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