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Monday, June 05, 2017

Seinfeldia

Though it ended first-run episodes twenty years ago, Seinfeld is still a cultural phenomenon. I wrote about my opinion of the show here, so won't get into that again, but I will talk about Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's book, Seinfeldia, subtitled How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

Armstrong's book is two things: a history of the show, and a document of its legacy. The show was the brainchild of its star, Jerry Seinfeld, and his friend and fellow comedian Larry David. The birth came in a Korean deli. Seinfeld had been approached by NBC to do a show and he approached David to help him. They were looking at strange items in the store and David said something like, "This should be the show," meaning just he and Seinfeld talking. And thus it would be so.

Armstrong goes into casting--Seinfeld was always to play himself, while Jason Alexander was an established Broadway actor and Michael Richards knew David from Friday's. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) wasn't even a character in the pilot--executives wanted a female character. But they might have had the idea of a Sam-and-Diane style relationship. But David and Seinfeld were against that. Their simple rule was: "No hugging. No learning."

It's interesting to see how the show developed. The idea was for the writers to tap into their own lives and write about weird things that happened to them. Then a whole new slew of writers would be hired for the next year, because a person only has so many stories in them. This is where many of the episodes came from: a writer would pitch the story to David and Seinfeld. If David didn't like it, he'd say "I see that on another show." Making Seinfeld laugh was the ideal.

Some of the ideas the writers came up with became cultural touchstones. Festivus was an actual holiday one writer's father created. "Ya da ya da" came from another writer. One writer's girlfriend was sensitive about her hands, and thus was born "man hands." They also used real people as characters, such as George Steinbrenner and J. Peterman. When a show about Soup Kitchen International gave birth to the Soup Nazi, a number of soup stores opened around New York City. One near my office was called "Soup Nutsy." How many TV shows can claim to have influenced the opening of businesses?

David left the show after the seventh season. Armstrong writes: David planned to write a film script now that he was free of Seinfeld. He sat in his office on the Castle Rock lot, trying to write, alone, and panicked: He had done the wrong thing. He missed his friends. He thought about everyone at Seinfeld getting ready to do the first episode of the new season. What had he done? Why wasn’t he with his friends? Why was he such an idiot? How could he have left the biggest show in the country to write this stupid script? What was he, nuts?"

The show changed somewhat with many others filling David's considerable large shoes. "As Seinfeld took over sole control of the show, it moved away from its everyday-life, observational, “show about nothing” bent and toward a more absurd, cartoonish approach. It lost David’s complexity and darkness and gained more of Seinfeld’s lightheartedness." But David would come back to write the finale, where Jerry and friends end up in jail for not helping someone who is being mugged. They were happy with it, but it got terrible reviews: "Seinfeld would go down in history, it turned out, as having one of the most memorable, most watched, and most hated finales."

Beside the tale of the show itself, Armstrong delves into the cultural meaning of it all. It was a show about Jews in New York City, though it appealed greatly to the heartland (although George Costanza had an Italian name, Alexander basically based him on Woody Allen). In fact, "In 1996, scholars at a Stanford University Jewish Studies symposium debated the show’s merits for their own culture." It also violated many rules of the sit-com. As mentioned, the characters did not learn anything: "Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus bonded in her earliest days on the set, mainly over their mystified reactions to the scripts. Why were there heated conflicts that were never resolved? Why didn’t the characters ever learn anything? What had they gotten themselves into?"

An early episode, set entirely in a Chinese restaurant, puzzled many NBC executives, who wanted to change it. It became one of the classic episodes, and soon the executives let David and Seinfeld do whatever they wanted. This was because Seinfeld as a major cash cow: "By 1997, Seinfeld had become the first television show to bring in more than $1 million per minute of advertising, something previously accomplished only by the Super Bowl." They led NBC to a position as the number one network. When Seinfeld decided to end the show, he turned down an offer of five million dollars per episode. He wanted to go out on top.

Seinfeld can still be found almost everywhere in syndication, or on DVD, or on demand. People never seem to tire of it. I haven't seen an episode in a while but if I stumbled across one I would immediately know which one it was: "pirate shirt?" "close talker?" "Soup Nazi?" and settle in for an enjoyable half-hour of comedy. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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