First a confession: I missed “Seinfeld” when it was on. I knew it was there. I knew it was part of the zeitgeist. I remember hearing about it when the finale happened. But whatever I was doing on Thursday nights in the 1990s, I wasn’t plopped in front of a TV watching “Seinfeld.”
I had seen individual episodes. I knew the characters. I had caught the show in syndication from time to time on the television in my parents’ kitchen. That was more than I could say for a lot of shows. (I’ve never seen a single episode of “Friends,” for example.) I got references to it. I knew some of the plots. But my familiarity could best be described only as passing.
But it’s the twenty-first century, and every time I opened up Hulu it was there, beckoning to me. And so it was, at the end of June, after a mad dash to watch “Game of Thrones” from the beginning and finishing in time to watch the season finale, I turned to my wife and said, “All our shows are done until the fall. Let’s watch ‘Seinfeld.’” She agreed, although watching nine seasons took longer than I anticipated, and we only finished a few weeks ago.
Television Shows as Institutions
Things were fresh in my mind when I picked up the book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. As TV critic and author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong points out, not every television show has enough of a story to fill its own book. (Her last book, a history of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” is a notable exception.) But if any show in the last quarter century qualifies, it’s “Seinfeld.”
Seinfeldia takes us from the beginning to the end, from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s initial discussions in a Korean deli in 1988, through to the current day. What’s going on in the current day? A Google search for “Seinfeld” as I was writing this showed a news story from only two hours earlier. (Jason Alexander telling Howard Stern the real reason that George’s fiancée Susan was killed off: actress Heidi Swedberg’s lack of chemistry with the rest of the cast. A fact already known to anyone who read the book.)
This volume explores “Seinfeld’s” role in not just changing TV, but TV culture, and not just changing sitcoms but how we view television shows as institutions. The fan culture that’s exploded in the last two decades owes something to the example set by obsessive “Seinfeld” fans.
It continues in the present day. There are Twitter accounts dedicated to “Seinfeld” (sometimes dueling with each other), an enterprising digital artist recently created a virtual reality version of Jerry’s apartment, and the guy Kramer is based on still makes a living giving “Seinfeld” tours in New York City. All this despite the fact that a kid born the night the “Seinfeld” finale aired would have just finished his first semester of college in December.
Between Reality and Fantasy
The show, then and now, blurred the lines between reality and fantasy. Real names were used, often. Jerry Seinfeld, of course, plays a comic who lives in New York. George closely resembles Larry David in early seasons. Kramer is named after a neighbor of David’s who lived across the hall and used to come into his apartment. Real-world companies were named. It wasn’t just the New York Yankees: J. Peterman is a real clothing company that used to publish a catalog with literary descriptions of their items. Together Jerry and George pitched a TV show “about nothing” to NBC. And, of course, the Soup Nazi was inspired by a real dude.
This book is full of interesting history, but there’s also a dark subtext. For example, the show sounds like a nightmare to write for. Keishin Armstrong focuses on the writers at different points in the book (a legacy of her last book, where the women writers of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” were prominent) and the process was a pressure cooker that left men beaten and broken.
Unlike a typical sitcom, there was no writers’ room where jokes were hammered out in a communal session. The show had offices, but everyone was individually cloistered. Writers had to pitch and receive approval on four separate plots for one episode before they could even begin outlining, but the only way to pitch was to corner Seinfeld or David in an off moment, or to catch them between the hours-long sessions where they were behind a closed door doing rewrites. Writers would anxiously pace outside waiting for pages to emerge to find out what had been changed.
Seinfeld and David would also only keep most writers for one season, stripmining their lives for stories and then turning them out when there was nothing less to pillage. Keishin Armstrong reports that Andy Robin, writer of beloved episode “The Junior Mint,” was so traumatized by his time on “Seinfeld” that he left the show business, went to med school, and is now a doctor in Rhode Island.
It didn’t need to be that way. But David and Seinfeld didn’t have the experience necessary to know how to organize a different operational structure, even if David’s personal insecurities would have allowed for it, which is by no means certain.
But the author doesn’t dwell on this ruthlessness, or Larry David’s iron fist, which would be more chilling if the author didn’t love the show so much. It’s ruthlessness in the way we hear about how cutthroat “Saturday Night Live” is. It’s there, we all know what a hellscape it probably is, but we can still enjoy the show.
That being said, the book makes for a very enjoyable read. It’s full of anecdotes, big and small, including the origins and details of the many of the show’s most famous bits. For example, Elaine’s famous dancing was added by writer Spike Feresten, who once worked at “Saturday Night Live” and saw Lorne Michaels doing it at an after-party. Or how when they filmed “The Junior Mint,” the eponymous candy used in the shot was actually a Peppermint Patty.
There are plenty of books that compile Seinfeld trivia or quotes, but this one tells a history. It’s just the simple tale about how written by two guys who knew nothing about TV and a producer who knew nothing about sitcoms created the biggest sitcom in the history of sitcoms.