How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything ★ ★ ★ ★
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster, 2016
A free copy was provided through Netgalley in exchange for review.
“Everybody’s doing something. We’ll do NOTHING.” ~George (Seinfeld)
I think anyone who picks up this book is most likely going to be a rabid Seinfeld fan, and I’m no exception. We are in the midst of PeakTV — a new heralded Golden Age of Television — and there’s a very persuasive argument to be made that it all started with a small show about nothing, that did in fact, change everything. Despite the avalanche of remarkable and groundbreaking TV that’s hit our small screens since Seinfeld exited stage left in 1998, it still remains one of my favorite shows of all time. I’ve never stopped watching it in syndication, it continues to make me bust a gut laughing on a regular basis, and I’ve yet to encounter any situation in life that cannot be captured by applying a Seinfeld quote.
Seinfeldia is a fun book, and a totally immersive experience into the bizarre, unexpected and meteoric rise of a show that probably should have been cancelled after its first season. But after a rocky and uncertain start, the show got traction with fans and critics. As its influence spread, it was clear to see that Seinfeld was bleeding over and breaking the Fourth Wall on a regular basis, blending fact with fiction in an original and inspired way and not just becoming part of the zeitgeist and popular culture but seemingly birthing it out of thin air. The catchy phrases and neurotic dialogue uttered on the show were quickly absorbed by television audiences and recited in everyday life as if we had always been saying such things.
Or here’s what I think — we had always needed these words to describe both the inanity and absurdity of life, and it was Seinfeld who gave them to us.
The author takes a nice even-handed, well-researched approach describing the “making of” the show, offering a behind-the-scenes analysis of early working relationships, early scripts and the jockeying for power and position between the actors, writers and directors. At the helm of course was Larry David — perhaps the first instance where we really see the genius that can result when a showrunner is given complete creative control over his/her product. And David wielded that power like Thor’s mighty hammer. The only other creative force welcomed into the inner sanctum was not surprisingly David’s right hand man, Jerry Seinfeld. Together, these two gentlemen mind-fused into a comedic entity where the sum of their brilliance far exceeded their individual talents.
The book also has fun dipping into the “bizarro” aspects of the show — how it carried the Midas touch for a lot of struggling actors who would go on to great careers after their stints on Seinfeld, no matter how brief or fleeting their appearance. Probably the most notable here is Bryan Cranston — the inimitable Dr. Whatley — a dentist who Jerry is certain converted to Judaism strictly for the jokes. Even regular people who never acted on the show got pulled into its gravitational belt for better and for worse.
The real people counterparts to the fictionalized versions of themselves on the show would reap financial rewards and a fame by proxy —
1. Kenny Kramer’s Reality Tour is still going strong in New York City;
2. Ali (“Al”) Yeganeh is the real “Soup Nazi” and continues to sell his soup today (and curse Jerry Seinfeld for giving him an infamy and notoriety he never asked for or ever aspired to);
3. and Larry Thomas, the actor who played the “Soup Nazi”, continues to appear at fan conventions and speaking engagements, and has even written a book! Rather than fight against it, the actor has made peace with a role he will never outlive and embraces the benefits with grace and humor.
The book also addresses the backlash against a show that had become so popular it attracted haters and critics who believed it to be insufferably smug and overrated. The author also talks about the controversial finale episode and how it disappointed many fans and critics (it’s not my favorite episode by any means, but I found things to love about the finale). Then there was the fate of the four leads post-Seinfeld and the various trajectories their careers took, the strangest and most disappointing being Michael Richards and his public breakdown of racist rage. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has always been my biggest girl crush and I’ve been over the moon to watch her role as Vice-President Selina Meyer only get better over five seasons of VEEP. And for Jerry Seinfeld fans you can catch him now doing Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee which just got an Emmy nomination today. I haven’t seen this yet, but I do plan on checking it out at some point.
Not surprisingly, the brains and soul and passion behind Seinfeld, creator Larry David, has had the most enduring and critical success with his show Curb Your Enthusiasm (which ended in 2011 after eight seasons, but it’s just been announced the show will return for a season nine).
To wrap things up (and leave on a high note, with hand), I’m gonna take a page from Dan who in his review listed his ten favorite Seinfeld episodes. For anyone who has ever watched and loved the show, you’ll remember just how packed each episode became, routinely following four sub-plots for each of the four leads — Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. David’s singular purpose and desire was to strive to have every episode end with the four sub-plots intersect by the ending. And he almost always succeeded. In no particular order (it was too hard to pick just ten, let alone rank) here are some of my favorites.
Mild spoilers ahead for the Seinfeld virgins.
“The Chicken Roaster”:
Jerry and Kramer switch apartments when the searing neon red light from the Kenny Rogers Roasters sign across the street starts disturbing Kramer’s sleep. And who can forget Mr. Marbles.
“The Parking Garage”:
The gang gets trapped in an underground parking garage when none of them can remember where Kramer parked his car. Highlights: Elaine wanders helplessly holding a goldfish in a plastic bag of water waiting for it to perish. George and Jerry get arrested for urinating in public.
“The Chinese Restaurant”:
The penultimate episode of the second season which takes place entirely in a Chinese restaurant while the gang waits to be seated. It remains a fan and critical favorite of Seinfeld’sgroundbreaking approach to comedic storytelling — an episode about “nothing”.
“The Bubble Boy”:
The gang travels upstate to stay in Susan’s father’s cabin. Susan and George stop at the Bubble Boy’s house to get directions and play a game of trivial pursuit. Moops!
The most memorable “Crazy Joe Davola” episode. Elaine and Jerry are trying to enjoy a night out at the opera when Joe turns up dressed as the clown from Pagliacci.
The gang bet each other to see who can hold out the longest from self-pleasuring themselves (the word masturbation is never used in the episode considered too “adult” for prime time television). Part of the fun is all the euphemisms used to avoid saying the actual word, and what eventually makes each character crack.
“The Puffy Shirt”:
Jerry unknowingly agrees to wear a puffy “pirate shirt” on the Today Show. George gets discovered as a hand model.
“The Marine Biologist”:
After faking and lying about various jobs and careers, George is finally called out and forced to become a marine biologist when confronted by a beached whale in distress. “The sea was angry that day my friends.”
“The Fusilli Jerry”:
Kramer starts making figures of his favorite people out of pasta shapes that best suit their personality. Jerry is “silly” so his is made from Fusilli. Highlights: “the move” (David Puddy, my favorite recurring character, starts using Jerry’s sex move on Elaine; Kramer becomes “the Assman”; and Frank Costanza ends up at the proctologist’s office after impaling himself on the Fusilli Jerry. This is also the episode where we get Frank’s move of “stopping short”.
“The Face Painter”:
I love David Puddy and this (along with the “Jesus Fish” subplot from “The Burning” episode, is his best stuff.
“The Soup Nazi”:
It’s the Soup Nazi! No soup for you!”
“The Little Kicks”:
Two words: Elaine dances. Also, Jerry becomes a bootlegger and we meet Brody.
“The Merv Griffin Show”:
Kramer finds the set of the Merv Griffin Show in a dumpster and sets it up in his apartment. Highlights: Jerry is dating a woman with collectible toys from his childhood (that she won’t let him play with); George runs over a squirrel and is pressured by the woman he’s dating to save its life, which the vet informs him will be costly and require the use of “special, really tiny instruments.”
Kramer gets a deli slicer and starts slicing meat. Elaine and Kramer conspire to short circuit the power in her neighbor’s apartment only to find out there’s a cat trapped inside starving because its food dispenser no longer works. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — there’s so much hilarity stuffed into this episode that often gets overlooked.
“The Reverse Peephole”, “The Frogger” and “The Bookstore”:
For anyone who ever challenges you that Seinfeldstayed on the air too long, or wasn’t as funny once Larry David left, I give you these three episodes which contain some of the funniest sub-plots the show covered in its nine season run. Highlights:
–George’s overstuffed wallet, and keeping the massage chair for himself
–Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat
–Puddy buys an obnoxious leather jacket with a giant 8 on the back, Elaine is mortified
–George must enlist the help of Kramer’s electrician “friends” to move Frogger game to safety
–Elaine starts eating Peterman’s $29,000 Royal wedding cake purchased in an auction
–Jerry can’t break up with a woman because he’s too afraid of “The Lopper” serial killer
–Newman and Kramer try to set up a rickshaw business
–Jerry gets Uncle Leo arrested, not knowing about his previous “crime of passion”
–Jerry finds out from his parents “it’s not stealing if it’s something you need”
–George takes an expensive book into the Brentano’s bathroom and is forced to buy it. He tries to return it and discovers it’s been “flagged”.
I could keep going. Seriously, I feel like I’m just getting started. I haven’t even mentioned “Moviefone”, “shrinkage”, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”, “Delores”, “George’s desk naps”, yada yada yada. It would have been a much shorter list identifying the odd sub-plot or moments that can no longer make me laugh. There are far fewer of those. After all these years and repeated viewingsSeinfeld has more than stood the test of time. If anything, it’s ageless, or like a fine whiskey, keeps getting better with age as it thrives (and finds new audiences) in syndication. And while some outstanding comedies have appeared in the years following its finale — It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia andParks and Rec to name my two favorites — they all owe a debt to Seinfeld and for a show that continues to make me laugh out loud, I owe it a debt too.
And because IT STILL makes me tear up watching it even now — I did have the time of my life. Thanks for asking.