and a Half Men have an afterlife as cash cows, but most run-of-the-mill TV shows also rely on syndication fees to cover their production costs. In fact, the recession has meant lower syndication fees, which in turn trickles back into lower production quality. But that's a different story and not one that affects Jerry Seinfeld.

Indeed his bank balance will continue growing by between $65m and $80m every year, until we all finally sicken of all that yada, yada, yada. Not that Seinfeld will remain the most profitable 30 minutes of comedy in TV history. It is likely to be out-earned by a certain cartoon family from Springfield, according to popular culture academic Professor Robert Thompson, who confidently told the New York Post: "When the end of world history comes, The Simpsons will be the most-rerun show of all time and make the most money". Or, as Homer Simpson would put it: "Woo hoo!"

Seinfeld in numbers

$2.7bn Amount grossed since going off air in 1998, equivalent to £1.9bn

$14m Average earning per episode

$65m to $80m (£45m to £55m) Reported annual earning of star and co-creator Jerry Seinfeld from the show according to Forbes magazine

180 Number of episodes over nine seasons

30 million Average audience per show during airing

105 million Number who watched the last episode in 1998

$1.7m (£1.2m) Cost of 30 seconds of advertising during last episode

46 Number of Porsches reputedly in Seinfeld's collection (including a $700,000 (£490,000) Porsche 959)