For those lamenting the unlikelihood of a “Seinfeld” spin-off, we offer one word: “AfterMASH.” That follow-up to the sitcom hit “M*A*S*H” made its debut in September 1983, only to be shot off the air within a year. “It did horribly,” says Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for Television Research at Syracuse University. Thompson notes that successful spin-offs from a smash series such as “Seinfeld” and “M*A*S*H” are as rare as type AB negative blood in a remote field hospital.
“AfterMASH” didn’t work, according to Thompson, because the imitative spin-off failed to establish an identity separate from its parent show. “AfterMASH” used many of “M*A*S*H“ ‘s core characters – including Sherman Potter, Max Klinger and Father Mulcahy – and kept alive the familiar hospital setting and themes. (Korea’s 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital became General Pershing V. A. Hospital in Missouri.)
Contrast this to “Frasier,” Thompson’s pick as the best spin-off of the ’90s. “ ‘Frasier’ works so well because it doesn’t try to build on the success of ‘Cheers,’” Thompson explains. “The producers took a peripheral cast member we didn’t know very much about, moved him away from Boston and created a whole new program.”
Other spin-off hits were likewise built around peripheral characters who left behind their old pals and neighborhoods. “Laverne & Shirley” starred Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams (who occasionally appeared on “Happy Days”) as two young women who left the familiar confines of Milwaukee for the promise of Hollywood (Burbank, actually). “The Jefferson’s” featured Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford – the Bunkers’ neighbors on “All in the Family,” who kept “movin’ on up” from working-class Queens to Manhattan’s fancy Upper East Side.
Which brings us to “Seinfeld.” According to Thompson, a spin-off featuring central characters Elaine, George or Kramer would be a dismal failure. Viewers would always associate those strong characters with “Seinfeld” and New York City, so developing a separate identity for a new series would be nearly impossible. (Can you imagine George as an unemployed neurotic in Boise, or Elaine as a suburban soccer mom?) The more outlandish a character is, the harder it becomes to spin him off. Says Thompson: “The idea of a show called “Kramer!” really scares me.”