As Lars Liebeler prepared to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, on thing weighed heavy on his mind: missing "Seinfeld."
Sure, he'd taken pains to program his VCR for the three episodes he'd miss. But what if he'd made a mistake? What if the machine malfunctioned? What if the power went out?
So before boarding a plane for his three-week vacation last year, he came up with a double back-up plan. He asked not just one but two friends to separately tape the shows for him.
"It was a George Costanza kind of thing to do," admits Mr. Liebeler, 31, referring to the resident neurotic on the NBC show. "But I'm not alone in the wilderness. There are other 'Seinfeld' nuts out there with me."
Indeed. The hit sitcom about New York singles who are often unlucky in love, unlucky at work, unlucky at even finding a parking space, has developed a cult following. On Thursday nights at 9:30, Jerry Seinfeld, his best friend George, his ex-girlfriend Elaine and his neighbor Kramer poke fun at the everyday annoyances of life -- whether it's taking the subway or getting a date.
And America can relate. Since the show was moved to Thursdays several months ago, ratings have skyrocketed, entering the Nielsen top 10 and even beating "Cheers" some weeks.
But there are "Seinfeld" watchers, and then there are "Seinfeld" groupies. The latter tape shows, imitate characters and throw marathon viewing parties. Don't dare call during the show, they warn friends who are non-fans. And come Friday morning, these devotees are easy to spot: They're clustered around a desk reliving the glories of "Seinfeld," something they're likely to savor even more this week after the hourlong season finale, which airs tomorrow at 8 p.m.
"It's like, 'The world's so screwed up, let's talk about "Seinfeld," ' " explains Mark Gitomer, 36, who jokingly suggested to his wife that they name their first-born Kramer, after the show's quirkiest character.
"I like his gestalt . . . the rapid-fire way he talks, the regular '50s guy way he dresses. I even like his hair -- that sort of modified Don King," says Mr. Gitomer, a lawyer who lives in Owings Mills.
He also just plain likes the humor.
Here Jerry Seinfeld talks about the sexes:
Men want to see women naked. Whatever it is that you won't show us, that's what we're obsessed with seeing. I mean, if women always wore hats in public all the time, you'd see men buying Playhead magazine, Skulls of the Big 10.
For many fans, nothing comes between them and their "Seinfeld" -- not even food.
Thomas Fisher realized he was hooked after taking his fiancee out to dinner and discovering they were in danger of missing the show. They raced home, ordering carryout instead of sitting down.
"We were sweating," says Mr. Fisher, who lives in Owings Mills. "We rushed home and didn't even bother to turn off the [burglar] alarm. We just turned on the TV."
And Jane Gandy, 30, a litigation manager in Northern Virginia, is likely to be brusque if a friend calls during the show. Her standard greeting: "Have you lost your mind? Do you know what time it is?"
Neil Alperstein, an associate professor of popular culture at Loyola College, says the show's structure, not its content, wins it a following. "The most important thing going on is that the show's self-referential. . . . It's feeding on its own world. It's a TV show about people who are developing a pilot for a TV show that's based on the TV show we are watching."
After critics charged that the show was about nothing, its writers turned the criticism into an inside joke for fans. On the program, Jerry and George are working on a TV pilot, which is about nothing. The finished product figures into the plot of the finale.
Some fans find the show so true to life that they've tried writing for it themselves. Baltimore advertising salesman Irv Stein sent eight ideas to the show recently. He sheepishly admits to also having an autographed picture of the cast.
"I don't usually like to get hooked on a sitcom," says Mr. Stein, 38, who lives in Mount Washington. "But 'Seinfeld' is by far the hippest show on TV these days. I have 1-year-old twins, and if they are making noise during 'Seinfeld,' I leave them with my wife and go upstairs."
But he has found a few episodes offensive, including two that involved handicapped people. Nine advertisers withdrew ads from the season's most-talked-about "Seinfeld," an episode that dealt with masturbation (although no one ever used the word during the show).
In addition to watching, devotees now can wear the "Seinfeld" T-shirt, drink out of the "Seinfeld" mug and even send a "Seinfeld" card.
Greetings & Readings in Towson, which carries select items, has reordered twice since introducing the line a month ago, says Stephen Spund, general manager of the store and a "Seinfeld" fan himself.
Lars Liebeler received a card from his girlfriend just the other day. That encouraged the Washington lawyer to begin planning his second Seinfeld party. The first held at his home in Virginia was such a hit that he's moving this one to a hotel room.
But that doesn't mean he's becoming too serious about the sitcom, he says.
"I just think it's funny," he says. "If I took 'Seinfeld' too seriously, I'd be forgetting the lessons that Seinfeld and Kramer are teaching."