SEINFELDIA: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything
By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster. 307 pp. $26
“Seinfeldia” is a book about love, deception, greed, lust and . . . unbridled enthusiasm.
Okay, maybe I’ve read one too many Billy Mumphrey stories, or watched one too many reruns of the greatest sitcom ever made. And yet, as I paged through this decidedly sponge-worthy book on the cultural history of “Seinfeld,” I soon realized that I care far more about the off-set drama and neurotic script doctors that author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong describes than I do about the big idea — yes, she had to have the big idea! — she proposes: that “Seinfeld,” the show, gave rise to “Seinfeldia,” the phenomenon, which she defines as “a special dimension of existence, somewhere between the show itself and real life.”
Seinfeldia is the bizarro world of Kenny Kramer, who profits off his status as the actual former neighbor of “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David and the inspiration for that hipster doofus, Cosmo Kramer. Seinfeldia features J. Peterman, whose real-life catalogue company went bankrupt after it expanded too quickly on his bet, so full of innocence and mayhem at once, that the faux Peterman on “Seinfeld” would lure new customers. Seinfeldia is the realm of writers who desperately mine their daily lives for sitcom story lines, whether they’re dating a woman with man hands or sharing a real family’s fake holiday with the rest of us. And Seinfeldia is the home of Twitter accounts like @SeinfeldToday — frankly, a little hacky — that imagine plot lines for the show’s continued existence.
In this sense, “Seinfeld” offered a form of reality television well before that outrageous, egregious, preposterous genre ever came into its own. But Armstrong seems too in love with her conceit, reintroducing, redefining and regifting the notion of Seinfeldia over and over, to the point that I want to ask: Why do you keep bringing up Seinfeldia? You don’t have to mention Seinfeldia. I know about Seinfeldia. I’m aware of Seinfeldia. Why do you have to keep reminding me about Seinfeldia?
Carlos is getting upset!
“Almost every fan thinks he or she is the biggest ‘Seinfeld’ fan,” Armstrong writes, and part of that fandom means recalling the show’s lore, being aware of this, that and the other “Seinfeld” trivia. Even for those of us who imagine ourselves experts, Armstrong scatters delicious details throughout her book, like so many Jujyfruits we can’t resist. We learn that Kramer could have been named Bender, Hoffman or Kessler (he was in fact Kessler in the first episode, long before Dr. Martin Van Nostrand and H.E. Pennypacker showed up); that Patricia Heaton, Megan Mullally and Rosie O’Donnell were considered for the role of Elaine Benes (get out!); and that Jerry Seinfeld worried that the Soup Nazi was overly harsh and could use a little serenity now. “That was funny, but I don’t get why the character is so mean and angry,” Seinfeld said to actor Larry Thomas after the audition. “Do you want to do it again where he has some good moments?”
Despite an internal “no hugging, no learning” motto for the story lines, Armstrong depicts the evolution of “Seinfeld,” proving that the show’s wheels were always in motion. For instance, “The Chinese Restaurant” episode, occurring entirely in a foyer as Jerry, Elaine and George (or was it Cartwright?) wait for a table, “would stand as a turning point for the series and a groundbreaking bit of television,” Armstrong writes. “NBC executives would gain a reputation for supporting creativity instead of foisting their own opinions on their talent.” More famous episodes, such as “The Contest” and “The Marine Biologist” (in which George’s legendary concluding monologue was an emergency addition), would also push the boundaries of what David and Seinfeld could get away with, especially as NBC executives realized that the show was gold, Jerry — gold.
David’s departure after the seventh season is the biggest plot twist of all; that the show thrived without him was a Festivus miracle. “David had been the guy who’d step in to fill the void if an episode fell through,” Armstrong writes. “With David gone, there was simply a large black hole where he’d been, sucking everything into its orbit.” The pressure fell like a giant ball of oil on Jerry Seinfeld, who became lead actor, executive producer and head writer all at once. “As Seinfeld took over sole control of the show, it moved away from its everyday-life, observational, ‘show about nothing’ bent and toward a more absurd, cartoonish approach,” Armstrong writes. “It lost David’s complexity and darkness and gained more of Seinfeld’s lightheartedness.”
The “jerk store,” Elaine’s dance moves and “yada yada yada” all appeared under the new regime, as David’s departure “freed up new energy” among the writers, Armstrong argues. Of course, writing as a group has its challenges — everybody has their own little opinions and it all gets homogenized and you lose the whole edge of it — so at “Seinfeld” it was always a more individualistic process, with writers separately pitching ideas to Larry and Jerry. To Armstrong’s enormous credit, she spends plenty of time on the writers, people like Bill Masters (responsible for the “Moops” standoff); Andy Robin (creator of “The Junior Mint”); Larry Charles, who uttered the immortal “not that there’s anything wrong with that” as a throwaway line before including it in the script; Carol Leifer, one of the few female writers on “Seinfeld” and muse for Elaine’s troubles; and the eternal Peter Mehlman, who regularly churned out classics such as “The Apartment,” “The Sponge” and “The Implant” — that kid was a human dynamo.
Their standards were as high as Elaine on muscle relaxants: Mehlman, for instance, considered the unforgettable “Bubble Boy” episode a wrong-headed departure from the show’s exploration of life’s minor frustrations, while Robin was forever dissatisfied with his “Junior Mint” episode and, despite its success, later abandoned scriptwriting for medical school. Yeah, that’s right, med school.
Armstrong also dwells on moments of discord among the show’s cast members and creators, such as when Jason Alexander feared that Elaine might eclipse his George as Jerry’s main confidant and complained to David, or how Michael Richards would get angry, like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli, when his co-stars broke character during a scene, shattering his Kramer concentration. “Please, you don’t know how hard it is for me,” he implored.
Seinfeld decided to conclude the show after its ninth season despite NBC’s desperate offer of $5 million per new episode — a bit of a stunner, really, since humans’ inability to turn down money is what separates us from the animals. The show was “the greatest love affair of my life,” he explained. “We felt we all wanted to leave in love.” David returned to write the much-criticized 1998 series finale, but, in a final shtickle of Seinfeldia, Larry and Jerry got a do-over finale a decade later, when they staged a fake “Seinfeld” reunion on David’s HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with the real actors reuniting as castmates playing themselves as former castmates.
Eighteen years after it ended, “Seinfeld” still exerts an almost psychosexual hold over its fans. Without it, we are but orphans in a postmodern world, and “Seinfeldia” rescues us for a little while. I might have called it “The Seinfeld Chronicles” — an homage to the series pilot and a better reflection of the book’s strengths — though one wonders if “Seinfeldia,” already a bestseller, would be as highly acclaimed without its original title.
Armstrong complains that the show became “the hot item for overanalyzers” in the 1990s, but that objection only makes her own overanalysis feel played, so played. To me, the notion of a Seinfeldia dimension is a bit forced, a little yada yada nada. But in describing the making and writing of this singular show, Armstrong is queen of the castle. Her stories about “Seinfeld” are real — and they’re spectacular.
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