Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David: "like Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett for television." What more does one need?
The Origin Story
Jerry Seinfeld ventured into a Korean deli on night in November 1988 with fellow comic Larry David after both had performed, as usual, at the Catch a Rising Star comedy club on the Upper East Side of New York City. Seinfeld needed David’s help with what could be the biggest opportunity of his career so far, and this turned out to be the perfect place to discuss it.
They had come to Lee’s Market on First Avenue and SeventyEighth Street, maybe for some snacks, maybe for material. The mundane tasks of life and comic gold often merged into one for them. Sure enough, they soon were making fun of the products they found among the fluorescent-lit aisles. Korean jelly, for instance: Why, exactly, did it have to come in a jelly form? Was there also, perhaps, a foam or a spray? The strange foods on the steam table: Who ate those? “This is the kind of discussion you don’t see on TV,” David said.
Seinfeld had told David a bit of news over the course of the evening: NBC was interested in doing a show with him. Some executive had brought him in for a meeting and everything. Seinfeld didn’t have any ideas for television. He just wanted to be himself and do his comedy. He felt David might be a good brainstorming partner.
Seinfeld and David had a common sensibility, in part because of their similar backgrounds: Both had grown up in the New York area and were raised Jewish. Both seized on observational humor for their acts. They had their differences, too, that balanced each other nicely: Seinfeld was thirty-four and on the rise thanks to his genial, inoffensive approach to comedy and his intense drive to succeed. David was far more caustic and sensitive to the slightest audience infractions (not listening, not laughing at the right moments, not laughing enough). He was older, forty-one, and struggling on the stand-up circuit because of his propensity to antagonize his audiences out of a rather explosive brand of insecurity.
Seinfeld had dark hair blown dry into the classic ’80s pouf, while David maintained a magnificent Jew-fro, dented a bit in the middle by his receding hairline. Seinfeld’s delivery often ascended to a high-pitched warble; David favored a guttural grumble that could become a yell without warning.
They’d first become friends in the bar of Catch a Rising Star in the late ’70s when Seinfeld started out as a comic. From then on, they couldn’t stop talking. They loved to fixate on tiny life annoyances, in their conversations and their comedy. Soon they started helping each other with their acts and became friendly outside of work.
Seinfeld had gotten big laughs by reading David’s stand-up material at a birthday party for mutual friend Carol Leifer -- one of the few women among their band (or any band) of New York comedians. David, nearly broke, had given Leifer some jokes as a birthday “gift.” Too drunk to read them aloud, she handed them off to Seinfeld; he killed, which suggested some creative potential between the two men.
As a result, it made sense for Seinfeld to approach David with this TV “problem” he now had. David also remained the only “writer” Seinfeld knew, someone who had, as Seinfeld said, “actually typed something out on a piece of paper” when he churned out bits for sketch shows like Fridays and Saturday Night Live.
Seinfeld was smart to consult David on this TV thing. David did have a vision, if not a particularly grand one. “This,” David said as they bantered in Lee’s Market, “is what the show should be.” Seinfeld was intrigued.
The next night, after their comedy sets at the Improv in Midtown, David and Seinfeld went to the Westway Diner around the corner, at Forty-Fourth Street and Ninth Avenue. At about midnight, they settled into a booth and riffed on the possibilities: What about a special that simply depicted where comics get their material? Jerry could play himself in that, for sure. Cameras could document him going through his day, having conversations like the one at the market the night before; he’d later put those insights into his act, which audiences would see at the end of the special. As they brainstormed, Seinfeld had one cup of coffee, then two. He usually didn’t drink coffee at all. They were onto something.
Seinfeld liked the idea enough to take it to NBC. The network signed off on it, suggesting a ninety-minute special called Seinfeld’s Stand-Up Diary that would air in Saturday Night Live’s time slot during an off week. As he thought about it, though, Seinfeld worried about filling an entire ninety minutes; thirty minutes, on the other hand, he could do.
By the time he and David had written a thirty-minute script, in February 1989, they realized they had a sitcom on their hands instead of a special. Jerry and a Larry-like guy could serve as the two main characters, who would discuss the minutiae of their lives and turn it into comedy -- like Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett for television. “Two guys talking,” Seinfeld said. “This was the idea.”
To that setup, they added a neighbor. David told Seinfeld about his own eccentric neighbor, Kenny Kramer -- a jobless schemer with whom David shared a car, a TV, and one pair of black slacks in case either had a special occasion. He would be the basis for the third character. They set the first scene in a fictional coffee shop like the one where they’d hatched their idea, and called it Pete’s Luncheonette.
Seinfeldia's founding father and namesake got his first inkling that he was funny at age eight. Little Jerry Seinfeld was sitting on a stoop with a friend in his middle-class town on Long Island, eating milk and cookies. Jerry -- usually a dorky, shy kid -- said something funny enough to cause his friend to spit milk and cookies back into Jerry’s face and hair. Jerry thought, I would like to do this professionally.
Seinfeld was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Massapequa. He spent his childhood watching Laugh-In, Batman, The Honeymooners, and Get Smart. (“When I heard that they were going to do a sitcom with a secret agent who was funny, the back of my head blew off,” he later said.) His parents, Betty and Kal, made humor a priority in their home. His father, a sign merchant, told jokes often. Even his business’s name was a joke: Kal Signfeld Signs.
As Jerry came into his own sense of humor, his performances grew more elaborate than mere jokes on the stoop. At Birch Lane Elementary School, he planned and starred in a skit for a class fair with his friend Lawrence McCue. Jerry played President Kennedy, and Lawrence played a reporter who asked him questions -- essentially, set up his jokes. They were the only ones at the fair who did a comedy routine. When Jerry graduated to Massapequa High School in 1968, he grew obsessed with two things: cars and the comedian Bill Cosby. He dabbled in acting, playing Julius Caesar in his tenth-grade English class. But comedy remained his focus. He saw even geometry class as training for comedy; a good joke, he felt, had the same rigorous internal logic as a theorem proof. The only difference was the silly twist at the end of a joke.
When a long-haired Jerry Seinfeld attended Queens College, he acted in school productions and hung around the New York comedy clubs, wearing white sneakers like his idols Joe Namath and Cosby (circa the comedian’s time on the ’60s show I Spy). As he waited to get up the nerve to pursue stand-up as a profession, he used his attendance at Manhattan comedy clubs as a kind of independent study. He analyzed comics’ approach to their material and even wrote a forty-page paper on the subject.
He started to know the players: He eavesdropped, for instance, on Larry David talking to another comedian. David happened to be leaning on Seinfeld’s car, a 1973 Fiat 128 SL, in front of the Improv one day in 1975, the first time Seinfeld ever saw his future writing partner. Seinfeld was impressed with these guys’ dedication to the profession. He didn’t dare speak to them yet.
After he graduated in 1976 as an honor student, Seinfeld applied his sense of discipline to becoming a stand-up, approaching it methodically. His first appearance on a professional stage as a comedian was at Catch a Rising Star in 1976, at age twenty-two. He’d practiced his routine with a bar of soap until he had every word memorized. Comedian Elayne Boosler introduced him, and he took the stage. Once he got there, though, he couldn’t remember a word. He stood there for several long seconds, not saying a thing. Finally, he remembered the subjects he’d planned to talk about, so, without anything else to say, he listed them to the audience: “the beach, driving, parents.” People laughed, thinking this was his act, some high-concept performance art. Eventually he managed to fill three minutes with bits of material until he escaped the spotlight.
“That’s Jerry Seinfeld,” Boosler quipped to the audience when it ended, “the king of the segue.”
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She writes about pop culture for several publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York‘s Vulture, BBC Culture, Entertainment Weekly, and others. She grew up in Homer Glen, Illinois, and now lives in New York City. Visit her online at JenniferKArmstrong.com.
Excerpted from Seinfeldia: how a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Armstrong. Printed by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.