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(Jackie Mason, in the audience one night, delivered praise that kept him going for years: "It makes me sick, you're going to be such a big hit.") In 1981, he got his big break: the first of many spots on Dick Cavett's talk show.

Seven years later, over coffee in a New York diner (of course) with Larry David, the sitcom, originally entitled The Seinfeld Chronicles, was born.

that they rock in their seats and double over in helpless paroxysms." Actually, there are some women, too: the third season, which starts this month, includes Tina Fey. It's literally getting in a car." The effort comes in the editing, but that's another opportunity to smooth and hone obsessively, "so I kind of enjoy it". When George's fiancee dies, poisoned by the glue in the cheap wedding invitations he'd insisted on buying, his pure relief is certainly funny, and in keeping with the famous motto of the show's writers: "No hugging, no learning." But it's also more pathologically egocentric than anything you'd encounter, in a comedic context, on TV today.

The format doesn't allow for audience-tested Seinfeld one-liners, so much of the pleasure comes from the other comedians' contributions. The real-life Seinfeld has little time for this kind of analysis, professing zero interest in capturing zeitgeists, or in the postmodern themes that academics love identifying in his work.

Having spent a decade making a celebrated "show about nothing", he could easily afford to just do nothing now.But a person who defends themselves through aikido or tai chi? "It's so much easier when you're talking about something that really is important. "It was a very bad miscalculation," Seinfeld says today. It's a knife-throwing act, and unfortunately Michael missed." On camera, Richards seems genuinely remorseful, and resigned to never working again.You've already got a better foundation than someone who's bringing up something that does not need to be discussed." Such as? But a miscalculation, he insists, is what it was; it's a misunderstanding of standup to conclude that it showed Richards to be a racist himself. In a recent New York Times profile of Seinfeld, another guest on the series, Sarah Silverman, called him "the least neurotic Jew on earth".In each of the episodes, which vary in length, Seinfeld collects a fellow comedian in a different vintage car (Chris Rock, Larry David, Mel Brooks and Ricky Gervais are among the participants); they then drive to a diner or cafe, drink coffee and talk. But the much-hyped focus on "nothing" – on overblown conflicts with doormen, restaurateurs and so on – feels familiar: it's central to many of the shows that count Seinfeld as a major influence, from Arrested Development to The Office to Curb Your Enthusiasm."The real action of the show," the New York Times's reviewer explained, "consists of this seemingly involuntary snorting, cackling laughter of middle-aged men so amused by each other's observations … "My goal was to make it the effortless talkshow, where you don't have to show up, you don't have to think about what you're wearing, there's no makeup, there's no prep – there's nothing. ' And the guy says: 'I make a living …'" A competing theory for Seinfeld's low profile since 1998 is that his comedy belongs squarely to the 90s – an era of economic plenty, before 9/11, before widespread anxiety about climate change, when the bottomless self-absorption of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer felt excusable. (The latter's success fuelled yet another theory about Seinfeld's post-90s career: that Larry David had been the genius behind the sitcom all along.) What stands out, in those old Seinfelds, is the weird callousness: a total lack of concern with anyone other than the central foursome, unmatched even by Larry David's character in Curb, or David Brent, or the South Park kids.