When stand-up comedian Jerome "Jerry" Seinfeld had his "show about nothing" piloted on NBC in July 1989, he probably hoped for little more than that The Seinfeld Chronicles be liked enough to be asked back for a second episode. Even in his most avaricious dreams he surely wouldn't have imagined that his sitcom would become a cultural phenomenon with an afterlife in syndication more lucrative than in its 1990s heyday, helping to make him a millionaire many hundreds of times over.
The misadventures of thirtysomething New Yorkers Jerry (Seinfeld), George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) seemed to strike a chord with its misanthropic take on the frustrations of modern life and the almost random friendships of the rootless urban classes. Above all Seinfeld (as the title was quickly abbreviated) was a show that had fun with people's selfishness and unspoken "bad thoughts", deliberately eschewing moral growth and the cosy payoff. There was to be, in the mantra of its producers, "No hugging, no learning". It was whatever Friends – with its preppy twentysomething togetherness and hopes for work and marriage – was not. I'll be there for you ... yada yada yada.
The character with the fewest redeeming features was George Costanza – the "short, stocky, slow-witted, bald man" (to quote Elaine) largely inspired, in personality if not in looks, by Seinfeld's co-creator, Larry David. Mostly off-camera in Seinfeld (although he occasionally appeared as the Costanza family lawyer), David was to take centre stage in 1999 when he created and starred in his own version of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like Jerry Seinfeld before him, David was to play "himself" – as an insensitive, socially unaware TV producer in wealthy semi-retirement.
And so it is, with perfect, almost inevitable symmetry, that Curb Your Enthusiasm is to pay host to that perennially anticipated but hitherto unconsummated event – the Seinfeld reunion. The seventh series of David's solo masterpiece starts on HBO in the US tomorrow and on More4 in this country in mid-October. Individual cast members have already appeared fleetingly, like ghosts, in past series of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but this is to be the first and (Larry David is adamant about this) last full Seinfeld cast reunion. The actors will start gathering in the third week in a story arc lasting a further four episodes. As David recently explained to Entertainment Weekly magazine in the US: "Curb Your Enthusiasm is the only way it could have ever gotten done. We didn't really do a reunion. We did a faux reunion. We're doing episodes of Curb." Or as Julia Louis-Dreyfus puts it: "It's the anti-reunion reunion, and I'd like to copyright that."
Jerry Seinfeld himself admits, "There was a little part of me that said, 'Do we really want to tamper?' But to hell with it. How much damage can you really do?"
Well, it's unlikely given the talents involved, but for a start they could trash some almost pathologically cherished memories. The internet explosion may largely postdate the show, but the web is nevertheless choked with "10 best Seinfeld" episode lists, arguing the merits of such classics as "The Outing" (Elaine causes a journalist to think that Jerry and George are gay, "not that there is anything wrong in that"), "The Opposite" ("My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents"), "The Hamptons" (otherwise known as "The Ugly Baby". You get the picture) and, most famously – partly for its inventive use of euphemisms – "The Contest"', in which George is caught masturbating by his mother and challenges the others to an abstention contest.
In the 1998 Seinfeld finale, the friends end up in prison after violating the state of Massachusetts' "Good Samaritan law". And so the cast dispersed, going on to what was confidently expected to be – for non-titular cast members at least – greater things. Seinfeld himself, earning that final year alone (according to Forbes magazine) $267 million, had little need of going into movies – the traditional next step for successful TV comedians – and returned to his first love, stand-up comedy. The others, however, have struggled, giving rise to the legend that a "curse of Seinfeld" has blighted the subsequent careers of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards and Jason Alexander.
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, comedian Brad Hall, called Watching Ellie, in which she played a cabaret singer, and which aired for only two seasons before finally losing its voice.
The actress finally did achieve a starring role success in her own right as a newly divorced single mother in the 2006 CBS sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine. In her acceptance speech after winning an Emmy with the show in 2006, Louis-Dreyfus exclaimed with an audible exhalation of relief: "I'm not somebody who really believes in curses, but curse this, baby!"
Meanwhile 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, that also fell short of a second season. Michael Richards, who played Cosmo Kramer, Jerry's eccentric, scene-stealing neighbour in Seinfeld, also had a flop sitcom on his hands, The Michael Kramer 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 November 2006, an audience member recorded Richards racially abusing hecklers. Despite very public expressions of regret, the damage was done and Richards retired from stand-up. "Michael went through a very traumatic experience," David told Entertainment Weekly. "He's been quite chastened by it. What he did on Curb didn't affect him at all since he was very funny on the show. But I know it's deeply affected him personally." Richards himself says he didn't have any trouble getting back into character. "I'd always kept Kramer's shoes," he said. "Once I got those shoes on, and I'm standing behind the door of Jerry's apartment, I was ready."
It's not just the four leads appearing at this reunion. Wayne Knight, Jerry's nemesis, the despicably funny postal-worker neighbour, Newman, is also back. It's going to be fascinating to see how David works the various actors into the ongoing misadventures of his cringe-making alter-ego – if that is how you can describe the relationship between creator and comic monster.
As you'd expect, the plot details are firmly under wraps, although Larry David has suggested it all has something to do with "Larry" winning his back his estranged wife Cheryl (the brilliant Cheryl Hines). Whatever happens, the Seinfeld reunion could not be in a safer pair of hands. Or, to quote an expression that has now passed into the language, it's bound to be another great "Larry David moment".
'Curb Your Enthusiasm' returns on More4 in mid-October