Did "Chinese Restaurant" almost smother "Seinfeld" in the cradle?

We all know of course that the show ultimately produced 180 episodes and is considered an iconic pillar of television sitcom history. But it was never really a “hit” until the fifth season (by the standards of the time–all shows had much larger audiences twenty years ago). And only 16 episodes into their run, Larry David had to fight and fight and threaten to quit to get NBC to put the “Chinese Restaurant” episode on the air. NBC executives thought it would really turn off viewers but finally relented and let it air later in the season.

The Wikipedia article on the episode mentions this epic struggle, and notes that critics love it and that it is in retrospect seen as a “classic episode”. It says that NBC executives met after the show aired to discuss the future of the series. What neither this article nor the one about the season generally acknowledges, though, is that the next episode (“The Busboy”) was the lowest rated Seinfeld episode of all, getting audience numbers barely more than half what had been achieved just a few weeks earlier. And it just seems logical that a steep dip like that is more likely to be the fault of the episode immediately preceding the cellar dweller, rather than the episode itself (how can people know in advance whether they will like an episode?).

So regardless of what critics think or how people see it now in reruns, weren’t the NBC executives right that “Chinese Restaurant” was shot and paced in a way that turned off mainstream audiences of the day?

I don’t know what viewers thought of the episode, but note that (due to NBC broadcasting the NBA playoffs) there is more than a month separating the airing of those two episodes. Also, though Seinfeld was normally shown on Thursdays, “the Busboy” was aired on a Wednesday. I imagine that those factors count for something regarding the drop in ratings.

I would be surprised if anyone could “blame” the Chinese Restaurant episode on a dip in the ratings - I think it was one of their best, classic Seinfeld, episodes!

Living in NYC, one spends FAR too much time waiting to get seated at a restaurant…often you just stand there like a lump (as in this episode) but if you are lucky, you might at least get a seat at the bar. The Chinese Restaurant episode embodied the process perfectly…you are hungry, the line doesn’t seem to move, others seem to be getting in far earlier than they should be getting in and seated, and your group begins to get grumpy and whiny.

I thought that episode captured those (un) magical moments perfectly!

In a similar vein, they also had that great episode where they basically roamed through a huge parking structure, trying to find Kramer’s car…also a “quiet” episode of nothing but a parking lot and the frustrations you run into. The classic moment of that episode was actually in error…at the end, when they finally found the car and got in, they were supposed to start the car and drive off. However, the car wouldn’t start…that wasn’t planned (and you can see Jason Alexander turning his head and burst out laughing) but they kept it in the show.

I think the Seinfeld audience was sophisticated enough to appreciate these rather oddball situations that were unlike other plots/stories on other sitcoms…not all of them were classics, but they were usually compelling enough to watch and often had some amazing subtle humor.

Also, when Kramer put the AC in the trunk he cut his lip when it collided with the box. You can see Elaine and Jerry turn away as they start to laugh.

I can’t speak for mainstream audiences, but this episode is a perfect example of everything I loved about Seinfeld.

No, it mostly proves what David and Seinfeld groused about all along - that NBC didn’t get what the show was about, something they revisited numerous times in the story arc about Jerry getting a pilot. The whole show was supposed to be a funny exploration into mundane events - waiting in for a table, finding your car in a parking lot, riding the subway, dealing with the dry cleaner. This stuff is what Seinfeld’s humor was all about, and having hired the guy they wanted him to do something else.

This isn’t a NYC exclusive situation. Which actually to another error from NBC executives. After viewing the pilot, they originally told Seinfeld and Larry David that the show was “too Jewish” and “too New York” without realizing that…

  1. Jerry’s Jewishness is barely mentioned and barely noticeable unless it’s a specific plotpoint.

  2. Most of these “NYC” situations are pretty damn universal. I mean, who hasn’t had to wait a long time for a table at a restaurant?

My wife and I are not even huge Seinfeld fans and we still say, “Oh…5…10 minutes,” whenever there is a wait for something.

Me: “When are we going to eat dinner?”

Her: “Oh…5…10 minutes.”

It’s one of those quotes that just works so well.

I would also peg the dip in ratings for The Bus Boy as simply that its not a good episode. In fact, its one of only 2 episodes that I would usually turn the channel on if I saw it, the other being The Revenge where George tries to slip a mickey into his boss’s drink.

The Bus Boy just seems too dark and too much self-congratulations. The bus boy himself is angry throughout practically the whole episode or silent the other times, going into the occasional Spanish rant. That’s not so funny coming from a guy who just lost his job. And the end is almost unwatchable, when he makes that speech thanking George, it was just very uncomfortable, and made even more so by the main characters reactions where they smile and shake hands with each other. WTF?

I found I actually appreciated shows like Seinfeld as well as other New York shows like Friends, Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother after I moved to New York. Certainly a lot of it is universal, like the Chinese Restaurant. Other stuff, like the Puerto Rican Day Parade, you wouldn’t know how annoying it is unless you lived in New York.

I think it is most important to look at the date of the airings:

The Chinese Restaurant May 23, 1991 (Thursday)
The Bus Boy June 26, 1991 (Wednesday)

That’s a whole month between shows and well beyond the normal television season. Few people would have been expecting NBC to air a new episode of Seinfeld on a Wednesday night in June. Unless NBC made a special effort to promote that Seinfeld had another new episode during the NBA playoffs, I’m surprised it got half the ratings Chinese Restaurant did. All of this was before the age of DVRs and Tivos automatically picking up new episodes of shows you watch on weird nights, like Monday night’s Breaking Bad Mythbusters episode.

If a execs’ meeting really did occur, the ratings were an excuse for them to get together about a show they didn’t appreciate and were skeptical of. Perhaps they set up the weird one off airing in late June to set up Seinfeld to fail?

That’s an interesting point.

I agree BTW that it is a great episode; but I also love shows like Enlightened and Party Down, that get microscopic ratings and then get cancelled.

I’m not sure though about blaming the hiatus for the ratings drop. Two months earlier, the show came back from an even longer hiatus and the ratings surged to a new high rather than dropping.

Cartwright! CARTWRIGHT!

According to the Wikipedia entry on the second season of Seinfeld, that ratings surge coincided with the show being moved back to Thursday nights right after Cheers, the #1 show on TV that year. The first four episodes of Seinfeld that season had been aired on Wednesdays.