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Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything SeinfeldiaThe Origin Story JERRY SEINFELD VENTURED INTO A Korean Deli one night in Novemberwith 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 Davids 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 Lees 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 dont 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 didnt 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 farcaustic 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 s pouf, while David maintained a magnificent Jew fro, dented a bit in the middle by his receding hairline Seinfelds delivery often ascended to a high pitched warble David favored a guttural grumble that could become a yell without warning Theyd first become friends in the bar of Catch a Rising Star in the late s when Seinfeld started out as a comic From then on, they couldnt 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 Davids stand up material at a birthday party for mutual friend Carol Leiferone 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 Lees 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 hed 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 didnt 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 Seinfelds Stand Up Diary that would air in Saturday Night Lives 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 , 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 comedylike 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 Kramera 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 theyd hatched their idea, and called it Petes Luncheonette SEINFELDIAS 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 Jerryusually a dorky, shy kidsaid something funny enough to cause his friend to spit milk and cookies back into Jerrys 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 businesss name was a joke Kal Signfeld Signs As Jerry came into his own sense of humor, his performances grewelaborate 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 questionsessentially, 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 , 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 comedians time on the s 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 Seinfelds car, aFiatSL, in front of the Improv one day in , the first time Seinfeld ever saw his future writing partner Seinfeld was impressed with these guys dedication to the profession He didnt dare speak to them yet After he graduated inas 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 , at age twenty two Hed 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 couldnt remember a word He stood there for several long seconds, not saying a thing Finally, he remembered the subjects hed 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 Thats 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 Hed 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 s 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 nights episode when they saw one another at clubs, sometimes making dirty jokes about Mary and Rhoda In , 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 Bensons living room set with an attempted catchphrase Give a cheer, Frankies 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 Hed been fired Still, by the early s, 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 Its one thing to see something, Seinfeld said, and another thing to do something with it He would start with something that struck him as funnyit could be something as small as a silly wordand 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 Youre funny, Im interested Youre not funny, Im not interested By the time he chatted with young Apatow in the early s, 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 Theres a lot you can do, Seinfeld said You can do a sitcom, which is something a lot of people dont want to be associated with Im 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 inFor 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 sons 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 , 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 severalon Carsons show as well as Late Night with David Letterman Seinfeld later called being on Carson the difference between thinking youre a comedian and really being one Seinfeld would not have to do anyembarrassing bit parts on sitcoms In , though, he did go back to acting, as hed 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 arent buying Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans this season, he says as he swigs milk and eats chocolate cookies Theyre buying gays, alcoholics, child molesters A few years later came onechance in television In , 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 didnt seem concerned with fame As it turned out, however, those last two experiences in televisionhis Showtime role and his almost pilotwere prophetic The Ratings Game included Seinfelds future Seinfeld costar, Michael Richards Seinfelds line anticipated how NBC executives would later object to his own sitcom creationthe 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 WHATS KNOWN as a comics 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 magicians 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 s, David found a place to channel his unusual talents, ABCs attempt at a Saturday Night Livelike sketch show filmed in Los Angeles called Fridays There, he, too, worked with Michael Richards, one of the shows 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 guestsspit 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 shows signature political send ups, a riff on Bing Crosby and Bob Hopes series of silly, musical travel movies Road to Singapore, Road to Zanzibar, etc The sketch skewered President Ronald Reagans 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, inSaturday Night Lives executive producer, Dick Ebersol, offered jobs to everyone whod worked on the show Only David and fellow writer Rich Hall took Ebersol up on it In Davids one season on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live he got just one sketch onto the show It aired in the time slot few ever saw AM He quit in a rage, then regretted it and showed up back at work as if nothing had happened He would file this experience awayand many other indignities large and smallto 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 Shapiros charmkind eyes, a warm smile, and a hint of a New York accentmade 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, hed 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 TVs formative years Shapiro sent regular letters to NBCs 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 , 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 didnt know his manager had badgered NBC about him He was still unaware when he and Shapiro headed to NBCs Los Angeles offices on November to discuss the possibility of a network project with Tartikoff, Littlefield, and the head of late night programming and specials, Rick Ludwin Seinfeld hadnt the first idea what hed do on televisionhis 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 Hed become a comedian partly to have his days free from AM to PM This meeting was at PM 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 hed never thought beyond that He told the executives hed 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, theyd also need a studio to finance production, and Shapiro hooked them up with Castle Rock Entertainment, which Carl Reiners 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 Seinfelds 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 theyd 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 Tartikoffs 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 Seinfelds humor They, too, thought Why not George, Tartikoff said to Shapiro, now you dont have to send me anyletters They werent 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 productionthat is, a traditional sitcom shot in front of a studio audience, like I Love Lucy and most other TV comedies since the srather than a one camera show, shotlike 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 were going to change it, were not Seinfeld proved thediplomatic 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 , 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 Seinfelds stand up show in Irvine, California, ran in the Los Angeles Times In January , Lawrence Christon wrote Hes expressive Hes clear And hes completely empty There isnt a single portion of his act that isnt funnyamusing might be a better wordbut 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 Seinfelds positive reviews and deliver them to Littlefield and Ludwin at NBC In the end, though, it seemed that Seinfeld and Shapiro were farconcerned about Christon than NBC was They didnt bat an eye Seinfeld and Shapiro desperately wanted this show to happenand NBC didnt care much either way By the early months of , David and Seinfeld were assembling a sitcom pilot called The Seinfeld ChroniclesA NEW YORK TIMESBEST SELLER Her book, as if she were a marine biologist, is a deep divePerhaps the highest praise I can give Seinfeldia is that it made me want to buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning Dwight Garner, The New York Times Even for those of us who imagine ourselves experts, Armstrong scatters delicious details throughout her book, like so many Jujyfruits we cant resist I n describing the making and writing of this singular show, Armstrong is queen of the castle Her stories about Seinfeld are real and theyre spectacular Washington Post Lively and illuminating A wildly entertaining must read not only for Seinfeld fans but for anyone who wants a better of understanding of how television series are made Booklist, starred review S avvy and engagingthe best way to enjoy Seinfeldia is to read the book with TV remote in hand, calling up episodes on Hulu as Ms Armstrong adroitly recounts the back story of these still captivating shows that were never, ever about nothing Wall Street Journal The heart of Armstrongs book and its most engaging quality is how it all came to be the Seinfeld rules of the road that seemed to be without rules the actors who left their indelible mark Bryan Cranston as dentist Tim Whatley, Teri Hatcher as one of Jerrys spectacular girlfriends and the parade of moments about nothing that really turned out to be something USA Today Even as someone lucky enough to be on the show, I couldnt put Seinfeldiadown Larry Thomas, The Soup Nazi Armstrongs intimate, breezy history is full of gossipy details, show trivia, and insights into how famous episodes came to be How nothing could become something or how a national TV audience learned to live in a Beckett ian world Perfect for Seinfeldians and newcomers alike Kirkus Reviews Armstrong offers a masterly look at one of the greatest shows The research involved makes this a boon to television scholars, but Seinfeld enthusiasts will also enjoy this funny, highly readable book Library Journal

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