One bit of apocrypha about the origins of Seinfeld are summarized with simply, “No Lessons.” This is the origin of the “show about nothing” approach that Larry David insisted on from the very beginning.
Although common situations that sitcoms are built around have changed, the central premise of each episode always involves characters learning lessons and changing. In the 1950’s, typical situation comedies centered on families. Father Know Best, Make Room for Daddy, Ozzy & Harriet, and I Love Lucy are the best examples of this. What do we have in each episode? A lesson learned.
In the 60’s, sitcoms saw little change from the 50s except for more examples of “fish out of water” type situations. For example, what happens when you take a bunch of hillbillies and put them Beverly Hills? What happens when a wealthy New Yorker moves to the country to become a farmer? What happens when a genie lives in the modern world with an astronaut? Different situations, but everyone learns a lesson at some point.
The 1970’s revolution in television sitcoms was two-fold, the first wave coming with Norman Lear’s numerous examples of developing situations with huge cross-demographic appeal. All In The Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude were about outspoken bigots whose families had to deal with and more lessons are learned by all.
(Off topic, if you want to see Lear’s best work in social criticism, check out Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Not only does it profile a family dealing with problems in the modern world, Mary Hartman is so worried about living up to the image of the perfect family presented on TV, she literally has a nervous breakdown while being profiled as a part of a ‘the perfect family’ segment on a TV show.)
The second wave of the sitcom revolution of the 1970’s came with Three’s Company. In that case, the big break from the mold was the fact there was no family and no kids. The situation was one of the first modern sitcoms to focus on young, horny 20-somethings who have jobs, go out on dates, get laid, and yet had NO aspirations for getting married. Regardless of the change, each episode revolved around a zany misunderstanding with some sort of sexual double-entendre, and by the end, someone learned a lesson about trust, yadda yadda yadda.
Okay, that’s enough Sitcom History 101. Other than what is depicted in the particular episodes when the phrase “show about nothing” is uttered, the reason why Seinfeld is a show about nothing is because none of the main characters ever learn any lessons at all. Seinfeld broke a long-established model of what was acceptable for “marketable comedy” because it took the “situation” part of sitcom completely literally. The main characters were not in a situation, situations always happened to them. The main characters had little to no ambition for anything outside of their realm of experience unless something external brought it to them to deal with, in their own Seinfeldian way.
If the old rules of sitcoms were applied to describe Seinfeld, the show is about a sociopath stand-up comedian and his sociopath friends unapologetically effecting other people’s lives in negative ways while remaining disaffected and unattached to their environment to the point of commenting on events and indeed, treating their lives as though they were nothing more than a TV show they were watching. What network executive-weasel would EVER green-light such a premise?
Of course, this description of the show was not obvious to most viewers who identified with one of the main characters, thus the many critical reviews of the last episode where their sociopathy finally catches up with them. In my opinion, a lot of people never realized that all four of the main Seinfeld characters were complete assholes and so they were embarrassed by how often they’d said, “I’m totally like Elaine/George/Jerry/Kramer because I do the same thing they did when….” I think the idea they went to jail for NOT doing anything to help a guy, breaking the “Good Samaritan Law” (at the time, those were REAL laws being proposed in various states) really shocked a lot of fans in 1998.
Of course, the show was Gold because not only did it have mass cross-demographic appeal, many of the situations the characters addressed are still sympathetic for a lot of people who continue to discover the show.