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Tiny Issues, Big Laughs : ‘Seinfeld’ Earns Right to Weekly Berth to Toy With Life’s Little Dilemmas

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jerry Seinfeld is obviously the star of “Seinfeld.” The show is named for him, and the character he plays is called Jerry Seinfeld. But the tidbits of modern life depicted on his kooky sitcom belong mostly to a guy named Larry.

“Most of the stories are from his life, almost all of it,” Seinfeld says of his writing partner and the show’s executive producer, Larry David. “He just has a tremendous wellspring of ideas. I mean he just fills notebooks with ideas and I try to help him, but Larry is really the designer of the show. There are just some people who literally have funny lives and things happen to them that sound like stories. He has that kind of life.”

“It appears that I have that kind of life, but I really don’t think I do have that kind of life. My life has been pretty depressing, actually,” David counters, making Seinfeld laugh out loud. “I feel I am completely devoid of experiences. Other people, they travel, they do things, they have a life. My experiences are so minor. I go for acupuncture or I see something strange on the subway, big deal.”

The big deal is that David, 44, and Seinfeld, 37, have turned some of those minor experiences into one of NBC’s classiest sitcoms.

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Episodes of “Seinfeld,” one written by David and the other by both David and Seinfeld, earned two of the five Emmy nominations for best comedy writing last season and another grabbed a nomination for best directing. (None of them won, but Seinfeld garnered praise for co-hosting the Emmy telecast Aug. 25.)

And because of the show’s yuppie audience, NBC confirmed that despite “Seinfeld’s” average overall ratings, no NBC sitcom other than “Cheers"--the most popular show on television--sold its commercial spots to advertisers as quickly.

Such credentials prompted Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, to decide that “Seinfeld” had finally “earned its right to be a full-time member” of the network’s schedule this season. It previously had been treated ignobly by NBC: The network aired the series only four times in 1990 and then ignored it for nearly a year before televising it in several time periods again last spring. Littlefield now has given it a berth this fall at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, beginning Sept. 18.

“If you want to take a snapshot of ‘Where do we want to be and where we are heading in comedy?,’ I think that show is a great example of it,” Littlefield explained. “A really interesting young adult population, and we look at life humorously.”

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Seinfeld had been touring the country performing up to 300 stand-up comedy gigs a year when NBC first contacted him about doing a show. Immediately, he approached David backstage at a comedy club in New York for some advice.

“He was an underground legend in New York comedy circles,” Seinfeld said of David, who has also worked on “Saturday Night Live.” “His material was brilliant. It was the best. But he never really made it because he didn’t have the stagecraft or the structure and he just wasn’t any good at pandering to a group of drunken strangers.”

That night, the two comics went to a grocery store, and in the middle of some droll banter about cornflakes and their fellow shoppers, David said, “This is what the show should be about.” Seinfeld would play the likable, hard-working stand-up he is and would be seen going to common places around the city collecting material for his act. It would culminate with the comedian performing that material in a stand-up routine.

Jason Alexander, a Tony-winning actor, was cast as Seinfeld’s best friend and foil in conversation, and Michael Richards was hired to play his Christopher Lloyd-styled nut of a neighbor. After they shot the pilot, Julia Louise Dreyfuss was added for female flavor, and the first four episodes focused on such interpersonal quandaries as wanting to date the gorgeous friend of an ex-girlfriend and trying to “break up” with a bore of a boyhood buddy.

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Seinfeld also performed several stand-up routines before a live audience during the course of each show, wryly commenting on issues raised by the plot. Initially, the stand-up material filled a few minutes of the program, but by now it has been reduced to about 25 seconds per episode.

“I’m being pushed out by my own show,” Seinfeld quipped.

It’s difficult to characterize “Seinfeld.” It’s not set in a workplace or a family living room, nor does it offer lessons on big life issues. Like Seinfeld’s stand-up routines, it’s mostly about witty, somewhat twisted observations on some of life’s tiny dramas.

“It’s about the thousands of little dilemmas, real-life dilemmas that television and the movies never touch upon because they are too small,” Seinfeld said. “They don’t think there’s enough in it to make a whole show, but to us, that’s the richest stuff in the world.”

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One episode questioned what a man should do when he leaves a nasty message on a woman’s answering machine and then regrets it because it might jeopardize his chance to sleep with her. Another dealt with the fallout created when jokes about a restaurant’s lousy service resulted in the firing of a busboy. Another chronicled the homophobic discomfort experienced by some men when their masseuse turns out to be another man rather than the curvy, sensuous woman they expected.

“I’m surprised that NBC actually allows any of these on the air,” David said. “They don’t sound anything like normal network shows. But I think it works because the more personal it is, the more universal it is. The deeper and smaller you go into your own experience, the more people you include. You would think that it’s the opposite. Usually they say, ‘OK, we’ll have a guy and a girl and people will relate.’ But they don’t. But they can relate to saying the wrong thing to somebody. So we make a show out of that.”

Seinfeld, one of the busiest and most respected stand-ups in the country before launching “Seinfeld,” said that television doesn’t offer him the same rush of adrenaline as telling stories on a nightclub stage. While he enjoys working with the other actors, and especially joking and writing every day with David, “stand-up is a kind of grimy, sweaty, smoky, far less controlled business. I don’t get that bead of sweat rolling down the middle of my back doing this show.”

While David smirks that the network has been pushing the producers to clarify the relationship between Seinfeld and Elaine (Dreyfuss), his ex-girlfriend, now girl-pal--"something like the ‘Cheers’ or ‘Moonlighting’ thing"--both he and Seinfeld vow that they will persist in telling their itty-bitty stories until they run out of ideas. Then they will quit and Seinfeld will return to being a stand-up comedian.

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“I don’t know about these shows that become little businesses,” Seinfeld said. “You will definitely not see us trying to wring out one last year from this thing. Watching these others decline, it’s horrible. It’s like cancer. I’d rather just get a heart attack and go.”


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