'Seinfeld' Director on Cancellation Fears, Crazy Hours and Classic Episodes
Tom Cherones opens up about everything from "The Contest" to "The Resturant" to not always getting the joke: "I said to myself at the time, 'Who the f— cares? It's a lining in a jacket.'"
Seinfeld director Tom Cherones knows how to make nothing really look like something.
During his 81-episode run on the show, Cherones reinvented what a sitcom could look like with classics like "The Contest," "The Parking Space" and "Chinese Restaurant."
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David's writing often forced Cherones to leave the soundstage and shoot all over the CBS lot in Studio City, which is why Seinfeld had much more of an expansive feel than any sitcom before it.
Save for a handful of episodes, Cherones directed every half-hour installment during the show's first five seasons, before Seinfeld decided he wanted to change the look of the show and replaced him with Andy Ackerman. As a director, he was nominated for three Emmys, and he shared the outstanding comedy series Emmy win in 1993 as a producer.
Seinfeld begins streaming on Hulu Wednesday, and so The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Cherones to talk early cancellation worries, the hectic schedule and some of his favorite moments.
What are your memories from shooting "The Contest?"
It was pretty clear what we were going for. Larry never said the word masturbation in the script, but it was obviously a very clear situation. I think it was a contest that Larry had participated in. It was a true story for him.
Did you feel "The Contest" would be a turning point for the show?
I don't know if we ever had any turning points. It was certainly funny from the very first table read. Until the fifth season, when we were No. 1 in the ratings, we never felt like we'd be back the next year. They kept moving the show around and we never were a critical or a ratings hit until very late.
What are you most proud of from your work on Seinfeld?
We changed the way sitcoms were looked at. I had done a lot of work in various jobs before I got to Seinfeld, and they pretty much all looked the same. As a producer and director, I was in a position to make this one look different. Larry and Jerry asked me early on, "Can we do this? Can we do that?" I said, "We can do anything. You write it and I'll shoot."
What were some of the things that gave Seinfeld that distinctive look?
The way it was written forced us off the [sound]stage, so that gave us a look that other sitcoms didn't have. We were all over the backlot at Studio City. Eventually — not until after I had left — they built the Seinfeld Street there, which [production designer] Tom Azzari designed. There were backlot houses and storefronts, so we were able to do a lot outside of the studio, but never leaving the lot. We did leave the lot periodically for other episodes.
"The Parking Garage" is one of your standouts. What are your memories from that episode?
We built our own stage rather than go to a parking garage. We considered going off the lot to a parking garage somewhere, but then we wouldn't be able to control the traffic or the sound. So Tom Azzari took the set off the stage and built the parking garage. If you look at it carefully in the long shots across the garage, he had put Mylar mirrors at the end of each wall of the stage and you can see that it is a little distorted. But you wouldn't notice it unless you knew it.
So that we could change the floor level we were on, he put rolling set pieces in that marked the floor number with different colors, and we rolled those around. We didn't have lines on the floor for cars to park in, except in one case, where a guy had parked his Mercedes across two lines and George was pissed. Otherwise, we didn't put the lines on so we could angle the cars any way we wanted.
When you had weird ideas, did you get pushback from the network or studio?
When we were doing "The Chinese Restaurant," the network they said, "We don't know what you are doing here, but go ahead and do it." We were very fortunate that Jerry was contracted by the variety department, not the comedy department. So we had the variety executives instead of the comedy executives. They didn't mess with us. The comedy executives, I don't know who they were at the time, but they always find a way to screw up a show. [The variety execs] didn't really understand [the episode], and I'm not sure I did either.
Those were all ideas that Larry and Jerry came up with, because many of the things had happened to them in real life, so it wasn't a stretch for them to write it. We did an episode about a jacket that had a pink lining in it, and that was a big deal. I said to myself at the time, "Who the f— cares? It's a lining in a jacket." But it was very funny and it worked well. Larry and Jerry knew that, and I don't think anybody else did.
What was your week-to-week like? How can you direct every episode and have time to plan for the next one?
I don't remember what day we shot, but if we shot on a Friday, we might not get the scripts for Monday until we got to work Monday. So you couldn't prepare anyway. Many times, wearing the hat of the producer, I would grab the production designer. We didn't have a script for next week, and we would go into Larry's office and go, "OK, you gotta tell us what sets to build. It's Friday. We start rehearsing Monday. What sets are we going to have?" And Larry would say, "Oh, we may have this. We may have that." I'd say, "Go ahead, Tom. Spend the money. Design the sets and build them."
Castle Rock let us do it. Sometimes we wouldn't use that set, but Tom stored everything in a warehouse and eventually we would use it. We would reuse sets and reconstruct them. That's the way we worked. It wouldn't have helped if we had more directors, because we didn't know what was coming next anyway.
So it was shot over one day?
We had three days of rehearsal, and on the third day we had a run through for the network. The writers would get notes and do a rewrite. On the fourth day we had camera rehearsal. But we were pretty much set by then. On the fifth day, we would shoot the show. Sometimes on the fourth day we would do preshoots or during the afternoon before the audience came, shoot a scene or two if they were off the stage. We generally shot the show in about three hours.
You left after season five. What was shooting your finale episode like?
I don't remember what show that was. Jerry didn't decide to make a change until the season was done. When they did the series finale episode, many of us who had worked on the show who were no longer there were asked to come back to be extras. One of the scenes in the courthouse, I was in the coffee shop. I sat at a table with Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC at the time. He told me — as we were extras in the coffee shop — that he'd just offered Jerry $2 million an episode to do another season. And he wouldn't do it.
I understand they later offered him $5 million and he was still done with it. Jerry always said, "When we feel like we can't keep the quality up, we're going to stop." Larry had left after the sixth season. [Executive producer] Larry Charles and I left after the fifth season. And so Jerry had two seasons without Larry. I'm sure that was very hard.
How much of the show did you watch after you left?
I didn't watch much television in the '90s. Castle Rock gave all of us sets of the show when they came out. I have all of them. I haven't watched all of them. I occasionally see one on TV and I'll watch it, like a lot of people do. It's still funny. I think they were always funny and they still are. They still get new viewers. It's amazing.