When NBC executives first read the pilot script for what was then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles” in the late 1980s, they were reasonably skeptical, and gave their blessing with a shrug, explains pop culture writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.
From the creative minds of standup comics Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the sitcom renamed “Seinfeld” quickly jumped from a four episode special to a nine-season run, proving that sometimes it’s the mundane that makes life interesting.
In her latest book Seinfeldia, Armstrong dives headfirst into the world spawned by the show that gave us Festivus, the yada yada and the puffy shirt. Chronicling the history of the show and its seemingly unending cultural influence, Armstrong describes how a show that ended nearly 20 years ago continues to have millions of viewers today.
In a conversation with Smithsonian.com, Armstrong explains the allure of the show about nothing and how it shaped the world of television, and perhaps our worldview, forever.
How did you get into this project?
I was on staff at Entertainment Weekly for ten years or so and my last book was about “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I think there actually aren’t that many TV shows that hold up to book treatment, but if you’re going to write books about television shows, “Seinfeld” is probably the biggest or one of the biggest to take on. It’s one of the most influential shows of our time and, as I talk about in the book, it has this long and involved after life that still feels relevant today even though it’s 20-something years since it was on, which is crazy.
Why do you think it’s still so relevant today? The technology, fashion and hairstyles on the show are so dated at this point, but we still find it relatable.
I think it’s just that the characters are really strong and you could put them in any setting and kind of imagine what would happen, right? And it would be funny. The other thing is I don’t think it bothers us that they’re doing stuff that could be easily solved by cell phones, which is very, very true. But I think it’s because they speak to sort of these deeper every day struggles. Our everyday struggles feel big to us even if they’re tiny and they dramatize that feeling. Little dumb annoyances happen to you and you think to yourself this is a “Seinfeld” moment. So that’s why I think it keeps resonating with us. It doesn’t really matter that they would live different lives if they had current technology. They would still be funny and they would still find things to be irritated with, hilariously irritated with. That’s the point of them.
What is Seinfeldia?
I was starting to see that a lot of what I thought was fascinating about the show is that there’s this interplay between reality and fiction. There’s this in-between state that I call Seinfeldia, where there’s the real soup Nazi who inspired the “The Soup Nazi” episode and then the guy who played the soup Nazi ends up having an entire career pretending to be the soup Nazi even though he only played the guy once on television. Larry Thomas, the actor, still makes his living going around making appearances as the soup Nazi.
And it has come full circle now in fact and he is now the spokesman for Soup Kitchen International, which is the company run by the real inspiration for the soup Nazi character. So there’s this weird constant meshing that came from Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David really wanting to have these realistic inspiration for their plot line but ends up kind of letting the show interact with the real world. And it’s another way that the show kind of continues being able to live on. It feels like “Seinfeld” is real and almost in our lives and it feels like we can go and interact with it. It’s a very strange thing that I think no one could have planned. It just happened because people love the show so much.
The convergence of real life and fictional life is also in a lot of the other characters. The show’s named after Jerry Seinfeld who plays “Jerry Seinfeld” on the show, for example. Why do you think that was such successful tactic for this show? It almost seems like a lazy one.
Right, it’s really weird but they were kind of obsessed with using stuff from their real lives. The rule was take the thing that happened to you in real life and have the characters do what you wish you had done. They’re sort of acting out these fantasies we have of how we wish we could deal with the annoyances of real life.
The characters are the same way. Kramer was based on Larry David’s real-life neighbor at the time, Kenny Kramer. They even tried to change the name and they couldn’t because they thought Kramer was the best name. I was a little transfixed by their obsession with names. Whenever I hear a name now I go “oh that’s a ‘Seinfeld’ name - a weird sounding, funny sounding name.” One of those was Joe Davola, who was a real-life television executive. David just liked the sound of the guy’s name. And so he named a character after him who turned out to be Crazy Joe Davola. Davola is not crazy at all and he’s not like the character all, but he decided to sign off on the use of his name for better or worse.
Let’s discuss the four main characters. None of them are particularly noble. There’s not really a hero among them. They’re all self-centered. Why do we love them so much?
One of the extraordinary things about this show is the fact that all of America embraced a show about four terrible people. I really believe that this kind of ushered in what we now have on television, which is the age of the prestigious drama with anti-heroes. At the time it was a really new thing to have unlikeable people, and four of them, on television. Jerry is kind of supposed to be the center and maybe not as extreme. But he’s still not trying to be a hero. Most of the time they make extremely selfish decisions. They’re often, I would note, punished. It doesn’t turn out well usually for them. You wouldn’t say, “George had a great life.”
It goes back to those everyday struggles that they based the show on. Also the thing that I said about them doing the thing you wish you did. It’s like they’re acting out our fantasies. We would stop ourselves before doing these things because we would be selfish horrible people if we did what they did. That’s why we can root for them, and why we also can sort of enjoy when they’re punished for their wrongdoings. It is kind of a complicated morality play but it starts with a really relatable situation.
Elaine was a new type of female character on TV. She moved back-and-forth between being “one of the guys” and also having her own life. She was the female character with sex appeal who was also just the good friend. Why do you think she’s so successful in that era, being the first, and what do you think her legacy is for female characters now?
It’s very typical to hear men in screenwriting say that it’s “harder” for them to write women because they don’t understand them or whatever. On “Seinfeld,” the writers would just collect all these things from their lives and try their best to assign them to the four characters - each one would get a different one. And you had to give all four their own storylines before you were allowed to write your script. The thing that was interesting to me is that a lot of them said, “I didn’t feel like I had to come up with a ‘girl’ story line. I just gave her stuff from my own life.”
In a weird way, they didn’t set out to make a feminist character. That’s kind of what made her who she was. She ushered in this new era of women who could be different from the kind of women we had seen previously on television. She was professional, ambitious, funny, sexual and totally unapologetic and not emotional about any of it. They did a service to women going forward.
In the book you write, “Seinfeld had seeped into real life just as much as life had infused Seinfeldia.” What did you mean by that?
You could sort of start to view the world through a Seinfeldia lens. And a lot of us still do - quoting it and that sort of thing. It makes us sort of wish the show was still on now, right? I’d love to know their take on many fascinating developments and current events. This is one of them where it became this sort of cynical time where you could shrug and laugh at this because what else are you going to do?
They did teach us to laugh, and at almost morbid things sometimes, such as the death of George’s fiancée. How did “Seinfeld” push the boundaries without going too far?
We might be able to come up with some other ones but that feels like the outer boundary to me - that moment. That was Larry David’s last episode that he wrote before he left. It was like a mic drop.
He didn’t do anything until he came back to write the fairly cynical finale as well.. I’m still not sure how that episode makes me feel. But it’s one of those things where you ask yourself, “Did that just happen?” They were pretty reckless.
In the end, that’s what we ended up loving about this show. They had this ethos of no feelings, no hugs and no lessons sort of attitude that they had to making comedy. And this was part of it.
None of the characters go through any character arc throughout the nine seasons. They are who they are and they don’t really have problems that need to be resolved by the end.
[The writers] were not interested in character development. They were not interested in character arcs. They were really interested in starring characters who, by their nature, made things interesting and made things happen. But no one was trying to change and that’s crazy. That’s like a number one rule of screenwriting. Okay, how does the hero change? What does he want and how does he change? And that’s why it’s so weird. It’s saying people don’t change and life is a series of meaningless irritations: Enjoy!
What’s your favorite Seinfeld episode?
Everyone asks me this and every time I give a different answer, I swear. That’s what’s so great. They’re all so good. My favorite scene, which will sort of count as my favorite episode for today, is in “The Marine Biologist.” George’s monologue at the end, “the sea was angry that day, my friends.”
Only Jason Alexander could nail that because there’s some weird thing that he gets about George, and it’s so evident there. George takes his own life really seriously. He is telling the story and he’s in it. This is a dramatic moment for George Costanza. And of course the most dramatic moment of George Costanza’s life is when he’s pretending to be something else. He was victorious in pretending to be a marine biologist and that is the best he can do. He tells the story so great, and it’s so well written. It’s one of those moments where they bring together all the plot lines.
The other reason I love that episode is for me personally, it’s a nice TV nerd moment because I actually remember watching it when it was first on. I was still pretty young but it’s when I figured out “Seinfeld” as a teenager. For me it was a nice early indication of what I was going to do with my life because I analyzed that moment and realized how special “Seinfeld” was.