SEINFELDIA: HOW A SHOW ABOUT NOTHING CHANGED EVERYTHING
By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster, $26, 320 pages
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” — Dr. Seuss
The quote from the beloved children’s author sums up Jerry Seinfeld. His self-deprecating humor, his stand-up routine, his revered and wildly successful eponymous sitcom.
The story of a fastidious New York comedian shooting the breeze with his friends — wacky Kramer, neurotic George and know-it-all Elaine, evolved into a cultural touchstone as it dealt with the details and dramas of their everyday lives. “Yada, Yada Yada, marbled rye, no soup for you, master of my domain and double dipping” became part of the lexicon.
In “Seinfeldia: How A Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong gives the reader an in-depth, well-written and well-sourced account of all things Seinfeld:
How two comedians, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, sat schmoozing in a Korean deli late one winter night in 1988 and came up with the idea of a show about two guys doing exactly what they were doing; discussing the minutiae of their lives and turning it into a comedy. “Two guys talking,” said Seinfeld. “That was the idea.”
NBC signed on in the dead of summer 1989 thinking no one would watch, but slowly they did, and nine years later 40 million viewers tuned in every Thursday night at 9 p.m. Over the years “Seinfeld” became “an integral part of our lives.”
At 49, Larry David was the eminence grise. He was the producer and head writer with input from Jerry, 38.
They had distinctly different approaches to their project. Jerry Seinfeld told New York Magazine it was about “Two idiots trying to figure out the world.”
Larry David had a bleaker take: “A lot of people don’t understand that ‘Seinfeld’ is a dark show. If you examine the premises terrible things happen to people. They lose their job, somebody breaks up with a stroke victim, somebody’s told they need a nose job. That’s my sensibility.”
In the last season Jerry was paid $1 million per episode; the rest of the cast, $600,000.
In 1997, with stellar ratings, “Seinfeld” was not merely influential — it had turned into a gold mine for NBC. It was the top comedy of the 1990s, and brought in $1 million a minute in ads, something previously accomplished only by the Super Bowl.
Famous faces signed on for guest appearances: Mets star Keith Hernandez, Bette Midler, David Letterman and Rudy Giuliani along with unknowns Bryan Cranston and Courteney Cox.
With its crisply ironic wit, “Seinfeld” was immensely popular in Manhattan because it revealed, and reveled in, the indignities and humiliations of city living. Not everyone was enamored with the program. Some denizens grumbled that “Seinfeld” prioritized the glamorous aspects of the city, encouraging suburbanites to move in, thereby gentrifying neighborhoods and altering lifestyles.
The New York Times was a fan crediting the show for the city’s turnaround.
The series created its own bizarre world with its own bizarre situations, characters and reality. Viewers all over the globe loved it. Nothing about the show about nothing had been lost in translation.
After nine years Jerry decided he had run out of juice and it was time to quit. Larry David departed several years before, but came back to script the final episode. On April 8, 1998, the cast gathered in front of a studio audience to shoot the 180th episode — a noir, quirky and questionable ending in which all four wound up in jail.
The 75-minute finale attracted 76 million viewers and was the third most-watched sitcom finale in TV history.
Almost 20 years later, due to reruns “Seinfeld” is still cool. Discovered by millennials the series has a whole new generation of viewers. By 2013, “Seinfeld” became the most successful show ever in syndication, and it has brought in $3 billion since the end of the run. Social media has added to the mystique.
Over the years, the four friends moved on. Curmudgeon Larry David, recently renowned for portraying Bernie Sanders on “Saturday Night Live,” writes and stars in his own dark comedy, “Curb your Enthusiasm.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus won several Emmys for her TV show “Veep.” Jason Alexander starred in several TV shows, as did Michael Richards. Jerry, now a boyish 62 and worth an estimated $850 million, launched a web career, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” featuring conversations with different comics after picking them up in one of his vintage cars.
In an episode last year, he blithely breezed through the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, picked up President Obama, spun him around the grounds after which the two sat down for coffee within the confines of the White House. The scene was quintessential “Seinfeld.”
As Jerry explained: “Seinfeld is something I learned to do because I was given the opportunity. Then the show spiraled off into this whole other entity that I knew I had to serve because it had its own desire to be something.”
• Sandra McElwaine is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast.