JERRY SEINFELD VENTURED INTO A Korean Deli one night in November 1988 with fellow comic Larry David after both had performed, as usual, at the Catch a Rising Star comedy club on the Upper East Side of New York City. Seinfeld needed David’s help with what could be the biggest opportunity of his career so far, and this turned out to be the perfect place to discuss it.
They had come to Lee’s Market on First Avenue and Seventy-Eighth Street, maybe for some snacks, maybe for material. The mundane tasks of life and comic gold often merged into one for them. Sure enough, they soon were making fun of the products they found among the fluorescent-lit aisles. Korean jelly, for instance: Why, exactly, did it have to come in a jelly form? Was there also, perhaps, a foam or a spray? The strange foods on the steam table: Who ate those? “This is the kind of discussion you don’t see on TV,” David said.
Seinfeld had told David a bit of news over the course of the evening: NBC was interested in doing a show with him. Some executive had brought him in for a meeting and everything. Seinfeld didn’t have any ideas for television. He just wanted to be himself and do his comedy. He felt David might be a good brainstorming partner.
Seinfeld and David had a common sensibility, in part because of their similar backgrounds: Both had grown up in the New York area and were raised Jewish. Both seized on observational humor for their acts. They had their differences, too, that balanced each other nicely: Seinfeld was thirty-four and on the rise thanks to his genial, inoffensive approach to comedy and his intense drive to succeed. David was far more caustic and sensitive to the slightest audience infractions (not listening, not laughing at the right moments, not laughing enough). He was older, forty-one, and struggling on the stand-up circuit because of his propensity to antagonize his audiences out of a rather explosive brand of insecurity.
Seinfeld had dark hair blown dry into the classic ’80s pouf, while David maintained a magnificent Jew-fro, dented a bit in the middle by his receding hairline. Seinfeld’s delivery often ascended to a high-pitched warble; David favored a guttural grumble that could become a yell without warning.
They’d first become friends in the bar of Catch a Rising Star in the late ’70s when Seinfeld started out as a comic. From then on, they couldn’t stop talking. They loved to fixate on tiny life annoyances, in their conversations and their comedy. Soon they started helping each other with their acts and became friendly outside of work.
Seinfeld had gotten big laughs by reading David’s stand-up material at a birthday party for mutual friend Carol Leifer—one of the few women among their band (or any band) of New York comedians. David, nearly broke, had given Leifer some jokes as a birthday “gift.” Too drunk to read them aloud, she handed them off to Seinfeld; he killed, which suggested some creative potential between the two men.
As a result, it made sense for Seinfeld to approach David with this TV “problem” he now had. David also remained the only “writer” Seinfeld knew, someone who had, as Seinfeld said, “actually typed something out on a piece of paper” when he churned out bits for sketch shows like Fridays and Saturday Night Live.
Seinfeld was smart to consult David on this TV thing. David did have a vision, if not a particularly grand one. “This,” David said as they bantered in Lee’s Market, “is what the show should be.” Seinfeld was intrigued.
The next night, after their comedy sets at the Improv in Midtown, David and Seinfeld went to the Westway Diner around the corner, at Forty-Fourth Street and Ninth Avenue. At about midnight, they settled into a booth and riffed on the possibilities: What about a special that simply depicted where comics get their material? Jerry could play himself in that, for sure. Cameras could document him going through his day, having conversations like the one at the market the night before; he’d later put those insights into his act, which audiences would see at the end of the special. As they brainstormed, Seinfeld had one cup of coffee, then two. He usually didn’t drink coffee at all. They were onto something.
Seinfeld liked the idea enough to take it to NBC. The network signed off on it, suggesting a ninety-minute special called Seinfeld’s Stand-Up Diary that would air in Saturday Night Live’s time slot during an off week. As he thought about it, though, Seinfeld worried about filling an entire ninety minutes; thirty minutes, on the other hand, he could do.
By the time he and David had written a thirty-minute script, in February 1989, they realized they had a sitcom on their hands instead of a special. Jerry and a Larry-like guy could serve as the two main characters, who would discuss the minutiae of their lives and turn it into comedy—like Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett for television. “Two guys talking,” Seinfeld said. “This was the idea.”
To that setup, they added a neighbor. David told Seinfeld about his own eccentric neighbor, Kenny Kramer—a jobless schemer with whom David shared a car, a TV, and one pair of black slacks in case either had a special occasion. He would be the basis for the third character. They set the first scene in a fictional coffee shop like the one where they’d hatched their idea, and called it Pete’s Luncheonette.
SEINFELDIA’S FOUNDING FATHER AND NAMESAKE got his first inkling that he was funny at age eight. Little Jerry Seinfeld was sitting on a stoop with a friend in his middle-class town on Long Island, eating milk and cookies. Jerry—usually a dorky, shy kid—said something funny enough to cause his friend to spit milk and cookies back into Jerry’s face and hair. Jerry thought, I would like to do this professionally.
Seinfeld was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Massapequa. He spent his childhood watching Laugh-In, Batman, The Honeymooners, and Get Smart. (“When I heard that they were going to do a sitcom with a secret agent who was funny, the back of my head blew off,” he later said.) His parents, Betty and Kal, made humor a priority in their home. His father, a sign merchant, told jokes often. Even his business’s name was a joke: Kal Signfeld Signs.
As Jerry came into his own sense of humor, his performances grew more elaborate than mere jokes on the stoop. At Birch Lane Elementary School, he planned and starred in a skit for a class fair with his friend Lawrence McCue. Jerry played President Kennedy, and Lawrence played a reporter who asked him questions—essentially, set up his jokes. They were the only ones at the fair who did a comedy routine. When Jerry graduated to Massapequa High School in 1968, he grew obsessed with two things: cars and the comedian Bill Cosby. He dabbled in acting, playing Julius Caesar in his tenth-grade English class. But comedy remained his focus. He saw even geometry class as training for comedy; a good joke, he felt, had the same rigorous internal logic as a theorem proof. The only difference was the silly twist at the end of a joke.
When a long-haired Jerry Seinfeld attended Queens College, he acted in school productions and hung around the New York comedy clubs, wearing white sneakers like his idols Joe Namath and Cosby (circa the comedian’s time on the ’60s show I Spy). As he waited to get up the nerve to pursue stand-up as a profession, he used his attendance at Manhattan comedy clubs as a kind of independent study. He analyzed comics’ approach to their material and even wrote a forty-page paper on the subject.
He started to know the players: He eavesdropped, for instance, on Larry David talking to another comedian. David happened to be leaning on Seinfeld’s car, a 1973 Fiat 128 SL, in front of the Improv one day in 1975, the first time Seinfeld ever saw his future writing partner. Seinfeld was impressed with these guys’ dedication to the profession. He didn’t dare speak to them yet.
After he graduated in 1976 as an honor student, Seinfeld applied his sense of discipline to becoming a stand-up, approaching it methodically. His first appearance on a professional stage as a comedian was at Catch a Rising Star in 1976, at age twenty-two. He’d practiced his routine with a bar of soap until he had every word memorized. Comedian Elayne Boosler introduced him, and he took the stage. Once he got there, though, he couldn’t remember a word. He stood there for several long seconds, not saying a thing. Finally, he remembered the subjects he’d planned to talk about, so, without anything else to say, he listed them to the audience: “the beach, driving, parents.” People laughed, thinking this was his act, some high-concept performance art. Eventually he managed to fill three minutes with bits of material until he escaped the spotlight.
“That’s Jerry Seinfeld,” Boosler quipped to the audience when it ended, “the king of the segue.”
For four years, Seinfeld walked around the city night after night to hit clubs. He’d go eighteen months in a row without one night off. He tape-recorded his routines, then analyzed them to improve by the next night. He also fell in love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which became a favorite among New York City comics in the ’80s because its syndicated reruns aired after Late Night with David Letterman, dovetailing with the time they got home from work. They talked about the previous night’s episode when they saw one another at clubs, sometimes making dirty jokes about Mary and Rhoda.
In 1979, after three years on the circuit, Seinfeld got what could have been a big break. He was cast as a recurring character on the hit sitcom Benson, a mail delivery guy named Frankie who did comedy routines no one wanted to hear. (The five-foot-eleven-inch comedian would bound into Benson’s living-room set with an attempted catchphrase: “Give a cheer, Frankie’s here!”) After three episodes, however, he showed up for a read-through and found no script waiting with his name on it. When he asked what was going on, an assistant director pulled him aside to tell him: He’d been fired.
Still, by the early ’80s, Seinfeld was secure in his position on the comedy circuit. He knew his brand. As he told teenage interviewer Judd Apatow, who hosted a show called Club Comedy on the Syosset High School radio station on Long Island, it took time to develop the skills that led to great observational jokes. “It’s one thing to see something,” Seinfeld said, “and another thing to do something with it.”
He would start with something that struck him as funny—it could be something as small as a silly word—and then work on it until he conveyed what he found so funny about it to his audience. The first line of a joke always had to be funny. Then he went from there, from funny thought to funny thought with the fewest possible unfunny thoughts in between, until it got to the absolute biggest laugh at the end. He was focused only on making people laugh, nothing else. “Funny is the world I live in,” he later said. “You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested.”
By the time he chatted with young Apatow in the early ’80s, he was playing clubs in New York, Atlantic City, and elsewhere. Apatow asked him, “Where do you go from here? How much farther can you get?”
“There’s a lot you can do,” Seinfeld said. “You can do a sitcom, which is something a lot of people don’t want to be associated with. I’m going to do some acting. But stand-up is what I am. The acting will be to improve my visibility.” When Apatow asked what “success” meant to Seinfeld, the comedian had a clear and simple answer: “To be considered one of the best stand-up comics.”
Around the same time as his interview with Apatow, Seinfeld hit the big time: his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1981. For him it was “the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the World Series all rolled into one,” he later said. He edited his usual twenty-minute set down to its best five minutes, then practiced it at clubs five or six times a night, repeating it probably two hundred times before his big debut. He jogged to get into top physical condition. He played tapes of the Superman theme to psych himself up.
Kal Seinfeld made a sign that he placed on his van the week before his son’s appearance. In black letters over orange and green paint, it said: JERRY SEINFELD OF MASSAPEQUA WILL BE ON CARSON SPECIAL. Kal also took out an ad in the local paper to announce the occasion.
The actual performance flew by for Jerry like a downhill roller coaster. He riffed on complex turn lanes, the 1,400-pound man in The Guinness Book of World Records, and weather reports: “They show you the satellite photo. This is real helpful, a photograph of the earth from ten thousand miles away. Can you tell if you should take a sweater or not from that shot?” Better yet, he earned laughs in all the right places, some spontaneous applause, and an “OK” sign from Carson himself.
The appearance would lead to several more on Carson’s show as well as Late Night with David Letterman. Seinfeld later called being on Carson “the difference between thinking you’re a comedian and really being one.” Seinfeld would not have to do any more embarrassing bit parts on sitcoms.
In 1984, though, he did go back to acting, as he’d predicted when speaking to Apatow. This time, his prospects looked a little better. There he was, a lanky young man with a whoosh of dark hair, slick as ever in a black suit, black tie, and white shirt as he sat behind a network-executive desk in a Showtime movie that satirized the TV business, The Ratings Game. “The networks aren’t buying Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans this season,” he says as he swigs milk and eats chocolate cookies. “They’re buying gays, alcoholics, child molesters.”
A few years later came one more chance in television. In 1988, a new production company named Castle Rock considered casting Seinfeld in a sitcom pilot called Past Imperfect for ABC. Ultimately, the network rejected him because of his lack of acting experience, and the part went to another stand-up, Howie Mandel, but the pilot never aired.
Seinfeld segued back into full-time stand-up, doing up to three hundred appearances per year across the country. He had regular spots on The Tonight Show. He had a comfortable life and didn’t seem concerned with fame.
As it turned out, however, those last two experiences in television—his Showtime role and his almost-pilot—were prophetic. The Ratings Game included Seinfeld’s future Seinfeld costar, Michael Richards; Seinfeld’s line anticipated how NBC executives would later object to his own sitcom creation—the part about the Jews, at least. And his relationship with Castle Rock would prove critical when it came time to produce his own sitcom.
LARRY DAVID WAS WHAT’S KNOWN as a comic’s comic, an acquired taste, “which means I sucked,” he often said. One bit, indicative of his style, zeroed in on the confusing rules of when to use the familiar tu for “you” in romance languages. “Caesar used the tu form with Brutus even after Brutus stabbed him,” he said, “which I think is going too far.” Other riffs had him putting himself on trial for masturbation and playing the part of Hitler enjoying a magician’s act. Even his appearance seemed a willful attempt to spurn mainstream audiences: He favored an army jacket and emphasized his receding hairline by letting the sides grow into great poufs that his friend Richard Lewis once described as “a combination of Bozo and Einstein. . . . Talk about walking to the beat of your own drum. I mean, this guy was born in a snare drum.”
In the early ’80s, David found a place to channel his unusual talents, ABC’s attempt at a Saturday Night Live–like sketch show filmed in Los Angeles called Fridays. There, he, too, worked with Michael Richards, one of the show’s core cast members and another baffling comic.
Fridays’ debut was received by critics and viewers with indifference for the most part. Some affiliates, however, refused to air it after seeing stomach-churning sketches like “Diner of the Living Dead” (in which patrons chew on corpses’ body parts) and “Women Who Spit” (in which female talk show guests . . . spit). In its second season, the series started to find its footing, impressing some critics with its pointed political satire, like a skit featuring a Ronald Reagan impersonator in the role of Frank, the alien transvestite in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and another with Popeye fighting fascism.
David played a major part in one of the show’s signature political send-ups, a riff on Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s series of silly, musical travel movies (Road to Singapore, Road to Zanzibar, etc.). The sketch skewered President Ronald Reagan’s El Salvador policy, with the bumbling stars affably engaging in hijinks in the military-governed state. David did a solid Crosby, and Richards appeared as an El Salvadoran soldier. “Boy, I gotta figure out a way to get my buddy boy out of there,” David burbled as the soldiers mistook Bob Hope for the American sent to teach them how to use the machine guns.
In other ingenious sketches, David played a childhood friend of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi; a temp hired to fill in for the Secretary of State on one occasion and Gloria Steinem on another; and half of a couple who lives their life in front of a sitcom studio audience in their apartment.
But David hated being recognizable because it made him susceptible to public criticism of his work. With his first steady gig at Fridays, he bought himself a Fiat convertible. Ten minutes out of the dealership, with the top down, he pulled up at a light and someone at a nearby bus stop yelled out, “Your show stinks!” He put the top up and, at least the way he later told the story, never put it down again.
Fridays ended after three seasons, in 1982. Saturday Night Live’s executive producer, Dick Ebersol, offered jobs to everyone who’d worked on the show. Only David and fellow writer Rich Hall took Ebersol up on it.
In David’s one season on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live, 1984–85, he got just one sketch onto the show. It aired in the time slot few ever saw: 12:50 A.M. He quit in a rage, then regretted it and showed up back at work as if nothing had happened. He would file this experience away—and many other indignities large and small—to use as a plotline in the show he and Seinfeld would eventually create together, reinventing the medium that had once humiliated him.
A few years later, David was finished with writing for sketch and variety shows. MTV executive Joe Davola had noticed his work on Fridays and liked it so much that he asked David in for a meeting on a comedy/game show hybrid he produced called Remote Control. “I appreciate it,” Davola recalls David saying, “but this is not where I want to go with my career.” Instead, David wrote a screenplay called Prognosis Negative, which never got produced.
Meanwhile, Seinfeld had already made several smart choices in his fledgling career, and among them was to sign with manager George Shapiro.
Shapiro was inspired to go into show business like his uncle, Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner. Shapiro’s charm—kind eyes, a warm smile, and a hint of a New York accent—made him particularly suited to being a talent manager, endearing himself to both performers and executives. He had spent the early years of his career at the William Morris talent agency in New York. There, he’d helped put together TV comedies such as The Steve Allen Show, That Girl, and Gomer Pyle. Now, as a talent manager for young comedian Jerry Seinfeld, he may have been simply doing his job when he told NBC executives that his client belonged on their network. But he was also speaking from decades of experience during TV’s formative years.
Shapiro sent regular letters to NBC’s entertainment president, Brandon Tartikoff, and its head of development, Warren Littlefield, every time Seinfeld had a good performance on The Tonight Show or Late Night. In 1988, he made his strongest epistolary plea as Seinfeld prepared for his first concert broadcast at Town Hall in New York City. “Call me a crazy guy,” Shapiro wrote to Tartikoff, “but I feel that Jerry Seinfeld will soon be doing a series on NBC.” He closed by inviting Tartikoff to attend the Town Hall event. No one from the network came, but Tartikoff invited Seinfeld and Shapiro in for a meeting.
Seinfeld didn’t know his manager had badgered NBC about him. He was still unaware when he and Shapiro headed to NBC’s Los Angeles offices on November 2, 1988, to discuss the possibility of a network project with Tartikoff, Littlefield, and the head of late-night programming and specials, Rick Ludwin. Seinfeld hadn’t the first idea what he’d do on television—his main career plan was to be a stand-up comedian for as long as he could.
He was also a little annoyed at this meeting screwing up his whole afternoon. He’d become a comedian partly to have his days free from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. This meeting was at 5:15 P.M., cutting right into his free time, but he sucked it up and went anyway.
“What would you like to do in television?” Ludwin, a milky-skinned, bespectacled executive, asked. “Would you like to host a late-night show? Would you like to do prime-time specials?”
“The only thing I had in mind was having a meeting like this,” Seinfeld said, half joking. A fancy meeting with network executives had crossed his mind as a symbol of success in comedy, but he’d never thought beyond that. He told the executives he’d want to play himself in anything he did, but that was all he knew for sure.
A FEW MONTHS LATER, SEINFELD had joined forces with Larry David on the script, starting with their fateful discussion in the diner. Once they had come up with what they believed was a solid sitcom proposal, Seinfeld had to return to pitch it to the network executives. For a real, ongoing sitcom, they’d also need a studio to finance production, and Shapiro hooked them up with Castle Rock Entertainment, which Carl Reiner’s son, All in the Family star and movie director Rob Reiner, had just cofounded. The studio had also considered Seinfeld for the Past Imperfect pilot. Now they signed on with Seinfeld’s possible new project, given that the network had just agreed to air it. Why not? The deal was done with NBC. The studio simply had to finance it, which was easy with a recent investment they’d gotten from Columbia Pictures. The network had already promised to put the show on the air, which guaranteed at least some return for the studio.
Several Castle Rock executives sat in as David and Seinfeld outlined the new sitcom concept to NBC in entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff’s office.
The comedian charmed the room, got some laughs. Tartikoff signed on with a bit of a shrug. It would require a small development deal. He and his executives liked Seinfeld’s humor. They, too, thought: Why not? “George,” Tartikoff said to Shapiro, “now you don’t have to send me any more letters.” They weren’t sure about this Larry David guy, some struggling comic who had never written a sitcom script, much less produced a show. But they went along with his involvement for the moment since it seemed to be what Seinfeld wanted.
The executives had one suggestion: They envisioned the show as a multicamera production—that is, a traditional sitcom shot in front of a studio audience, like I Love Lucy and most other TV comedies since the 1950s—rather than a one-camera show, shot more like a film, as the comedians had pitched it. David hated this change. “No, no, no, no, no,” he said, “this is not the show.” Silence descended. “If you think we’re going to change it, we’re not.”
Seinfeld proved the more diplomatic of the two, as he would in many instances to come. He said he and his partner would talk about it.
Once David and Seinfeld left the meeting, David remembered the $25,000 he was being paid for the pilot. David agreed to the change. He would at least make his twenty-five grand and move on.
Soon came another test of the budding relationship between Seinfeld and NBC, when a scathing review of Seinfeld’s stand-up show in Irvine, California, ran in the Los Angeles Times. In January 1989, Lawrence Christon wrote: “He’s expressive. He’s clear. And he’s completely empty. . . . There isn’t a single portion of his act that isn’t funny—amusing might be a better word—but ten minutes or so into it, you begin wondering what this is all about, when is he going to say something or at least come up with something piquant.”
As Seinfeld fretted over the review, Shapiro asked a staffer to photocopy a bunch of Seinfeld’s positive reviews and deliver them to Littlefield and Ludwin at NBC. In the end, though, it seemed that Seinfeld and Shapiro were far more concerned about Christon than NBC was. They didn’t bat an eye. Seinfeld and Shapiro desperately wanted this show to happen—and NBC didn’t care much either way.
By the early months of 1989, David and Seinfeld were assembling a sitcom pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles.
How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything
How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything
The hilarious behind-the-scenes story of two guys who went out for coffee and dreamed up Seinfeld—the cultural sensation that changed television and bled into the real world, altering the lives of everyone it touched.
Comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld never thought anyone would watch their silly little sitcom about a New York comedian sitting around talking to his friends. NBC executives didn’t think anyone would watch either, but they bought it anyway, hiding it away in the TV dead zone of summer. But against all odds, viewers began to watch, first a few and then many, until nine years later nearly forty million Americans were tuning in weekly.
In Seinfeldia, acclaimed TV historian and entertainment writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong celebrates the creators and fans of this American television phenomenon, bringing readers behind-the-scenes of the show while it was on the air and into the world of devotees for whom it never stopped being relevant, a world where the Soup Nazi still spends his days saying “No soup for you!”, Joe Davola gets questioned every day about his sanity, Kenny Kramer makes his living giving tours of New York sights from the show, and fans dress up in Jerry’s famous puffy shirt, dance like Elaine, and imagine plotlines for Seinfeld if it were still on TV.
- Simon & Schuster |
- 320 pages |
- ISBN 9781476756103 |
- July 2016
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