On May 14, 1998, 15 years ago today, two of the greatest cultural phenomena of the 20th century came to an end on the same night: Seinfeld broadcast its final episode, and Frank Sinatra passed away at the age of 82.
The Seinfeld finale was hyped for months and months, while Sinatra’s passing came as a complete surprise. The TV episode was almost universally loathed and made people look negatively at Seinfeld, while Sinatra’s death continued an already-underway revival of interest in the singer’s career. One was very disappointing, but the other was just plain sad.
I think we all remember where we were that night. For me, it was the last night of my sophomore year of college. A bunch of us got together to watch the Seinfeld finale. The next few hours are a blur, but I remember arriving back at my dorm very late at night, flicking on the TV, hearing a news anchor (I seem to think it was Brian Williams) reporting that Sinatra had died, and drunkenly calling up my most Frank-loving friend to share the news.
I don’t remember hating the Seinfeld finale when I first watched it. Sure, it was cynical and mean-spirited as can be, and was probably the second-darkest episode of the show’s run- the one where George accidentally kills his fiancé was pretty clearly more depraved and we can argue about the stealing-the-rye-from-the-old-lady moment. I don’t think I wanted to believe that something I loved that much could so screw up; I would react the same way, a year later, to “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
The finale also departed pretty sharply from the show’s usual format and tone, and not in a good way. Using courtroom scenes in a non-courtroom show almost never works, and a few of the jokes (“I love… United Airlines”) were just cringe-inducing. The final episode of Cheers, five years earlier, was funny, poignant, and ended absolutely perfectly, and I still think about it often. I don’t know if I ever watched the Seinfeld finale a second time.
But you know what? It still gives me a chuckle that the judge’s name was Art Vandalay. It was great to see characters like the Soup Nazi, Marla the Virgin and Babu Bhatt again. And for the entire run of the series, it was merely subtext that Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine were selfish, monstrous assholes. The finale merely came right out and said it. No, it wasn’t close to the best episode of Seinfeld. But the finale isn’t quite as terrible as its reputation, either.
It doesn’t appear that the finale fizzle has damaged Seinfeld‘s legacy in any meaningful way. The re-runs are still super-successful and have led to a whole new generation of fans- the two comedians who created that great “Modern Seinfeld” Twitter account were both in grade school when the show went off the air. Festivus is almost taken seriously as a holiday by a whole lot of people. And the core cast and Larry David got to wrap things up again ten years later with an entire Curb Your Enthusiasm season, which was both funnier and stuck the landing much better than the actual finale.
Frank Sinatra’s legacy is very different from Seinfeld‘s, mostly because his career lasted decades long and started much earlier. And while Sinatra’s career has meant so much to people- especially Italian-Americans- born anytime after, say, 1935, he also meant something even to young people around the time he passed away.
It isn’t much remembered that Sinatra’s music and career had enjoyed a huge revival in the few years before his death, after the 1996 movie “Swingers” kicked off that weird late-’90s swing-dancing fad that was often scored to his music.
At some point in the 1997-’98 time frame that I picked up the “Sinatra Reprise” collection and started listening to it instead of Dave Matthews or R.E.M. My high school Beatles phase had amused my parents in that I’d picked up the music of their generation; now I was unironically enjoying my grandparents’ soundtrack from the 1950s.
I also have clear memories of crossing the Hudson River on the PATH train, on the morning of a New Years Day in the late ’90s, and coming upon a huge mural of Frank on the wall of the station in Hoboken, Sinatra’s birthplace. That mural was long gone by the time I lived in Hoboken a few years later, although Sinatra’s influence is all over the place in the Mile Square City, from Sinatra Park to Sinatra Drive to the Frank Sinatra House to Leo’s Grandevous, a great Italian restaurant that’s decorated almost entirely with Frank memorabilia.
While neither was at their all-time high water mark on May 14, 1998, both Seinfeld and Frank Sinatra were at high ebbs of their influence at the time that they went away. And while the culture has moved onto other matters in the years first, it’s unlikely that either of these titans of 20th century culture will disappear from memory anytime soon.