Seinfeld and Chill: why a classic comedy film can help overcome anxiety

Last year, I accomplished a major life goal. It wasn’t buying a house, learning Greek or finishing my novel. No: I “completed” Seinfeld, having spent most of the summer watching every one of the sitcom’s 169 – or 180, depending on how you count it – episodes, from pilot to finale.

The sitcom, co-created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, which chronicled the life of rising comedian Jerry and his friends George, Elaine and Kramer, ran from 1989 to 1998, and is available to stream in the UK on All 4. Last September, Netflix acquired it in a reported $500m (£400m)-plus deal and it will join the streaming service’s library next year.

Although 2019 wasn’t anywhere near approaching the doom-laden, apocalyptic hell-storm that 2020 is shaping up to be, it was nevertheless no Sunday picnic, and thus a retreat to the relative calm of the Seinfeld era – the late 80s to mid-90s – was welcome therapy. This is perhaps why, in the midst of a global pandemic, I have returned to Seinfeld. I’m now making my way through the best 25 episodes, according to this list.

There’s a tendency to idealise this pre-internet era. I was born in 1987, so I was two when Seinfeld first went on the air. The 90s are now being mined by younger generations and the decade has been having a fashion moment for a while now, with many women dressing in long floral dresses that resemble Elaine’s and men in Kramer’s hipster patterned shirts.

As an older millennial, I have actual memories of the 90s, and so returning to that era has a comforting familiarity to it, from the clothes to the decor to the cultural references. Being part of that “bridge” generation, which experienced life before and after the widespread use of the internet, Seinfeld offers a glimpse of the kind of adult life we just missed out on, where dating politics revolved around the telephone and people were always getting ready to go out to the movies.

In reality, I know that 1990s New York was far from wholesome. And yet there is something quite gentle about an entire sitcom episode based around trying to get a parking space (these days, you’d use an app for that) or a controversial loaf of rye bread. It’s a common misconception that Seinfeld is “a show about nothing” (this, in fact, is the pitch for Jerry and George’s failed TV sitcom-within-a-sitcom, a recurring meta-subplot throughout the series). Its original aim was to show the everyday events behind a comedian’s material. It is this hilarious focus on the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life that makes Seinfeld a work of comedic genius.

This is why George’s answering machine theme tune reduced me to tears of laughter recently. It’s easy to forget that, long before teenagers were making their own TikToks, people who were supposed to be fully grown adults were devising their own ridiculous, themed answerphone recordings. It’s a phenomenon that, like choosing a film at the video rental store (also a mainstay of Seinfeld), is now obsolete. In 2020, it would be much more difficult to masquerade as a marine biologist or to escape being broken up with by avoiding answering phone calls from your girlfriend, or to persuade your friend that the working title of War and Peace was “War, What Is It Good For?”