'Seinfeld' premiered 30 years ago without Elaine Benes — here's how her character changed the show

·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Elaine Benes in a 1991 episode of "Seinfeld." (Photo: Dan Zaitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Elaine Benes in a 1991 episode of "Seinfeld." (Photo: Dan Zaitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

When TV audiences tuned into The Seinfeld Chronicles on July 5, 1989 — 30 years ago this week — they got a very different show than the one that evolved from it, the phenomenally successful and critically lauded Seinfeld. There was the show’s name, sure, but there was also a different moniker for Michael Richards’s character (who was called Kessler instead of Kramer), a different hangout for the gang, and the fact that Elaine didn’t exist at all.

As Jerry Seinfeld himself acknowledged when the actress who played Elaine, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was awarded the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for comedy in 2018, the character was added as a network note. NBC executives wanted a woman on the show about three men, so they got it, beginning in the second of what turned out to be 173 episodes.

Now it’s tough to imagine Seinfeld without the (badly) dancing, big-salad-eating, John F. Kennedy Jr.-spotting, pal-shoving Elaine Benes, as played by Dreyfus. The actress racked up seven straight Emmy nominations, including a win in 1996, for her work in the now-iconic role.

Elaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus dances on "Seinfeld." (Photo: YouTube)
Elaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus dances on "Seinfeld." (Photo: YouTube)

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, the author of Seinfeldia: How the Show About Nothing Changed Everything, says Elaine deeply affected it.

“Well, if you watch the pilot, a number of things are pretty off, but you can surely see the difference in energy between that and when Elaine joins them,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “As someone who watched the show as a young girl the first time through, I'm certain I and many other girls/women would not have been into it without her. She's my favorite character on the show, and not just because she's female. Though she became one of the greatest female characters in TV history.”

"Seinfeld" stars Michael Richards, Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate their award for outstanding ensemble in a comedy series at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Feb. 25, 1995, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)
"Seinfeld" stars Michael Richards, Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus celebrate their award for outstanding ensemble in a comedy series at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Feb. 25, 1995, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images)

It helped that the comedic force of Louis-Dreyfus was the woman who took on the role. However, Armstrong notes that the character was impressive on her own.

“Perhaps because she was added later, or because she had a unique combination of traditionally male and traditionally female traits, she was more complex than the other characters,” Armstrong says. “In my book, I talk about how the mostly male writers had no choice but to give Elaine storylines inspired by stuff that had happened to them in their own lives. [Creator and writer] Larry David basically told them not to worry about giving her ‘female’ storylines. I think this is part of what makes her feel like one of the guys, though Julia Louis-Dreyfus herself brought her own energy to Elaine.”

And, in Armstrong’s opinion, Elaine stands apart from Jerry’s other pals.

“She's the only one of them who seems to have ... I wouldn't go so far as to say she had a moral center,” the author says. “But she seemed to have a little bit of self-awareness, as demonstrated in episodes such as ‘The Bizarro Jerry.’”

On that one, Elaine befriends the bizarro, or opposite versions of Jerry, George and Kramer, in part because they are better people, but, of course, she eventually returns to life alongside the original Seinfeld gang, right where she belongs.

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