There’s Nothing to It : Ever wondered how the folks at ‘Seinfeld’ make something out of nothing? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at NBC’s biggest hit. One thing we can tell you right off: It all works like no other TV series.
‘He’s just a loser, who’d want to watch this guy?”
Apparently everybody. The “loser” in question is “Jerry Seinfeld,” the character played by Jerry Seinfeld on what was known in 1990 as “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” The comment was taken from audience testing conducted by NBC in response to the series’ pilot.
Ninety-nine episodes later, “Seinfeld” is, after seasons of struggle, one of the most popular and most imitated series on television. And Seinfeld and Larry David, the executive producer and co-creator of “Seinfeld,” have a blown-up print of that original research report in their office, a gift commemorating the 100th episode from Castle Rock, which produces the series.
“The report was really bad,” Seinfeld recalls with a smile. “It just said, ‘Jerry needs a stronger supporting cast,’ ‘It’s hard to get excited about two guys going to the Laundromat,’ ‘Jerry is dense and indecisive,’ ‘Why are they interrupting the stand-up for these stupid stories?’ ”
And now: The Jan. 19 episode of “Seinfeld” earned the series’ highest rating ever--a 35 share of the viewing audience--beating out the previous record, set the week before. This Thursday, an hourlong retrospective will air. Then, thanks to the exigencies of big-time TV, the 101st episode, “The Beard,” will be broadcast the following Thursday, with the 100th episode--"The Kiss Hello"--airing Feb. 16.
“Seinfeld’s” cast and crew celebrated with a party after shooting the landmark episode. Seinfeld was back to work the next day.
Executive story editor Carol Leifer says, “It was business as usual. I’m surprised, they just take it in stride.”
Larry David, the man on the show most incapable of enjoying himself in the face of success, shrugs. “There are so many shows to do, and it’s such a daunting prospect to do it, that all you can think about is the next show,” he says.
Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, says that’s typical behavior for the “Seinfeld” folks. “They’re very focused on the future as opposed to the past,” he says. “The network is more focused on their achievement than they are--what it means, what it means for us.”
What it means to NBC is more than just high ratings and ad revenue. The network lays right to a certain cachet--it’s the “Seinfeld” network. “That’s a strong drawing card,” Littlefield says. “Talented people look at that and say, ‘We want to be part of that.’ It extends from on-camera talent to writers and producers who can assemble smart, funny adult comedies. ‘Seinfeld’ really is the flagship for NBC.”
The “Seinfeld” week begins with the informal table reading, the cast’s first pass on the script, which is occasionally on Thursday but sometimes on Friday. Then again, it could be Saturday or maybe even Sunday.
“The ‘Seinfeld’ schedule is not worth the paper it’s written on,” declares Jason Alexander, who plays George, Jerry’s petulant best friend. He’s one of Jerry’s trio of sidekicks, with Michael Richards as the tireless but twitchy Kramer, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, Jerry’s caustic former girlfriend.
This particular week, for the making of the 101st episode, things don’t get under way until Sunday, when many union employees are working for double-time-and-a-half. “It’s fairly normal for us to start on a weekend,” Alexander says. “Because we’ve been doing it long enough, we’ve learned that. TV series are so great, it’s five-day weeks, 9-to-5, but on this show, you cannot swear to that. You can’t make weekend plans, and you can’t swear to the hiatus week.
“When it first started happening like that, it was like, ‘Come on!’ But it’s three years now where that’s sort of been the rule. And you get used to it. If I was on ‘ALF,’ I’d be, ‘Is it really worth it?’ But when they feel they have a script ready is when they have a script ready. You see what they put on the table--it’s always worthwhile.”
Likewise, the shooting happens when it happens. The 100th episode was shot on a Tuesday (during the recent flooding, to a full house, while other shows taping on the lot got maybe 20 audience members), while the 101st is penciled in for a Wednesday. On Monday, the episode’s blocking is shown for Larry David’s approval and then NBC’s (the network’s tends just to be a formality), with Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon devoted to polishing the blocking and shooting exterior scenes. Seinfeld himself writes and tapes the opening comedy-club monologues--which he tests late at night in local clubs--after the rest of the show has been shot. Of course, all of that can change.
Says Littlefield, “ ‘Seinfeld’ is such a hot ticket, and when you tell someone you got them some tickets, they say, ‘Great! When is it?’ And you say, ‘We don’t know.’ When it’s ready, they’ll shoot it. Out of that noncomformity to a schedule is where the brilliance comes.”
The gestation period for a script, Seinfeld says, is usually a week. The 100th episode, written by Seinfeld and Larry David (which marked the 44th on which David received at least co-writing credit), “took about a week to develop. Who knows how long it took to compile those ideas and then figure out, ‘Hey, these all work together.’ There are some stories in development for months.”
The 10 other writers who work on the show must clear every idea for every subplot (each character gets one per episode) with Seinfeld and David. “You trust that if it makes you laugh, after 18 years of dealing with this substance of humor, that it’s really funny,” says Seinfeld. “The great thing in the chemistry between Larry and me is, if it passes through both of us, it almost always works. That’s just the luck of the chemistry that we have. We can pretty much say, if we both think this is funny, it is funny, an audience will like this.
“If you have two people who know their stuff, that’s really all you need. I hear about shows who have 16, 18 writers sitting around talking--18 people!”
Seinfeld and David pore assiduously over and rewrite every script. “If the script is not (originally) written by Larry and me, the changes can be fairly drastic,” Seinfeld says.
David’s main edict is that no idea must sound like it could’ve happened on another show, no matter how good or how old. “We were talking to Carl Reiner this morning about a story idea because someone said they thought they saw something like that on ‘Dick Van Dyke,’ ” Seinfeld says. Something similar had indeed occurred, he adds; “that was the end of that.”
But Carol Leifer, a longtime friend of Seinfeld’s from the stand-up circuit and author of “The Beard,” offers a little secret: “You pitch something and they’re not crazy about it; sometimes if you bring it up a few months later, sometimes they’ll forget they rejected it.”
Alexander says there’s an understanding between the writers and actors--"We don’t write, they don’t act"--but the performers have so defined their characters that they tend to make it easy for the writers. “They write stuff that, on the page, doesn’t seem like a joke, but they know we’ll make it funny. That’s a real tribute to us.”
Leifer calls the script process “the great mystery of this show--you can turn in a rewrite and they’ll say, ‘We’re gonna do it as the next show,’ or it can become what ‘The Beard’ became, this thing that wouldn’t die.”
Last season Leifer had come up with the episode’s central plot--Elaine poses as a date for a gay man. “In the meantime, I did about 12 more drafts of this script,” she says. “It’s gone through a lot of incarnations. Each step of the way, it became something different.
“When I came back this season, Larry said, ‘I still want to do “The Beard” ’; I said, ‘Let me dig it out of my trash can.’ When an idea gets old around here, it starts to leave a really rank smell. I worked on it so much but it’s really coming together now.”
Leifer ticks off some of the jettisoned subplots that had appeared in earlier incarnations of “The Beard”: Elaine yelling at a guy who’s annoyingly verbally demonstrative in her step-aerobics class. Jerry dates a woman who flaunts her intelligence but mispronounces words--"I am raven -ous.” Elaine complains about her career to an unsympathetic woman who responds, ‘Well, at least you’re not living in Rwanda,’ to which Elaine angrily replies, “Sure, the situation in Rwanda stinks, but so does my career--can’t both stink?” Of these, only the aerobics guy has a chance of reappearing in some other episode.
The subplots that finally stuck include Jerry’s latest girlfriend, a police officer, strapping him to a lie detector to find out whether he watches “Melrose Place” (he swears to her he doesn’t), as well as Kramer’s latest money-making scheme--posing as a decoy in police lineups. This episode also concludes the saga of George’s toupee, which began on Jan. 26.
Leifer herself had performed as a “beard,” which inspired that story line. As for “Melrose Place”? “That’s a Larry thing,” Leifer says, disavowing all knowledge of the show. “He knows ‘Melrose Place,’ he watches it. He would be embarrassed to admit it.
“The lineup thing came when I read where David Caruso, when he was a struggling actor, would do lineups for 50 bucks a pop. That’s such a Kramer thing.”
At table readings for any sit com, a few laughs invariably sound forced, as if intended to provide encouragement to those assembled, and this is one of the few places where “Seinfeld” is like other programs. Afterward, the cast and director Andy Ackerman casually work out some blocking. Everyone exudes a sense of supreme confidence; there’s nary a trace of concern that the show will turn out anything less than perfect.
Still, the group enjoys taking good-natured shots at plot contrivances. In this episode, Kramer wants to introduce George to a woman, suggesting they visit a friend who’s a police composite artist to sketch a picture of her. “Really?” Alexander asks as George during the blocking. Then everyone goes off script.
“Yeah, and it’d be good for the story,” enthuses Richards as Kramer.
“You don’t think he’d be busy, do you?” Alexander asks.
“No one’s ever busy,” Seinfeld blithely observes.
“This is the best scene we’ve ever done,” concludes Louis-Dreyfus.
In the next draft of the script, Jerry will comment on the convenient plot device with a sarcastic, “It sounds like an excellent idea.”
As the afternoon wears on, the between-rehearsal conversation is almost indistinguishable from the scripted dialogue. After paging through Entertainment Weekly and complaining about its industry-insider attitude, Louis-Dreyfus begins talking of her aspirations to attend the Academy Awards.
“Oh, and Entertainment Weekly is too ‘industry’ for you,” Seinfeld smirks.
Alexander suggests an Oscar-watching party at his place--he has a 120-inch television. Richards chimes in, saying he has a 90-inch big-screen TV.
The braggadocio becomes too much for Seinfeld. “All right, let’s settle this. Let’s whip ‘em out,” he says to laughter.
Later, Louis-Dreyfus will admit that the “Seinfeld” set tends to be a boys’ club. “But I really like boys. I like to be around these boys.”
David once glibly told an inter viewer that the show’s motto was “no hugging, no learning.” It stuck; it’s the crew’s mantra. Too, it got to the point that no press account of the show could be written without mentioning that the show was famously about “nothing.”
“We’re amused,” says Louis-Dreyfus. “It’s clearly not about nothing. But also, it is about nothing, because 10 minutes after you’ve seen it, you can’t really remember what you saw.”
“Imagine if all you had to do is hang out with your friends and had frequent romantic encounters which don’t really hurt and work is only sporadically dealt with--you don’t have to spend time at work except when it’s interesting or exciting--and basically you’re having a lot of coffee, a lot of lunches and dinners, a lot of swinging, and a lot of hanging.” That’s Seinfeld, describing what the show is really about.
“There’s nothing really likable about them except that they kind of remind you of yourself. That’s their only redeeming quality. Because on paper, they’re incredibly selfish and conniving. They will even trick each other, their closest friends, for the basest of goals, usually money or sex.” That’s Seinfeld, describing what the characters are really like.
To which Louis-Dreyfus adds: “It’s become more and more apparent, to me at least, how incredibly pathetic these people are, hanging out together with nothing better to do than to screw up each other’s lives week in and week out.”
Hard to believe NBC had cold feet concerning the show, isn’t it?
“NBC has been terrific with us, but Castle Rock is the one who really made the show,” Seinfeld says. “They put up the money, they ran interference, they developed the whole idea. Castle Rock is responsible for the look of the show, the quality. We spend a lot of money, we build a lot of sets, we have a New York street now on our back lot (for shooting exterior scenes). That’s all Castle Rock--they’ve been behind us 1,000%. I wanted it on film, which is very expensive--no one else would have given me that.”
Glenn Padnick, president of Castle Rock TV, said all he did was “fight for a show I love. I was hooked from the first draft of the first script. It was so fabulous. Just everyday stuff, so recognizable and off-the-plot to the max.”
Rick Ludwin, senior vice president of specials, variety programs and late night for NBC, rescued “Seinfeld” for NBC after the network turned down the initial pilot. He says, “I have vivid memories of what they were saying--'It’s too New York, it’s too Jewish.’ An executive who screened it in New York City actually asked, ‘Does he have to be a comedian?’
“I’m not from New York, I’m not Jewish, and I thought it was funny, so I thought it could work.” So Ludwin took some money from his budget and ordered four more episodes.
According to Richards, “Jerry always had an intuition that the show would go. He always felt that if the show was done well that it would go and that the network would catch up. He had an opportunity to go to a cable network; they really thought it was good, but Jerry said no. NBC only asked for four shows, it was not as promising. He went with the four instead of the 24 (episodes for the cable offer). He had a lot of faith that it was going to happen. I was always the most pessimistic. I never expected it to go further.”
“I actually would have preferred to have gone to cable or Fox,” says David, typically self-effacing. “I like small, I don’t like a lot of that attention. With my (stand-up) act, I liked to go on at 1 in the morning when three-fourths of the audience had already gone. There’s no pressure. I like situations with no pressure.”
Because of Ludwin’s initial involvement, “Seinfeld” has been under the auspices of NBC’s specials and late-night division, not the prime-time series department.
“It’s a big reason for the success of the show,” Seinfeld says. “Because we haven’t been meddled with at all. They kept the originality of it intact. Even when they didn’t like what we were doing or didn’t understand it, they put it on the air.”
Ludwin concurs. “At one note session after the table reading, someone from Castle Rock was giving them elaborate notes on the characters, and then it was my turn. I said, ‘I just want to say, you got the lyrics to the Bugs Bunny theme song wrong.’ ”
Nonetheless, the series struggled for several seasons--it faced ABC’s hit “Home Improvement” for a time, without achieving the success that “Frasier” is currently enjoying--until it was moved early in 1993 into NBC’s plum position, after “Cheers” on Thursday nights.
And then, “We went from No. 40 to No. 2 in one week,” says Seinfeld. “It was exciting, it was fun. It was hard when people would say, ‘This is the funniest show on television;’ you’d say, ‘Then how come it’s rated 40th?’ So it was nice when finally the ratings matched people’s enthusiasm.”
“I feel that it’s only very recently that we’ve become a hit,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “And when you consider we’ve done this for five years, a lot of the audience hasn’t seen a lot of the shows.”
Castle Rock’s Padnick agrees. “It wasn’t until last year that I felt we had a hit. By the fifth season (the show is officially in its sixth season, though the first two seasons produced only 17 episodes between them), you’d think it was self-evident that we’d have a hit. But I remember in the summer of ’93, during the TV critics tour, someone asked, ‘Aren’t you concerned whether ‘Seinfeld’ is a hit?’ I was annoyed yet I could understand the question.”
And now? “It’s good to be famous, I can tell you that,” Seinfeld says.
Seinfeld and David--who met in the comedy clubs of New York--created the germ of the series’ premise while making random observations on a stroll through a grocery store. When they began working on the series, “We weren’t really close friends,” David says. “Obviously, we’re much closer. You have to get closer if you’ve worked the way we’ve worked the past five years. You can get closer or you end up hating each other and we certainly haven’t wound up hating each other.
“We definitely have disagreements. There have been hundreds of these. It’s usually over a line, sometimes it’s over a word, literally a word. In the beginning, I would scream. And now, I no longer scream. That’s one of the differences.”
For this episode, the debate is over how to play a scene with Elaine, her gay “date” and his boss. The crew of 50 hovers idly behind the cameras as the “Seinfeld” brain trust picks apart the scene.
Leifer thinks the boss’ lines should be delivered so that it’s obvious he already knows the character is gay. David believes that the lines make that self-evident, and don’t need to be stressed. Seinfeld thinks the humor in the scene lies in Elaine’s overreaction to the situation.
Who decides? “We’ll try it both ways (broadly and more subtly), see how it plays before the audience,” says director Ackerman. “A lot of times, the audience is the answer for us.”
Otherwise, Alexander says, no one ad-libs. “It may feel very loose, but we’re just crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.”
On Wednesday night, despite the fact that just about everyone all week has been saying the script is in perfect shape, several lines are hastily rewritten from the first take to the second. After the audience goes home, the first scene is completely reshot to make it tighter. Also, an altercation between Elaine and George is reshot, producing the only two mishaps of the week--Louis-Dreyfus slips and bangs her leg on the set’s radiator, and then Alexander is beaned when window blinds come crashing on his head too soon.
Mainly, though, things run smoothly. Kramer’s stints in the police lineups look like instant classics; this foursome has earned the confidence they carry with them through the week. Seinfeld thanks the audience personally for attending, leaving them with this exit line: “Drive home as fast as you can.”
So--there are lessons in the program. They just happen to be very bad ones.
Despite the high ratings, en dorsement deals and random hoopla, all concerned with the series focus severely on maintaining the show’s quality.
“It’s become a lot easier, but that’s good and bad,” says Alexander. “You can get lazy. I know there are certain things I can do in the script or not, that I can draw a laugh on, because the audience will give it to you. The audience will give us a lot of stuff. They presume it will be funny and outrageous, so they are reacting to it before we even get there. That’s the biggest change. In the beginning, there was concern that the show was not particularly successful when we started, no one really knew how long we would be here, and with each script you were wondering, is this gonna help us or hurt us?”
“It’s hitting a baseball--you do the best you can,” Seinfeld says. “If you have a high average, you’re one of the lucky ones. That’s the nature of it. Human beings live a certain number of years. This planet will live in the light of this sun for a certain millennia, and comedy will only work a certain percentage of the time. These are the immutable laws.”
Still, he adds, “I would put our batting average up against anybody’s. We do very few weak shows.
“We’re funny. That’s unusual. Everybody goes on and on about the influence this show has had. I just look at it as a small, well-done thing. That’s all it is. It just happens that that’s still a very rare quantity in the business. So many things are presented as comedies but they don’t make you laugh.”
Seinfeld has no patience for critics who have begun writing that the show has lost its edge. “It’s absolutely ridiculous, these people,” he says. “We’re on top of every page of every episode. There’s no way in the world that the show is slipping. It’s just the nature of the cycle. People get used to it--they’ve seen Kramer, they’ve seen George and me. They just get used to it. If you went back to see ‘Schindler’s List’ every week for six months, you’d say, ‘I think this movie is slipping.’
“Critics generally, they want to be the first one to say it’s bad. So go ahead. But obviously, we would know. I know--we’re not hitting the wall.”
That, however, has become a key issue this season. Padnick describes a ritual called the “annual convince-Larry-to-stay lunch,” in which David maintains he’s running out of ideas and those assembled assure him he’s doing fine work. That’s followed, quips Ludwin, “by a Brink’s truck backing up to his house.”
This year, however, it’s not just David with whom NBC and Castle Rock have to concern themselves. This is the last year of Seinfeld’s contract.
Littlefield says with a laugh, “Jerry asked, ‘Why are we hitting our highest numbers now?’ And I said, ‘America knows you’re renegotiating.’ ”
What will be the fate of the show after this season? “I could tell you if there’s going to be another year, but then I’d have to kill you,” says Leifer. “I hear that ‘Full House’ is making a big push for him to be a new dad.”
For his part, Seinfeld says, “I’m not at liberty to say . . . but we’re getting close.” Before taping the 100th episode, Seinfeld joked to the audience that while “I’ll be staying on with the show in an advisory role,” his screen time would be reduced to “just coming out for punchlines in a robe.”
Richards says the show will likely last “one more year, I suspect. I’ve been wrong--I didn’t think this show would go as long as it’s gone. But at this point, we’re thinking one more year.” Richards isn’t waiting for an official announcement; he’s already developing an idea for another series.
As negotiations with Seinfeld begin, Littlefield maintains a positive attitude.
“Clearly, the audience is telling them that the best is yet to come. The ratings show us that we haven’t learned how high we can fly. It’s far from over.”