Nobody can doubt the power of Seinfeld as among the most popular American TV shows of the 1990s. Over 180 episodes, we followed the exploits of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer through all sorts of wacky situations. Seinfeld episode references like "Master of your domain," "Yadda yadda yadda," and the infamous "Dolores/Mulva" confusion spread like wildfire through America's collective meme-space.
So once NBC aired its last original Seinfeld episode in 1998, the network brass thought that they could hit spin-off gold by capturing four core performers at their peak. They were sorely disappointed, as few successes have come from Seinfeld's core group of actors. This is known to many media observers as the "Seinfeld curse."
As the star of a show about nothing in which he played a characterization of himself, Jerry made out like a bandit from Seinfeld. The show was based on Jerry's stand-up comedy, and Jerry returned to the stand-up arena with several cable TV specials. Each was given hype worthy of a Mike Tyson comeback fight. Seinfeld also acted in TV commercials to serve out the balance of his endorsement deals.
The only major professional achievement that can be credited to Jerry is the 2002 documentary Comedian about the stand-up comedy business that debuted to limited release and critical acclaim.
When people discuss the Seinfeld curse, they usually eliminate Jerry himself since he has effectively retired from the world of acting.
This spunky Saturday Night Live alumna spawned many a meme with her acerbic wit and sexual frustration on Seinfeld, so producers thought she would be an easy draw for an original comedy. In 2002, NBC aired Watching Ellie, a sitcom starring Louis-Dreyfus as a neurotic, narcissistic, untalented singer. Watching Ellie had a strong debut, but fell prey to critical disdain and a quick flameout of its gimmicks like an on-screen timer that tracked the episode's real-time progress. Plummeting ratings caused TV columnists to point out the contradiction in Watching Ellie's title, and the show was eventually put on hiatus for a few months. When it debuted in revised form in April 2003, critics were less harsh but still not positive. The show ended its run on May 20, 2003 and was not renewed for the fall 2003 schedule.
Louis-Dreyfus also has a few endorsement deals under her belt, but her credits as an actress have been rather meager since Seinfeld ended.
Richards was Cosmo Kramer since 1989, when he became a cult favorite as Stanley Spadowski in UHF. During Seinfeld's run, he was the quintessential "wacky neighbor." Wacky characters usually spin off well (Maude, The Jeffersons) but Kramer did not.
The Michael Richards Show debuted in 2000 on NBC. Created by and starring Richards, the show tried to leverage the Kramer character in every way except the name (perhaps to avoid paying royalties to Seinfeld creator Larry David). Although Richards was lauded by critics, the show did not stand on its own at all. NBC cancelled it after eight episodes. Since then, Richards has largely stayed off the entertainment industry's radar screens.
Self-deprecating loser George Costanza could have sweet talked himself into a nice sitcom, but Jason Alexander was SOL after Seinfeld finished. His would-be breakout sitcom, Bob Patterson premiered on ABC (not NBC) in 2001 and lasted 10 episodes despite extremely dense promotion. Bob Patterson, a know-it-all self-help guru who's just a big phony, seemed like a role purebred for George Costanza. Critics disagreed, audiences stayed away, and ABC ended up out a lot of cash.
Alexander has branched out into lighter fare that doesn't cast him as "George." He played the diabolical Catbert, head of Human Resources, on the animated show Dilbert. He was Boris Badenov in the modestly successful live-action The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. KFC has used Alexander as a spokesperson for a couple of years, but that's the longest job he has managed to find in TV since Seinfeld ended.
The Minor Players
Those who had smaller parts on Seinfeld went on to modest success after the show.
Larry David, who created the show and portrayed the back of George Steinbrenner's head, now works on the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Some have likened CYE to a more profane Seinfeld with David portraying himself.
Wayne Knight, also known as "Newman," starred in a number of Disney movies as shady, Newman-like characters. Starting before Seinfeld ended, he had a recurring role as Officer Don Orville, Sally's unlikely boyfriend on 3rd Rock from the Sun.
Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller, who played George's abrasive parents on the show, have appeared in a number of TV shows and feature films. Arguably, they have been more successful than any other characters since Seinfeld ended, and Stiller is still on The King of Queens on CBS (again, not NBC).
Patrick Warburton played David Puddy, the deadpan straight man to Elaine on the show. He moved on to play handi-capable police officer Joe Swanson ("Yeeeeah! All riiiight!") on Family Guy before roles in the live-action The Tick, Scream 3, several Disney productions, and Men in Black II.
What Have We Learned?
Seinfeld was significant in that it was always timely and drew a captive audience. In retrospect, some critics have looked back on the show and decried its depiction of petty friends living in a whitewashed New York City, and point out a similar "curse" afflicting cast members of a similar show, Friends. As with many long-running TV shows, people learn to identify characters with actors and typecasting inevitably occurs. This explains how the small-time characters, who were not used as often, have not been affected by "the Curse" as much.
Personally, I find it funny that Disney has scooped up many performers to use as voice talent in its movies, almost exclusively for the purpose of entertaining parents and children on different levels. When you see Al of Al's Toy Barn in Toy Story, you see either a funny-looking megalomaniac or "Newman." When a parent hears Mrs. Potato-Head nag her husband incessantly in Toy Story 2, the parent hears Mrs. Costanza instead.
/me waits for the E! True Hollywood Story on Seinfeld coming real soon now...
Thanks to IMDb, Google, and my own tainted memories