By Tom Gliatto
January 12, 1998 12:00 PM

IT WAS DEC. 26, A WEEK AFTER MILLIONS of Americans had celebrated Festivus by putting up aluminum poles in their living rooms (for the rest of us, that’s Seinfeldian for that time of year when family and friends gather to denounce each other’s faults). In fact, it was the week after actor Jerry Stiller, as Jason Alexander’s apoplectic dad, Frank Costanza, had celebrated that strange new holiday on NBC’s splendidly nutty Seinfeld. Stiller had just attended the funeral of a 97-year-old aunt with his wife, actress Anne Meara, on Long Island. “As we were leaving the cemetery,” he recalls, “some people at the service stopped us at the gate and said, ‘We’re sorry about what happened,’ and I said, ‘You mean about my aunt?’ and they said, ‘No, Seinfeld.’ ”

The mourners, with all due respect to Mr. Stiller’s aunt, were referring to a death notice that had made headlines that same morning, triggering a national wail of dismay that will likely only build between now and May—which is when Jerry Seinfeld, 43, the creator, star and producer of what is arguably the most beloved and definitely the most eccentric sitcom in prime time, has announced he will bring his nine-year-old show to an end.

What end, it would be impossible to guess from this top-rated sitcom about a fastidiously neat Manhattan comedian (named Jerry Seinfeld) and his small circle of borderline-dysfunctional friends: Vesuvian-tempered George Costanza (Alexander, 38), self-defeatingly clever Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 36) and that twitchy guy with the Eraserhead hair, Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards, 48). This, after all, is a show on which George’s fiancée, Susan (Heidi Swedberg), died licking toxic envelope glue. No one, not even George, shed a tear before heading out for coffee, presumably at the gang’s hangout, Monk’s.

Seinfeld will not go the tearless way of poor Susan. “I’m heartbroken,” says Lauren McGoldrick, 21, a College of Marin biology student from San Francisco on vacation in Manhattan, where she paid a visit to Tom’s Restaurant, the Upper West Side eating spot that serves as the exterior for Monk’s coffee shop. “Jerry’s jokes are so real to life that you repeat them over and over with friends.” Humorist Dave Barry, a longtime fan, sounded dulled by sadness when he told PEOPLE, “Yeah, I’m blue that it’s going to be off the air.” Even Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was lampooned as George’s dim, noisy boss, may miss being skewered in fresh episodes. “My grandchildren are very disappointed,” he says. “Now their grandpa is like all the other grandpas. It doesn’t make any difference where the Yankees finish.”

Seinfeld broke the news to his staff at the show’s production office in Studio City, Los Angeles, in the middle of December. The gist of his speech, says a staff member who attended the meeting, “was that he just felt it was time to hang it up. It’s something that he has known for a while.” Fatigue may have been compounded by wounded feelings: Some critics have complained that this season’s episodes were flat (a Nov. 7 ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY headline asked, “After Nine Years, Is Seinfeld Still Fun or Just a Lot of Yada, Yada, Yada?”), even though Seinfeld continues to boast the best ratings of any sitcom—occasionally of any show on the air. “Psychologically,” says an NBC insider, “that had to have some effect on him.”

Not so, says Seinfeld’s longtime pal and Seinfeld cocreator Larry David, who left the show in 1996. “They said the same thing four or five years ago. But Jerry never really paid any attention. It had to do with his desire, with the timing of it.”

Still, Seinfeld’s notion of quality control—which is practically superhuman, according to actor Ben Stein, who spent 10 days filming one small guest role—had to take its toll. “Every scene, every angle, every inflection had to pass the test of whether or not he would think it was funny,” Stein says. “There was absolutely no tolerance for anything that wasn’t perfect.” And yet Seinfeld managed somehow to be pleasant. “It was such a creative, happy workplace,” says Saturday Night Live regular Molly Shannon, who had a memorable bit part this season as a woman who doesn’t swing her arms when she walks.

Nevertheless, the comedian had begun to muse aloud recently that he might soon bid adieu to the series. In an interview in November in The New York Times, Seinfeld said he’d pondered when it would be best to quit. “There’s no one I can go to,” he said. “I thought of calling Bill Cosby or Mary Tyler Moore. But there’s no show that’s been in this position so late in its run.”

According to Alexander’s mother, Ruth Greenspan, Seinfeld’s three co-stars “have been preparing for this for quite a while in the back of their minds.” (The decision, Seinfeld told the New York Post, was made with their unanimous consent. “They’re fine with it,” he said.) “My husband and I are sorry to see it over,” says Greenspan. “Many of our friends are devotees of the program. I’ve tried to impress on Jason the fact that, because of the people we know, he has a huge extended family.”

On any given week, that devoted clan comprises roughly 32 million members who tune in to watch a show that is famously “about nothing”—and everything. “It was a show,” says Stiller, “about what was in people’s insides but that they wouldn’t say themselves.” In episode after episode, Seinfeld and friends have coped, and none too well, with the weird, petty vicissitudes of life. Retrieving a sable hat left in someone’s apartment, telling a physical therapist her hair is too big—simple tasks, you’d think. Not on Seinfeld, where multiple plot strands are constantly stitched together into a comedic crazy quilt.

In the process, the show has managed to work its way into the daily fabric of our lives. For the past nine years casual conversation across America has been punctuated with references to the show—allusions to everything from the Soup Nazi (who refuses to serve his broths to customers who ask for extra bread, don’t have their money ready or don’t stay strictly in line) to “master of my domain” (from the infamous masturbation episode) to “yada, yada, yada” (the catchphrase that became a catchphrase). Seinfeld, says Washington Post critic Tom Shales, who ranks it with all-time classics like I Love Lucy and All in the Family, “is about the human condition. And the human condition is basically a mess.”

And poor NBC! The show, which was called The Seinfeld Chronicles when it premiered as a summer special in 1989, went from being a critically honored cult phenomenon to mainstream mayhem when it switched permanently from Wednesdays to Thursdays in its fourth season. The linchpin of the network’s Must See TV night lineup, which now begins with Friends and ends with ER, it earns the network $200 million annually. With its goose leaving and taking his sizable golden egg with him, NBC reportedly offered the comedian a deal worth more than $100 million to stay on for another season. (While the network will neither confirm nor deny the figure, the network insider regards it as “unlikely”)

But Seinfeld couldn’t be persuaded. “I think Jerry is quite an admirable guy,” says his friend Tonight Show host Jay Leno. “Here they offer him crazy amounts of money, but he sticks to his guns.” Of course, where money is concerned, he has no worries anyway: A decade ago, Seinfeld was just another promising comic with a knack for wry observations (“You go into the store and buy Grape-Nuts. No grapes, no nuts. What’s the story here?”). By last fall, having raked in $94 million in only two years, he ranked No. 6 on Forbes‘s list of the richest people in show business. In addition to writing best-sellers (1993’s SeinLanguage) and serving as pitchman for American Express, he earns a reported $1 million per episode, along with a cut of the show’s hefty syndication fee. (His costars have been earning $600,000 this season, up from $160,000 after a salary holdout last spring.) Now, says Leno, “he feels he’s done it, and it’s time to move on.”

Seinfeld has already announced his first nonsitcom gig: In August he’ll return to his stand-up roots with an HBO special. Beyond that, “he doesn’t really have an interest in doing movies or acting,” says friend Lucien Hold, manager of the Comic Strip Live comedy club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Maybe he’ll just want to do a Johnny Carson and savor his hard-earned rest. “After nine years, day in, day out, it’s gotta take it out of you,” says actor Richard Herd, who for three seasons played George’s supervisor, Mr. Wilhelm. “I think this is a healthy decision.” Betty Seinfeld, the star’s mother, agrees. (His father, Kal, who owned a sign-painting business, died in 1985.) “He wants everything to be perfect, he’s a perfectionist,” Betty, 83, who now lives in South Florida, Fla., recently told magazine journalist Debra L. Wallace. “He’s going to really appreciate not working.”

With plans in the works to move out of his sleek, spacious home in West Hollywood (he has already put it up for sale, his mother says), the Brooklyn-born comedian will probably relocate to Seinfeld land—Manhattan—where he owns an apartment on the Upper West Side. “He’s always talked about coming back to New York,” says Hold. “It’s roots. There’s something about the energy of New York and the fact that people live on top of each other. His oldest and dearest friends are the people who didn’t move, and they are still here.”

Indeed, in the days after the announcement, the never-married Seinfeld, who was treated to a brief splash of notoriety when he began dating then-17-year-old Shoshanna Lonstein in 1993, could be seen merrily taking in the Big Apple. According to the New York Post, he saw the Broadway musical 1776 and dined at a pricey Mediterranean restaurant, Picholine, along with his sister and business manager, Carolyn Liebling. And he was expected to enjoy his traditional New Year’s Day brunch with Mad About You‘s Paul Reiser and comedians Larry Miller and Mark Schiff.

But if Seinfeld is through with Seinfeld and sitcoms, his costars may envision a different future. There has already been speculation about a spinoff centered on Elaine or Kramer, a prospect not everyone applauds. “I hope they don’t spin off,” says humorist Barry, “because I can’t imagine it being as good without the four of them together.” Certainly there are other options. Louis-Dreyfus, who in May gave birth to a son, Charles, her second child, has a small part in the current Woody Allen comedy Deconstructing Harry. Richards has starred in Unstrung Heroes and Trial and Error, neither of which drew a nation of Kramerphiles to the theaters. As for Alexander, his mother has her own idea for the son who won a Tony for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and recently played a court valet in Brandy’s remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella on ABC. “Jason is a song-and-dance man,” she says. “We would love to see him go back to Broadway.”

For now, on the Seinfeld set, all must focus on coming up with a wrap-up that will allow the show to go out, as its star told The New York Times, “in full blazing color.” The challenge, says a production staffer, “is to sustain this pace for the next 10 shows—while everyone is clawing at the windows trying to figure out what they will do next.”

In the meantime there is at least one man in America who looks forward to the finale with angry glee: Al Yeganeh, whose draconian rule from behind the counter at Manhattan’s Soup Kitchen International inspired Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Seinfeld’s announcement, he says, “was the best gift America and the human race got this Christmas. The show really destroyed my personal life and my emotional and physical well-being. Because of this TV show, customers think I’m going to kill them and they panic. But the line must be kept moving!” And, alas, so must gifted comedians.