From left, the cast of "Seinfeld": Michael Richards as Kramer, Jason...

From left, the cast of "Seinfeld": Michael Richards as Kramer, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes and Jerry Seinfeld. Credit: Turner Entertainment Co.

"Seinfeld" aired its final episode on May 14, 1998. Read what Marvin Kitman, Newsday's TV critic at the time, had to say about the beloved show's finale, in his column published May 18, 1998.

THEY WERE KIDDING. That was it? What was that all about anyway?

I was expecting something big, something really bizarro with the "Seinfeld" finale. Maybe a death, even multiple deaths, a suicide pact, who knew? Like joining the Heaven's Gate cult, or the Jonestown Kool-Aid caper, something that would have the shocking emotional impact the way McLean Stevenson left the scene in "M*A*S*H." I didn't think they'd go gently into the night. 

But going to jail? For not being nice? It was stupid.

Perhaps there was a certain poetic justice by ending up doing time as bad Samaritans. It was characteristic that the Sein Four had mocked a victim being robbed at gunpoint, being charged with criminal indifference, violating some hick town's new Good Samaritan statute. As George explained, "Why would we want to help anybody?" Overheard making sarcastic incriminating remarks, they were sentenced to a year in the state pen.

But as comedy it was very strange - or as avant-garde critics may call it some day, surreal. It was the next level of surrealism after the Puerto Rican Day Parade episode.

I could see going to jail for the crime of not being funny the last year or two and sentenced to watching NBC Monday night shows for 5 to 9 years.

Or the crime of raising false hopes. Not since Charles Dickens has there been such great expectations.

Quel disappointment. I never thought I'd say this, but the promos for the finale of "Suddenly Susan" tonight look funnier. It was such a terrible letdown. I don't know what was worse, the Knicks losing to the Pacers, or this.

There were a few laughs, of course. Jerry Stiller as George's father made me laugh when, after the judge sentenced his son, he hurried his wife out of the courtroom so they could beat the traffic.

The flashbacks, with the prosecutor recalling past antisocial behavior by the New York 4, were hilarious. George's Trivial Pursuit argument with the bubble boy. Kramer's used-wheelchair escapade. Elaine falling into Sidra's chest in the sauna to see if it was real. Babu, the Pakistani restaurateur, recounting how Jerry got him deported. The doctor describing George's reaction to Susan's death as "restrained jubilation." That was real "Seinfeld."

But the new stuff? It was boring.

I kept thinking the show would end with a final surreal statement. It was all a dream. Bob Newhart would wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette saying, "I had this crazy dream about these four disgusting people being locked up in jail together . . . "

Seeing the four of them in the same room like this also reminded me of Sartre's "No Exit," which postulates that the worst kind of hell is being sentenced to an eternity with people who keep talking about existentialism, or nothing.

But there I go, trying to put the best spin on what was a major comedic disaster.

The last episode undoubtedly broke all the records for hype, for the number of commercials per quarter hour and the size of the audience. But long after the hype, hype hooray ends, we will be analyzing this turning point in western civilization.

The end of "Seinfeld" Thursday night was more than just a TV program. It was a national folk happening, a chance for the whole nation to commune, to share a common experience, like the JFK funeral or the end of "M*A*S*H." Remembering the end of "Seinfeld" seemed so much better than some other memories people have had: famines, the start of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. It was so much more wholesome than a preoccupation with a president's sex life (Did he or wouldn't she?), the oral history of our times.

Still, future scholars will be poring over this last episode like the Dead Sea Scrolls. But, for now, I'd just like to say: It goes to prove money isn't everything in the writing of comedy. What really went wrong?

First of all, "Seinfeld" the last two years has become bigger than comedy. It's our Kabuki. People expect the Fab Four to just show up onstage, playing their set parts. Sometimes they do something funny, sometimes not.

The false hope was that the return of Larry David, the man who created these Kabuki characters - with Jerry's help, of course - would change things, bring the show back to where it was when David quit while he was ahead in 1996. He went off to make a movie ("Sour Grapes") that turned out to be elongated "Seinfeld" in 90 minutes. You could see how bitter this guy really is. The quite unpleasant sour movie needed Jerry.

Larry David was a little rusty in his return. It was like expecting Patrick Ewing to come back with his wrist perfect and win the playoffs. The pressure was enormous on Larry and Jerry and they choked.

On the positive side, I must say, it could have been a lot worse. In the big secret ending, Jerry - or even Kramer, George or maybe Elaine in this post-"Ellen" age - could have wound up marrying Brooke Shields' "Suddenly Susan" character in a fabulous crossover finale. Worse, Jerry could have started dating "Caroline in The City." As far as I know. I haven't seen their finales yet. Anything is possible with NBC, suffering from a serious case of finalitis as seen in this theme week of hour-long finales.

The other good thing is that it has put an end to finale scenariowriting, a leading cottage industry. People like George Kohlman of Port Washington claimed to have written a final episode that might even make TV history "the way Bonanza' did with the flapjack-eating contest." To everybody like Chris Wolf, a funny writer "trapped in a house on Long Island," and everybody else who wrote and sent me their finale scenarios, the good news is, yours were better - if that's any consolation.

In the final minutes of hype on WNBC / 4, during a "Seinfeld Scrapbook" segment on "Access Hollywood" Thursday, Jerry seemed to say it all. In his self-satirizing way, he didn't agree with the principle of quitting on top. He said he wanted to peter out, exhausted, out of gas. He has more than fulfilled his goal.

I have a recurring fantasy. Maybe that wasn't really the last episode. Maybe it was a dress rehearsal, a scam, designed to pull our chains. Jerry is a well-known kidder.

Maybe, when NBC releases its new fall schedule today at Radio City, it will show on Thursday night at 9 o'clock: "Seinfeld." The next final season will be about Jerry and his friends in jail and their fun-filled life inside the slammer and the problems of ex-cons adjusting.

And then there will be another finale that would make last Thursday seem like a public access cable show.

I can hear Warren Littlefield standing at the podium today, saying in the words of that immortal NBC philosopher Emily Litella, "Never mind." 

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