As Seinfeld begins its slow march towards Netflix, the Seinfeldassaince is in full swing. In the States, the “show about nothing” never left – it’s been kept alive in rerun form ever since the show stopped producing new episodes over 20 years ago. But there’s plenty of additional fun, including a new soundtrack and internet supercuts galore, to be preoccupied with before we can binge-watch the series.
The funny thing about that soundtrack is that it has three different versions of the iconic theme song. Seinfeld was a pioneering sitcom that dispensed with much of the established formula of the genre, most notable of which was the reliance on opening credits or montages. Every episode of Seinfeld opens in media res, whether it’s with Jerry doing standup or simply barreling straight into whatever adventure the central characters have cooked up. There was no fluff, no goofy introductions, and no forced fun at the top of each show.
In fact, the only recognisable thing at the start of each episode was the iconic slap bass that served as the show’s theme. Slight variations would be produced, but for the most part, show openings and scene bumpers were accompanied by the familiar synthetic tones of funky bass pops that today sound inextricably connected to the 1990s.
When sitting down with CNN’s Great Big Story YouTube channel, composer Jonathan Wolff explained how the theme came to be. “I noticed that Jerry has a lyrical delivery to his jokes, and I put a clock on it. About 110 [BPM]. And that became the tempo of the Seinfeld theme.” Wolff needed barebones rhythm in order to not drown out Seinfeld’s standup, so he beatboxed in order to keep the backing sparse. But when it came time to find the iconic sound of the bass line, Wolff didn’t use a bass at all.
Instead, a fairly basic slap bass setting on a Korg M1 synthesiser was used to produce the opening licks. When layered on top of Wolff’s mouth percussion, the results were distinctive and unmistakable. When NBC attempted to upgrade the theme, Larry David stepped in and vetoed, liking the “annoying” qualities of Wolff’s original.
For each show, Wolff would get a copy and simply improvise along with the rhythm of the jokes and edits.