‘Seinfeld’ pilot airs on NBC | The Moments That Made Us

It went on to become one of the biggest television series of all time, but Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David's Seinfeld pilot almost never aired.

When Jerry Seinfeld decided to end his show after nine seasons, he was the king of prime time television. Seinfeld ranked among the top two highest rated shows every year from 1994 to 1998, earning multiple awards along the way. The series is such a pop-culture landmark that it’s hard to believe the show was almost never picked up, and came close to being cancelled once it had been.

Originally titled The Seinfeld Chronicles, the series began when ex-SNL writer Larry David and stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld created a pilot to pitch to NBC. The network originally asked for a 90-minute TV special, but David and Seinfeld believed their concept of a “show about nothing” would work better in the half-hour format. They pulled ideas from their real lives for plot ideas and characters, including Larry David’s neighbour Kramer, who was written into the show as “Kesler.”

Upon seeing the pilot, execs at NBC were less than excited about its potential, and the test audience’s reaction was overwhelmingly negative. NBC decided not to pick up the show, but they aired the episode anyway on July 5, 1989. It was watched by 11% of American households, and to the network’s surprise earned generally positive reviews. Critics were surprised that NBC had not picked the show up for a full season.

The response was good enough to sway NBC executive Rick Ludwin to convince the network to order a four-episode season. It was the smallest order in US TV history, but it was the first major step in Seinfeld’s journey to conquering prime time television. Within a few years, it would become the most successful sitcom in television history.