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Seinfeld, a show about nothing, remains today as something that people can return to time and time again. Some come for the humor and writing, simple observations about the funny in everyday life. Others love the main characters, selfish and self-involved though they may be. Whatever the reason, audiences continue to discover and enjoy the masterful sitcom, one unlike any before it and the comedic godfather of many since.
From one simple conversation that started between two comedic geniuses at the Catch a Rising Star comedy club in New York and ended inside Lee’s Market, a Korean deli across the street, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David formulated the gold standard for television humor.
Seinfeld and David devised a simple formula: small stories based on insignificant problems that spiraled into bigger consequences. Along the way, they followed what they found funny. The leading characters didn’t go on emotional journeys. They selfishly kowtowed to their own neurotic tendencies, helplessly failing to become the masters of their domain as they envisioned.
On set, David had a simple motto, “No hugging, no learning.” From day one, the show adhered to the spirit of those words. In doing so, it went against all the rules mandated by television executives. To NBC’s credit, it did give the creators the freedom to do what they wanted.
From its first episode, dropped mid-summer in 1989 — a time of year on the TV calendar known as “garbage dump theater” for pilots, Seinfeld would eventually grow into nothing short of a TV phenomenon. Time is the ultimate judge of the enduring quality in creativity. In that regard, Seinfeld remains funny yesterday, today and tomorrow.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Seinfeld‘s May 14, 1998, series finale, The Hollywood Reporter sifted through more than 70 hours of previously unreleased interviews recorded for the DVD release as the cast, creators and others involved share secrets from TV’s favorite show about nothing.
Kramer on the written page took a while to transform into the multifaceted Cosmo Kramer. David originally envisioned the character as a mirror of his neighbor, Kenny Kramer, who walked around in a robe all day, rarely left the apartment building and often raided his refrigerator.
During casting, the show tried to match that character to performers ranging from Joe Pesci, Eugene Levy and David Letterman’s band leader, Paul Shaffer. Jeffrey Tambor, Tony Shalhoub and James Cromwell came in for auditions. A character actor named Steve Vinovich eventually took the lead position, until Michael Richards surfaced. Richards brought an unmatched intensity and physicality to the role. According to castmembers, Richards transformed Kramer from a slower and dumber character into one where the character considered himself ahead of all others.
Because David didn’t want to be on camera, he made George Costanza his voice with one major difference. Whereas David felt guilt for his actions and thoughts, George didn’t — unless he was caught. For the role, the show considered among others, Anthony Edwards, Nathan Lane and Brad Hall. Jason Alexander, on Broadway at the time, knew about Seinfeld, from having been an extra several years ago for a series of Maxwell House commercials starring comedians including Seinfeld. Alexander felt the pages he received for the audition read like Woody Allen, so he bought glasses for his taped audition and read the lines like Allen. When he came to L.A. and tested with Seinfeld, everybody knew they had their George.
Elaine Benes (originally Eileen) came about via a note from the network, after the pilot, asking for a female character to draw women to the show. The pilot did have a waitress, Lee Garlington, but she disappeared in part because the actress made the faux pas of trying to rewrite David’s pages.
David based Elaine on an old girlfriend, Monica Yates, one of his few exes who was still talking to him. Some of the callbacks included Megan Mullally, Patricia Heaton and Rosie O’Donnell. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, at the time, had a holding deal at Warner Bros. Television to develop her own series. That deal expired without her having found a script. She came in and won the role of Elaine on her first day of free agency. David said Louis-Dreyfus elevated the show. Alexander, however, initially felt threatened by Louis-Dreyfus’ role because he thought an attractive female best friend would dwarf his part. Those concerns quickly disappeared, however, when he met Louis-Dreyfus and saw her work. They both would eventually wind up trading dialogue.
Jerry and George’s parents both began with different actors that didn’t quite work. In the case of George’s dad, producers decided it would be more fun to have someone who could set off fireworks with his wife and raise George’s angst. Enter Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza.
Estelle Harris, George’s mom, lived in New York, but happened to be in L.A. during casting, which proved fortuitous. Casting didn’t typically fly in actors for auditions. Case in point, the award-winning Doris Roberts, whom the producers considered but who refused to travel to read.
In certain instances, the actor didn’t fit a part but stood out nevertheless. Len Lesser read for Morty, Jerry’s dad, before eventually becoming Uncle Leo. Other times, casting only had a few hours to find someone, as with John O’Hurley as Elaine’s boss, J. Peterman. Some people, such as The West Wing’s Richard Schiff, auditioned multiple times because they wanted to be on the show so much, but were never booked.
Seinfeld first aired as The Seinfeld Chronicles. In the original script, David and Seinfeld named it The Stand-Up. That fell in line with the show’s original premise, a one-camera special to air in Saturday Night Live‘s spot during a rerun week. The show would follow Jerry and a comedian friend over the course of a few days or weeks. Jerry would turn those experiences into stand-up material. At the end of the show, he’d perform his routine.
The experiences were supposed to come from Seinfeld’s existing material. A scene from the pilot in the laundromat actually came from his act. That idea however, quickly proved too difficult. Seinfeld only had so many bits. As a result, David and Seinfeld reversed the process, with the comedian writing stand-up based on a story. The network also thought too many comedians spoil the broth, so they changed Jerry’s friend to a real estate agent for contrast.
The pilot filmed at Desilu studios in Hollywood, on the same stage as the old Dick Van Dyke Show. In fact, Seinfeld’s coffee shop came to rest on the same spot as Rob Petrie’s living room.
The episode today feels like a work in progress, humor in search of a voice. Perhaps the biggest problem came with the lack of Elaine. You can notice other nuances too. Because they still hadn’t gotten the real Kramer’s permission to use his name, they defaulted to different iterations such as Hoffman and Kessler. In fact, if you see the pilot in syndication, you can hear the name Kessler several times.
Castle Rock, which owned the series, had two pilots at NBC that year: Seinfeld and one with Ann Jillian. Whereas Seinfeld tested poorly, Ann Jillian tested through the roof and earned a 13-episode commitment. Castle Rock decided to focus on that.
Although not part of the fall schedule, NBC executives found Seinfeld funny enough to keep the idea alive. One of the issues concerned the NBC series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. That show, about a single woman living in and coping with the problems of New York, became a critical darling but struggled to find an audience. Executives feared Seinfeld might be a male version of that.
When Seinfeld started airing on Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m., it consistently lost to the second half of Jake and the Fatman. Fortunes changed significantly once Seinfeld moved to Thursday nights after Cheers.
Many fans love Jerry’s bromance with retired New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez. For avid Mets fan Seinfeld, art imitated life when he found himself feeling sweaty and excited to meet Hernandez. Would he have felt the same meeting former Mets star Daryl Strawberry, who originally had appeared in the script?
Most episodes ran five to 10 minutes too long, requiring lots of great material to be cut. When “The Boyfriend” came in at 45 minutes, David went to NBC and got permission to extend the show to an hour. Nevertheless, the producers had to cut the studio audiences laughs down in editing to save time and keep the show’s rhythm.
By this point, David had established the format of running four simultaneous plotlines at once in place of the typical two. For the first time, however, all those stories dovetailed together at the end, which would go on to become one of the show’s signature ideas. In addition, the “second spitter,” “magic loogy” parody of the movie JFK, served as the show’s first departure from realism, stretching the boundaries of where the show could go.
David always carried a notebook of funny ideas for episodes. On one of the pages rested a note about masturbation. He didn’t share the idea with anyone because he thought it was impossible to pitch. Then one day he gave it to Seinfeld, who jumped on it. Seinfeld helped clean it up, as much as one could when talking about the subject.
NBC executives feared how it would be handled. After all, censors on other shows had proven skittish toward the use of the word “virgin.” They had even more anxiety over the thought of potentially having to break the bad news to the cantankerous David. The table read, however, changed everything. David’s masterful and subtle handling of the taboo subject made believers out of everyone. The executives didn’t blink at the inclusion of a woman within the masturbation storyline. From that moment on, the writers knew they had carte blanche with story ideas.
In one of that episode’s best-known sequences, George visits his mother in the hospital, who’s there because she caught George pleasuring himself. George ends up watching a shapely nurse (played by the then-unknown Andrea Parker) in silhouette give her mother’s young roommate a sponge bath. During the sequence, a famished Mrs. Costanza screams for George to get her something to eat. In rehearsal, Alexander, playing George as being transfixed on his personal peep show, improvised throwing a box of Tic Tacs at her. Harris couldn’t stop laughing. On filming day, Harris had a prior engagement and had to tape her scenes without an audience. For the live audience, Fran Drescher sat in her place.
The episode in which George’s parents take back the bread they gifted to Susan’s parents came from comedian and series writer Carol Leifer. Leifer’s friend had told her a story about a hostess who had mistakenly forgotten to serve a loaf of rye bread her friend had brought to dinner. At the end of the evening, the friend snuck back into the kitchen and took the bread home.
Leifer also used the time her Jewish parents went to her fiancé’s parents’ house for lunch. After the meal, Leifer’s father overstayed his welcome. When she finally got him back to the car she asked him why he stayed so long. He said he was waiting for cake.
While tweaking the script, David decided he wanted something else to happen at the bakery where Jerry buys his rye loaf. One of Seinfeld’s favorite moments in the entire series comes from when he pushes the old lady out of the way and steals the last loaf of rye from her. No protagonist would ever act this way, but the audience laughed.
The plot of the episode revolved around a journalist thinking Jerry and George were gay. When the table read didn’t go well, one of Castle Rock’s executives asked them to kill the episode. He found little humor in two guys maniacally protesting about being gay.
David and Seinfeld went back to the writers’ room only to return with a brilliant rewrite in which they turned the executives concerns on their ear by having Jerry and George add the clause “not that there’s anything wrong with it” to their denials. In one of the few times Seinfeld would take the lead as a performer, he showed the other actors how he and David wanted them to play the line. Every time they uttered the phrase, they needed to raise and sweep their arms to the side. David then told them to use the phrase as often as possible. It became one of many terms or catchphrases along with “shrinkage,” “yada, yada, yada,” “No soup for you!” “double dipping” and more that the show added to the English language. The episode would wind up winning a GLAAD media award from the LGBTQ watchdog organization.
“The Junior Mint”
In one plotline, Kramer accidentally drops a Junior Mint inside a patient on an operating table. The whole silly idea mirrored the Abbott and Costello vaudevillian comedy that Seinfeld loved and leaned heavily on in the show’s final seasons, after a burned-out David had left.
Interestingly, because of the size of a mint, the director had to substitute it during shooting with a York Peppermint Pattie. Because it’s easier to shoot something flipping up than down, he also shot the candy flip going up and then reversed it in post-production to go down.
In another plotline, Jerry dated a woman whose name he can’t remember, other than that it rhymes with a female body part. In the script, her name was Chloris, which didn’t match the syllable count or rhyme with the female body part in question. Between scenes during taping, the warm-up comic asked the audience if anyone could guess the girlfriend’s name. One woman shouted out, “Dolores.” One of the show’s producers, sitting nearby, quickly went and found Seinfeld and David. In the scene, Jerry yells, “Dolores,” which led to a big cheer from the crowd. The woman with the idea never knew. The warm-up comic told her as she exited that she had “guessed right.”
Then-NBC president Warren Littlefield and Seinfeld had an annual renewal ritual. Littlefield would visit Seinfeld’s office on Halloween and tell him how important he was to the network. Jerry would share how demanding the show had become. Then they would negotiate. On Christmas Eve, Seinfeld would call and sign up for another year. In 1997, however, Seinfeld had a different response. He and David had discussed as far back as season one that they wanted to go out on top.
Then-NBC corporate parent GE’s CEO Jack Welch and NBC CEO Bob Wright did everything possible to change Seinfeld’s mind. They invited him and his managers, Howard West and George Shapiro, to their apartment in New York (they lived in the same building) where they gave their best presentation to sway Seinfeld, offering him $5 million per episode in GE stock, the equivalent to $110 million.
Seinfeld left the meeting and walked over to Central Park, where he ended up on the same bench where he had told his father, after graduating from Queens College, that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian. His life had come full circle. The timing felt right.
David returned to write the final episode to complete his cycle with the series. Ideas were passed around. In one, they wouldn’t do a final episode. Another involved having them at the coffee shop with nothing to say. In a third, Jerry would say, “That’s it,” and they’d go their separate ways. In the end, David got his inspiration from a good Samaritan law in France in which people could get in trouble for not pitching in during moments of crises. He liked the idea of applying that to the four self-obsessed characters. Then he came upon the idea to redo the pilot’s opening dialogue as the closing scene. The only difference of course being that they would be in jail.
The gang remaining together in prison left the door open to potentially come back one day if the creators decided they had made a mistake by ending the show. After completing production, the show added a final scene later in which Jerry does his stand-up for prisoners, a fitting end to his journey.
A number of scenes from the finale had to be cut for to time. Among them: Uncle Leo and Kramer’s mom (Sheree North) having a fling. To preserve secrecy, the actors who returned from earlier episodes only received the pages with their lines. Scripts were shredded every day. Cast, crew and even the audience had to sign waivers promising not to reveal any secrets. Jimmy Fallon, years later, revealed he was there as an unknown in the audience with one of his friends.
Twenty years later, old fans remain as devoted to Seinfeld as when it first aired as new viewers discover the comedy every day on cable and streaming. They relate in the same way to a show where people see life the way they do, and then get to watch it explode into something larger and funnier in front of them. The show started outside the mainstream but then in time transformed it. What Seinfeld delivered lives on TV, but even more so in its dedicated fans. And that certainly isn’t nothing.
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