Reviews

'Seinfeldia': Yada yada yada ...

Seinfeld may have been “a show about nothing”, but Seinfeldia has plenty of fascinating things to say about it.


Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Publication date: 2016-07
Affiliate
Amazon

Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Seinfeld aired on NBC from 1989 to 1998 and continues to leave an indelible mark on television roughly 25 years later. Often cited as not only the greatest sitcom of all time, but simply the greatest show of all time, the half-hour comedy, with its four-friend focus, controversial topics, and innovative approach to humor, became a major part of the ‘90s cultural zeitgeist; likewise, it played a key role in modern syndication practices, as well as influenced just about every sitcom that followed (including David’s own Curb Your Enthusiasm and FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). For “a show about nothing”, Seinfeld was everything.

Of course, all of that is familiar to every devotee of the series; what isn’t so well-known are the minute details of what went on behind the scenes. Fortunately, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Seinfeldia fills in those gaps by providing an abundance of intriguing revelations and lighthearted anecdotes to examine nearly every facet of the program, including its meek inception, underdog-to-ubiquitous trajectory, controversial finalé, and long-lasting impact. Much like Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted (her 2013 analysis of The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Seinfeldia is a fascinating, funny, and fleshed out exploration of its subject matter that every fan should read.

Armstrong begins the book by recalling how the Brooklyn Cyclone’s minor league stadium became an absurdist celebration of the show on 5 July 2014. Decorated with insider paraphernalia, the place unfolded with an incredible attention to detail (including costumes and referential contests) to accommodate its communal fandom. Armstrong uses this example to set up what she calls “Seinfeldia”, “a special dimension of existence, somewhere between the show itself and real life”. From there, she surmises why it’s still so monumental:

It is the story of two men whose sitcom -- full of minute observations and despicable characters -- snuck through the network system to become a hit that changed TV’s most cherished rules; from then on, antiheroes would rise to prominence, unique voices would invade the airwaves, and the creative forces behind the shows would often gain as much power and fame as the faces in front of the cameras.

One of the most interesting tidbits in the book is how both Seinfeld and David were more or less constantly uncertain if the show would work (or, later on, why it was still working so well). For instance, David typically questioned his abilities to keep the show going from season to season, as quality control was important to him and criticism was always a touchy subject. Similarly, many others around the duo, such as several studio execs, music director Jonathan Wolff (who created the theme music), and director Tom Cherones were “pretty sure that only Larry and Jerry knew what this thing was about”, but that didn’t matter because they had more creative freedom to experiment. Because NBC didn’t expect much from Seinfeld at the start, the cast and crew were treated like relatively unsupervised kids whose madcap liberties allowed them to spawn something so original, edgy, and ultimately revered.

Armstrong also talks at length about “The Bizarros”, the people on whom Seinfeld characters were based (to varying degrees), such as David’s apartment building compatriot Kenny Kramer, NBC liaison Jeremiah Bosgang, fashion mogul John Peterman, and expectedly, David himself (as Jason Alexander’s George Costanza). Nearly every one of them was at least accepting of the portrayals, if not outright flattered and excited by them, except for one person: chef Al Yeganeh, whose short temper and popular establishment -- Soup Kitchen International -- would become the core of one of the series’ most beloved personalities, The Soup Nazi. While actor Larry Thomas still adores being known for the role all these years later, Yeganeh “appear[s] to spend most of his post-Seinfeld fame struggling to capitalize on his own renown while still resisting the source of it ... though [he] continued to denounce the show and its star when given a chance, his Original Soup Man company, using the tagline ‘Soup for You!,’ had expanded to thirteen locations by 2013.” Really, seeing how greatly affected these unassuming people have been by the sitcom is one of Seinfeldia’s greatest strengths.

Along the same lines, readers are given a ton of indepth insight into the writing process of the show, as well as the worries, hopes, and methods of its revolving door of writers. For example, many of them were initially shocked to be on the show and/or in constant worry about sustaining their expertise (and employment), especially when it came to meeting Seinfeld and David’s high standards (plus the latter’s intimidating and blunt demeanor). Seeing as how Seinfeld became the show to write for as the ‘90s progressed, it’s not surprising that it was so cutthroat behind the scenes (as well as fun, of course); still, these disclosures definitely help humanize the people involved. (After all, the vast majority of creative types suffer from Imposter syndrome, right?)

Arguably the biggest appeal of the series was its unconventional storylines (which David eventually insisted “must dovetail into one explosive ending”), be it because they were controversial or seemingly empty. Initially unproven concepts like “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Junior Mint” showcased the brand’s potential for compelling, if ridiculous, slice-of-life narratives, while “The Contest”, in particular, found the show pushing new boundaries on prime time television (especially since it touched upon female masturbation). Not only was “The Contest” praised by network executives and viewers (in contrast to what the team expected at first), but it “helped Seinfeld win its first Emmy, and was often cited as the show’s breakthrough episode. ‘Master of my domain’ became Seinfeld’s first catchphrase.” It’s exhaustive explorations like these that make Armstrong’s book so compelling.

Aside from being a must-own compendium for devotees, Seinfeldia is an exemplary lesson in how to document something with a strong mix of accessible writing, scholarly information, and diverse topics. It feels both academic and informal, leaving no key player or component unexamined. Armstrong is clearly a skilled journalist, a thorough researcher, and a passionate admirer of her subjects, so her prose has a lot of heart and profundity. Seinfeld may have been “a show about nothing”, but Seinfeldia has plenty of interesting things to say about it.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.