In the opening scene of the second ever episode of Seinfeld, titled "The Stake Out," Jerry and Elaine are browsing the shelves at a video store (the '90s!), cracking wise about Cocoon: The Return and the stars of the movies in the porno section (the sex-negative '90s!). It's a prototypical Seinfeld scene, not really about anything but evoking the preoccupations of young, single people living in the city, which is to say Chinese food and needing a date to an upcoming wedding. It's also the very first scene for Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, making "The Stake Out" quietly one of the most impactful episodes in TV history. It's the episode in which Seinfeld became Seinfeld.
The Seinfeld pilot celebrates its 24th anniversary on July 5th, but when it aired, Elaine wasn't yet a part of the show. "The Seinfeld Chronicles," as the show was then known, featured a waitress named Claire, played by Lee Garlington, who was the closest the episode got to a major female character. Seinfeld had a famously protracted road to becoming the biggest comedy hit in America. The 11 months between that pilot and "The Stake Out" involved some tweaking. In particular, the executives at NBC set a condition for ordering the show to series: add a woman as a regular character. Jerry Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David readily acquiesced — although, if their show-within-a-show is to be believed, they didn't have an easy time writing for a woman.
In Season 4, Jerry and George write a pilot to pitch to NBC, which offered the show plenty of opportunities to satirize Seinfeld and David's real-life story of getting Seinfeld made. In one episode, "The Shoes," Jerry and George set out to write dialogue for the character they've decided to base on Elaine… and come up empty. "What do women say?" George muses, at a loss. "I don't even know what women think, that's why I'm in therapy." Rather than work their way through the problem, they decide to drop Elaine from the scene entirely.
That moment was a bit of self-awareness on the part of Seinfeld and David, though it's worth noting that even at the point that episode was written, Seinfeld had only one female credited screenwriter, Elaine Pope, who wrote or co-wrote three episodes over the course of four seasons.
This is even more reason to credit Julia Louis-Dreyfus for the success that Seinfeld became. From her very first episode, Louis-Dreyfus had drilled into Elaine's brand of relatable neuroses mixed with confident banter. The main plot of "The Stake Out" involves Elaine asking Jerry to accompany her to a birthday dinner for her friend, and Jerry asking Elaine to accompany him to a family wedding. Their shared discomfort over Jerry trying to flirt with another woman in Elaine's presence provides the episode's major conflict.
There's a version of this episode where Elaine is purely an obstacle to Jerry getting what he wants — in this case a date with this other woman, Vanessa. Elaine's displeasure at Jerry flirting so brazenly in front of her could have boxed her into the role of a nag. But credit to Louis-Dreyfus for resisting such a simple portrayal. There's a twinkle in her eye when Elaine tells Jerry that she might have designs on other men as well that she might like to talk to him about, and by the end of the episode, she and Jerry are on equal footing and on the road to making this friends thing work.
The fact is, Elaine is the character who made Seinfeld work as well as it did. Without her, the show might have been yet another sitcom about clueless men trying to pick up women. Adding Elaine as an equal-footing fourth cast member required the series to broaden its scope. There were still plenty of stories about Jerry and George and the mysteries of women and relationships. But Elaine was there to not only burst their balloons but also to hack her way through the relationship jungle herself.
The character also helped shape the series’s identity in its early years. Seinfeld was famously a "show about nothing," but that concept took a while to take hold. Inasmuch as the show had a hook to it in its early seasons, it was Jerry and Elaine, the former couple who'd decided to remain friends. There were a handful of episodes in Seinfeld's early seasons that involved Jerry and Elaine negotiating the post-mortem of their relationship, including "The Boyfriend," in which Jerry's jealousy over Elaine's relationship with Keith Hernandez was humorously divided between both parties. There was also "The Mango," which saw Elaine reveal she'd been faking orgasms through the entirety of their relationship. And in "The Deal," Jerry and Elaine disastrously tried to add sex to their friendship dynamic.
By the show's third episode, "The Robbery," Elaine was firmly on par with the other characters, as the episode puts Jerry, Elaine, and George on a merry-go-round of apartment-hopping, each character angling to get a better place. She complained about her Broadway-hopeful roommate and haggled with Jerry over the price of a couch. She was, in short, a Seinfeld character, neither the girlfriend nor the nag. She was the piece of the puzzle the Seinfeld pilot was missing, and she set the show on the path to massive heights.
Seinfeld is streaming in its entirety on Netflix.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.