On May 14, 1998, NBC aired the two-part series finale of Seinfeld, simply named “The Finale,” written by Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. The show had been on the airwaves for nine seasons and had taped 180 episodes (including the final two episodes). About 76.3 million viewers tuned in to watch Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Kramer (Michael Richards), and George (Jason Alexander) end up in jail, in fictional Latham, Massachusetts. The episode is among the most-watched series finales ever, behind M*A*S*H (1983), Cheers (1993), and The Fugitive (1967).
The polarizing finale sees NBC finally giving George and Jerry the green-light to their pilot, Jerry. To celebrate his and George’s pending move to L.A., Jerry invites the gang to take the NBC private jet anywhere they want to go for “one last hurrah.” They choose Paris. But on the way, Kramer knocks into the cockpit and causes the plane to make an emergency landing in Latham for repairs.
While walking around the town, the gang watches an overweight citizen get mugged and carjacked. Kramer films it, and they all make fun of the victim instead of helping him. Turns out, their indifference violated the Good Samaritan law and they’re arrested and sent to trial.
The finale was an excuse to bring back Seinfeld’s greatest hits characters, everyone from the Soup Nazi to Puddy to Marla the Virgin. The series ends with the four convicted and having to serve a year in a jail so that they can be “removed from society.” The final scene reveals Jerry bombing during a stand-up set in prison.
Though critics and fans panned the finale, it has actually aged pretty well. The finale was prescient in debating cell phone etiquette and how in America “we don’t have to help anybody.” Because the characters never learned from their lessons nor changed, them ending up in jail for crimes against humanity seems apropos. As we close in on the 25th anniversary of “The Finale,” here are 11 facts about the episode that fans of the show should know.
1. The series begins and ends with a discussion about shirt buttons.
On July 5, 1989, NBC aired the pilot, back when the show was called The Seinfeld Chronicles. The first dialogue occurs between George and Jerry at a restaurant, where Jerry declares that the second button on a shirt “literally makes or breaks a shirt. It’s too high." During the series finale’s final moments, while the gang sits in jail, Jerry again brings up the button conversation, but this time George asks, “Haven’t we had this conversation before?”
2. Larry David thinks the final episode is “clever.”
In 2014, David talked to Grantland’s Bill Simmons about how disappointed people were with the finale, and how much “grief” David received for it. “I was not interested in an emotional ride, and neither was Jerry,” David said. “No wonder why they would dislike it, yeah. But let me toot my own horn for a second. I thought it was clever to bring back all those characters in a courtroom and testify against them for what they did, and then show those clips, and also for why they even got arrested in the first place. And then to wind up—forget the self-aggrandizement here—I thought it was clever."
3. Jerry Seinfeld made sure Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s joke on the David Letterman finale worked.
On May 20, 2015, Letterman aired the final episode of his talk show, Late Show with David Letterman. During a Top Ten List segment, Louis-Dreyfus—who had flown all the way to New York to deliver a joke alongside Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, and Steve Martin—delivered the burn, “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale.”
Seinfeld later told Vulture’s “Good One” podcast in 2017 that he “fought hard for that particular joke.” The writers wanted to use a different joke, but Louis-Dreyfus didn’t think it worked. “I read the joke and I go, ‘No, that’s a bad joke,’” Seinfeld said. “It was a really cool experience to be on Dave’s last show and I didn’t want her to go out there and tank.” He mulled it over with the writers and they agreed on the joke, “which was sensational,” Seinfeld said.
4. Seinfeld has a theory on why so many fans disliked “The Finale.”
In a roundtable with David and other main members of the cast, Seinfeld reflected on the poor reception that the finale episode had with fans. “I think one of the things that people had a problem with is that it didn’t feel like the show because it wasn’t small,” he said. “It was big, and we didn’t really do big. Small was really our instrument that we played. And that might have been why the people that were so used to the show and liked it so much felt a little, ‘This doesn’t fit in.’” However, he defended the episode, noting that it “should’ve been different” from the rest of the series, because it was the finale.
In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Seinfeld also said: “I was happy with the Seinfeld finale, because we didn’t want to do another episode as much as we wanted to have everybody come back to the show we had so much fun with. It was a way to thank all of the people who worked on the show over the years that we thought made the show work. I don’t believe in trying to change the past, but I’m very happy with it.”
5. Jason Alexander thinks “The Finale” was a “good, not great episode.”
In an interview with Emmy TV Legends, Alexander discussed the finale. “For me, I thought it was a good episode, not a great episode, as written,” he said. “I thought it was a good idea.” He liked how David brought back so many popular characters. “They all added to our baby and then they went away,” Alexander said. “We never really say thank you. We never really got to be with them and Larry found a way to bring them back. Everybody who had been a meaningful part of our success was back to be with us at the end. So the atmosphere all week long was joyous and sentimental in a way that had never been.”
6. Wayne Knight believes “The Finale” didn’t “quite land” with audiences, either.
As Jerry’s arch-nemesis Newman, actor Wayne Knight enjoyed plenty of screen time throughout the show’s run. However, Knight wasn’t keen on the finale. During a 2022 appearance at Pennsylvania’s Steel City Convention, he claimed the last episode “didn’t quite land in the way that [co-creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld] wanted.” Knight also noted he wasn’t sure if there was a way to end the show in a way that would work for the characters, but added: “[David] wanted them to have the worst time possible. And as a concept, that works, but I don’t know if it works as a finale.”
7. David Chase thinks The Sopranos and Seinfeld should have swapped finales.
In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, The Sopranos creator David Chase discussed how to end a series the right way. “It’s just very difficult to end a series,” he said. “For example, Seinfeld, they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that’s the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner.”
8. The final taping was an overwhelmingly emotional experience for the cast.
Right before the four main cast members taped the final episodes in front of a studio audience, they did one last Circle of Power huddle, something they did before every show in which the cast held hands and grunted.
During the final Circle of Power, Seinfeld gave a speech. “Jerry goes, ‘I want to say something,’” Alexander said. “He said: ‘For the rest our lives, when anyone thinks of one of us, they will think of all four of us. And I can’t think of three people I’d rather have that be true of.’ I’m gone, Julia’s gone. And now the cast—we came running out, and we must look like we got hit by a truck. That was a huge thing. It was true. We had been through a rough year and that was a big gesture on his part.”
Louis-Dreyfus—who liked the final episode—also felt a similar way about Seinfeld’s words. “I was so caught by surprise by the emotion,” she told Emmy TV Legends. “I knew I’d be emotional, but I didn’t understand the profundity of it. It was a very sweet and dear moment.”
9. David blames fans for writing “The Finale” in their heads.
“I think the thing about finales is everybody writes their own finale in their head, whereas if they just tune in during the week to a normal show, they’re surprised by what’s going on,” David told Grantland in 2014. “They haven’t written it beforehand, they don’t know what the show is. But for a finale, they go, ‘Oh, well this should happen to George, and Jerry and Elaine should get together,’ and all that. They’ve already written it, and often they’re disappointed, because it’s not what they wrote.”
10. Rudy Giuliani wouldn’t let Seinfeld throw a party in Times Square.
NBC liked the idea of throwing a series-end party in Times Square. They wanted to air the finale and clips from the show on the Square’s giant Astrovision video screen, and they also wanted to close off part of the street. They applied for a permit, but the city rejected it, saying “it would be too disruptive to traffic.”
11. Curb Your Enthusiasm revisited “The Finale.”
During the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, David reunited the cast of Seinfeld for a fictional reunion special. Seinfeld, Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus, and Richards play versions of themselves. On November 22, 2009, Curb aired its season finale, featuring the Seinfeld special. George has married (then divorced) a woman named Amanda, and he got rich (then lost his money) from inventing an app called the iToilet. Jerry and Elaine have a daughter, but the daughter doesn’t know Jerry is her father. Seinfeld, playing himself, jokes to David, “We already screwed up one finale.”
A version of this article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for 2023.