[12 May 2008]
On May 14, 1998: There were riots in Indonesia. Cannes was under way. The Dow had made up for some losses. Continental slashed airfares. And later that night, Frank Sinatra died at 82.
But for most of us—at least the 79 million people who watched—one memory endures.
A perfect storm of hype and unmet expectations, the “Seinfeld” finale—that silly trial scene, remember?—remains a watershed moment in popular culture.
Why? Reasonable question.
Other hits have gone in the intervening years, such as “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Cultural Solomons such as Entertainment Weekly devoted many issues to them, as well.
Plus over those years, we survived the reality boom, then endured it. The sitcom was declared dead, and the drama reborn. The Internet gathered force, then revolutionized TV (and everything else). YouTube rose while the networks declined. With the lone exception of “The Simpsons,” most everything on TV changed (and changed completely), but “Seinfeld’s” last day still seems like yesterday.
Here’s why: “Seinfeld” was often an indisputably great situation comedy and, as the years wore on, continued to wear well—a welcome fate denied other titans in the quest of rerun eternity (such as, say, “Friends”).
Then, there was and is the ubiquity. If you have never actually seen “Seinfeld,” then you don’t actually own a TV.
Estelle Harris (who played George’s mother, Estelle Costanza) said in a recent interview, “It’s getting more and more popular because there’s a whole new generation that has become interested in the show from the repeats. Younger and younger people are stopping me on the streets, all races, creeds and colors, saying, `You’re just like my mother.’”
“Luck” is another word you hear from veterans of the show, as if the normally malevolent gods of prime time were on a nine-year lunch break over those years, ensuring its survival. “I guess I felt really lucky, but I also felt like part of a family, which happens when you’re on a show for so long,” says veteran stage and TV actress Liz Sheridan, Jerry’s “mother,” Helen. “It didn’t surprise me that we were so successful because we were so good.”
Spike Feresten, host of Fox’s “TalkShow,” and longtime “Seinfeld” scribe, says of the enduring appeal: “I think it’s kind of something Jerry and Larry (David, co-creator) always believed—that making someone laugh is a very powerful experience, and if you can do that consistently, then they will love you because there’s not a lot that they’re laughing about in their own lives. It could be as simple as that.”
But a decade’s a decade, and while “Seinfeld” is forever trapped in TV amber, the lives of the principles are not. Here’s what has happened to our four heroes over the years—with a quick assessment on just how well they’ve used their precious time.
Yeah, he’s done pretty much next to nothing. Oh, sure—there was some movie about bees, and he got married and fathered three children. Some stand-up here and some stand-up there. But it’s been so nothing that he worked the joke into his routine. (“Everybody says to me, `Hey, you don’t do the show anymore. What do you do?’ I’ll tell you what do I do: nothing. ... Well, let me tell you, doing nothing is not as easy as it looks ... because the idea of doing anything, which could easily lead to doing something, would cut into your nothing, and that would force me to have to drop everything.”)
So nothing. “Bee Movie” (which he co-wrote with Feresten) was a hit. His first love, the club circuit—a road through hell for the unfamous, and an invitation to snotty critics to say, “See—he’s not that funny” for the famous—has been good to him as well. At 54, his rep remains mostly intact. Rumors of another show on NBC seem to go down in flames reliably every year (he made a funny cameo on “30 Rock’s” season opener this year), and someone during the open mike part of a recent performance asked about a small-screen reprisal: “No. I’m old, I’m rich and I’m tired.”
The lowdown: One of the most skillful “retirements” in show business history—Carsonesque, almost. The chances of producing another show as good as “Seinfeld” are (about) one in 1.987 billion; so why bother? He continues to do what he loves (stand-up) and he does a good bee, too. Seinfeld—of course—can afford to be picky-choosy: The vast residual windfall was largely denied his three co-stars, who were effectively forced to start a second act.
Go ahead—you create one of the most memorable characters in TV history (Elaine Benes) and then step away from it. Possible? Maybe, but you’d probably have to have to star in and produce (on your own dime) a big-screen version of “Clytemnestra.” Louis-Dreyfus, instead, has done what she does best—TV comedy. “The Adventures of Old Christine” may—or may not—get picked up by CBS this week (though there’s speculation ABC may grab it). Over the past 10 years, Louis-Dreyfus has had three major TV roles—Ellie Riggs, in the short-lived “Watching Ellie”; Maggie Lizer (briefly), in “Arrested Development”; and, of course, spunky single mother Christine (and she appeared on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). Otherwise, she’s doing the hardest job of all—raising two sons, 16 and 11. (She’s married to TV writer Brad Hall.)
The lowdown: Louis-Dreyfus was stuck with the tired old label/cliche, “The Seinfeld Curse,” by the press for most of the decade until she scored the lead actress/sitcom Emmy in 2006. Then, the scarlet letter magically melted away. Was it ever fair? Not really. “Ellie” was a good show—innovative, sometimes funny—and even featured a before-he-was-famous Steve Carell. Ditto “Christine.” No one ever expected “Seinfeld Redux.” Or should have.
In some ways, this has been the most fascinating post-“Seinfeld” life; it’s a spin-the-dial career, and where you stop ... well, who knows! He’s guest-judging on Bravo’s dance show, “Step It Up”—bizarre—while there have been a few dozen cameos, starring roles, and other assorted turns on the tube (including “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), along with a handful of movies since 1998. His two TV sitcoms both flopped—ABC’s 2001 “Bob Patterson” (he played a motivational speaker) and CBS’ 2004-05 “Listen Up” (he played a sportswriter, based on The Washington Post’s Tony Kornheiser). He’s started a stand-up career (recently toured in Australia), and the Tony Award winner has also returned to the stage: He’s artistic director of the Los Angeles-based Reprise Theater Company, which produces four musical revivals per year.
The lowdown: A career track suggesting both an adventurous spirit and an insecure one. Another possibility: He doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do; “Seinfeld”—or at least the DVDs—gave Alexander the financial security blanket needed to escape George, but he’s squandered some of that. The job at Reprise, however, may well be the best move of all. There’s hope still for the abundantly talented George ... er, Jason.
Richards was first out with a major sitcom—“The Michael Richards Show”—in 2000. It was burdened by expectations and the inevitable critical blow-back that “it’ll never be as good.” And hardly was. The show was canceled after six episodes, and the “Seinfeld Curse” began. Richards did some credited voice work (for Jerry Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie”) and there were rare cameos. He also worked on the comedy circuit, but the Nov. 20, 2006 Laugh Factory tirade ended it. That performance—a blowtorch of rage and racial epithets—was captured on a cell phone, and Richards’ career seemed over. He disappeared into the Far East, where a reporter for the Los Angeles Times caught up with him: “That night, when I was insulted and disrupted, I lost my heart; I lost my sense of humor. I’ve retired from that.” He’s back and in production on a major studio animated release, “Cat Tale.”
The lowdown: Richards stared down the biggest challenge of any actor—how to get beyond the character that made you—then seemed to back off. His “The Michael Richards Show” character was part Monk, part Cosmo and reinforced the quandary. After the Laugh Factory incident he tried the recovery program (hired big-league P.R. firm, etc.) but remains somewhat radioactive.
THEY HAVEN’T BEEN DOING NOTHING, EITHER
Here’s what some folks associated with “Seinfeld” have been up to since the show ended.
Larry David (co-creator and voice of George Steinbrenner): Three words—“Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Alone among all, he’s the one to create a post-“Seinfeld” classic.
Phil Morris (Johnnie Cochran-esque lawyer Jackie Chiles): Full and busy career on the tube, including appearances on “JAG,” “NCIS” and “Smallville.”
Heidi Swedberg (Susan Biddle Ross, George’s fiancee): Guest shots in such shows as “ER” and “Without a Trace.”
Estelle Harris (Estelle Costanza, George’s mother): Voiced Mrs. Potato Head in “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3,” due in 2010. Has appeared on Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody” and in movies; heavily involved in charity work.
Jerry Stiller (Frank Costanza, George’s father): Father-in-law Arthur Spooner in “The King of Queens” (1998-2007) plus roles in movies such as “Zoolander,” with son, Ben.
Liz Sheridan (Helen Seinfeld, Jerry’s mother): Wrote book on her long-ago love affair with James Dean, and is shopping a screenplay based on that memoir.
John O’Hurley (J. Peterman): “Winning” “Dancing With the Stars” will probably be his legacy, not his role as Elaine’s boss.
Barney Martin (Morty Seinfeld, Jerry’s father): Died in 2005.
Len Lesser (Uncle Leo): Played Garvin on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
Patrick Warburton (David Puddy, Elaine’s boyfriend): He’s been everywhere: “NewsRadio” ... “The Emperor’s New Groove” ... “The Tick” ... “Less Than Perfect” ... “Kim Possible” ... “Family Guy” ... “Rules of Engagement.”