3 Things Seinfeld Taught Me About Storytelling

02 Feb
February 2, 2015

Most nights when there is nothing else on TV, I will flick on some repeats of Seinfeld, still one of my favourite shows ever. When I first started watching the show more than 20 years ago, it was hilarious.

I still find it just as funny, but it’s only now I can appreciate the genius that goes into creating memorable stories that are still quotable, 17 years after the last episode aired.

When we think about content, and content marketing, storytelling is such an important part of making it engaging.

As I watched, there were several things that jumped out at me as key elements to telling a memorable story.

Characters Matter

Anyone can tell a story, it’s something many of us do every day. They tend to follow familiar structures of beginning, middle and end. The structure of a sitcom in particular is very formulaic. However, it’s the way they are told within that structure that makes the difference.

Seinfeld is famously “the show about nothing” and if you were to hear someone talk you through the premise of some episodes (as George does below), you’d have to agree it would sound pretty uninspiring and you’d likely not watch.

But put that premise into the hands of a character like Kramer, George, or even a minor player in the Seinfeld universe, and all of a sudden it becomes engaging. Because each of them brings a unique voice, their characters voice to the storyline.

When you’re thinking about your content, think about who it is that’s telling the story. Find that voice, and bring it to the narrative.

Create Stories Within The Story – Then Bring It All Together

There’s a lot going on in each episode, and at times, all seem like disparate threads. Take the Season 6 episode of The Mom and Pop Store. The episode starts with the loose central premise of a Thanksgiving Party at dentist Tim Whately’s house that Jerry’s not sure he’s invited to. From here, it takes off in different directions as it breaks into sub-stories:

Story 1

  • Jerry gives his sneakers to a mom and pop store to repair
  • Kramer get a blood nose that causes him to lie down in the store and notice the wiring in the roof.
  • Mom and pop shut up shop as they can’t afford repairs and skip town with the all the shoes, leaving Jerry with only cowboy boots

Story 2

  • George buys a car he believes to be Jon Voight, that actor
  • Jerry goes through the glovebox and finds a chewed pencil and papers belonging to a different John Voight
  • George kicks Jerry out of the car in his cowboy boots and he falls and chips a tooth running from a gang
  • Kramer sees Jon Voight in the street and tries to ask him if it’s his car and gets bitten in the process

Story 3

  • Mr Pitt wants to hold the Woody Woodpecker balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade, so Elaine guesses the big band song for him
  • Elaine loses her hearing sitting in front of a big band at the cafe where she is picking up the tickets

Now all of these are stories with comedic value in their own right. As with any story though, It’s important though that all of these come together into a resolution.

George and Kramer ask a dentist to compare the chewed pencil to the bite mark on Kramer’s arm. Tim grabs the pencil to take a note and puts it in his mouth, ruining the teeth mark and explains that he knows John Voight the dentist, who owned the car. Elaine, who wants Tim to ask her out ultimately rejects him at the party as she can’t hear him because she picked up Mr Pitt’s tickets. Jerry asks a dentist to look at his tooth, ultimately knocking a statue from the apartment and piercing Mr Pitt’s balloon.

All of the stories converge at once to round out the episode.

The lesson here for your content is that there are always going to many aspects to a story. To do them justice and tell them effectively, you need to break them down into sub stories. But the important part is making sure that they all fit together in the end. If they don’t, then you need to question if they fit the narrative at all.

Make It Relatable

While a lot of the storylines were out-and-out absurd (particularly towards the end), many of the memorable ones were things that happened to all of us. So much of Seinfeld’s success was built on making the situations relatable.

Ripped off at a car dealership? Waited forever for a table? Problem with a rental car? Angry food vendor? Close talker? Quiet talker?

There’s an episode for all of them.

This familiarity breeds longevity and memory of the story that’s been told. We remember the situation they relate to in the show, because we find ourselves in similar situations.

How can you ground the stories in your content in something the audience can relate to? This is the key to them remembering it after you’re done telling them.

PHOTOPranav Bhatt via Flickr

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