Seinfeld's Elaine Almost Didn't Exist According To Jason Alexander

Could The Waitress in "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" be an homage to a rarely seen "Seinfeld" character? If what Jason Alexander says is true, that might just be the case. "Seinfeld" remains one of the most pivotal sitcoms of the 20th century. In 1989, the "show about nothing" introduced audiences to Jerry Seinfeld's unique observational humor.

Debuting during the last vestiges of television's network era, "Seinfeld" took a while to gain traction. It was often one of NBC's lowest-rated primetime shows, and the show's day and time were shuffled around before it would make Thursday evening appointment television. "Seinfeld" would finish its second season NBC's 46th-rated show. Just a few seasons later, it would be the top show on television and a pop culture force of nature.

It was due to the show's innovative writing and chemistry between the four main characters: Jerry Seinfeld, George Costanza, Cosmo Kramer, and Elaine Benes. But one of those characters was never supposed to be on the show.

'Elaine' was originally a waitress

If you watch the pilot for "Seinfeld," you'll notice one glaring omission. Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is not in it. The pilot opens with Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and George (Jason Alexander), not at the familiar Monk's Café but rather at Pete's Luncheon. After an earnest conversation between the two about the placement of buttons on men's shirts, we meet Claire the Waitress. She's a sarcastic server who fits right in with the cast. Claire is played by veteran film and TV character actor Lee Garlington.

In 2010, Jason Alexander told Kevin Pollak how Elaine Benes ended up replacing Claire the Waitress as a regular character on the show. During an appearance on "Kevin Pollak's Chat Show," Alexander said:

"There was no Elaine in the pilot. It was Kramer, George, Jerry, and a waitress. A waitress at the coffee shop. A very fine actress who made the critical error of suggesting to Larry [David] that she, she'd looked at the scenes overnight and made a few tweaks that she wanted to share with him ... A few ideas, a few ideas. In the spirit of community and collaboration."

Nearly a year later, when the show's second episode aired as part of a four-episode NBC late-season replacement, Claire was gone, replaced with Jerry's ex-girlfriend-turned-friend, Elaine Benes.

So, what happened to Claire, and what did it mean for "Seinfeld?"

Of course the truth is ambiguous

In classic "Seinfeld" fashion, it's very ambiguous why Claire the Waitress was removed from the show and replaced with Elaine Benes. Was it too audacious for Garlington to suggest rewrites to Larry David? Or maybe there's something to the rumor that NBC wanted more sex appeal and chemistry between the lone female character and the men on the show?

The Elaine Benes character is complex and was unheard of at the time. She's sexy, confident, and professional. Yet, she's still "one of the guys." Elaine insists on joining the trio in a contest to see who is the "master of their domain." She deems partners "spongeworthy" based on limited contraceptive devices. She eschews the stereotype of being the moral center for the bumbling men around her. Instead, she bumbles right along with them.

During the show's nine-season run, Louis-Dreyfus was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series seven consecutive times, winning in 1996. Marie Claire accurately called Elaine "one of the first truly multifaceted TV heroines."

Louis-Dreyfus talked about the importance of "The Contest" episode during a 2020 virtual reunion. According to Showbiz Cheat Sheet, she said:

"It's a very feminist point of view. It was kind of critical looking back on it. It's set up like she's going to win. She has to sort of fight to get her way in. It was very important. It's a very important cultural moment for that reason."

Regardless of the motivation behind the character change, it was the right call. With apologies to Lee Garlington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' portrayal of Elaine Benes is a big reason "Seinfeld" remains one of the most influential shows in modern television history. Let's just hope they didn't give Garlington the "It's not you, it's me" routine.