Seinfeld holds an extraordinary place in modern pop culture. The NBC television show whose last episode was aired 18 years ago has remained an intrinsic part of our comedy craving consciousness through constant re-runs, making it as indispensable to an audience watching in 2016 or in the 1990s.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book Seinfeldia – How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything provides a well-rounded history lesson about the series – the origin stories, the inspiration, and the fluid interaction between reel and real elements that helped create the show. Armstrong defines Seinfeldia as a “special dimension of existence, somewhere between the show itself and real life.”
The book features interviews from writers across all seasons, directors, music composers and those who found their lives changed due to a brush with Seinfeld. However, Keishin Armstrong has not interviewed the show creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld and the rest of the main cast.
Insightful revelations and surprising anecdotes fill in the gaps of knowledge for those who have followed the show, watched every season multiple times, joined online forums, practised yada yada, and cannot remember a time when they didn’t quote Seinfeld in the middle of a regular conversation.
The first installment of the show, The Seinfeld Chronicles, was the result of a mindless but very entertaining banter between two up-and-coming but relatively unknown comedians, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. As they sat discussing a probable deal with NBC at a Korean deli, David had an epiphany – this was the show. This hilarious, raw everyday conversation is what The Seinfeld Chronicles and eventually Seinfeld built on.
The writers mined their own lives and the lives of others for unique insights and jokes. This is where the overlapping between life and the series begins – and this is the entire premise of Armstrong’s book. Jerry played himself, George (Jason Alexander) was a version of David, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was partially based on Monica Yates (daughter of author Richard Yates and Larry David’s ex-girlfriend), and Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) was based on David’s eccentric neighbor Kenny Kramer.
Kenny Kramer lives in the realm between reality and syndicated TV as he provides Seinfeld tours of the city for a living. Larry Thomas, the Soup Nazi who appeared in a single but unforgettable episode, has been reprising the one role that defined his life, clicking pictures with and signing autographs for fans who crave to be a part of the Seinfeld universe even for a short second.
J Peterman, whose dramatic catalogues became a part of the show, expanded his business hoping to ride out to success on the Seinfeld train, but had to file for bankruptcy when the bet did not pay off. The man on whom the Soup Nazi was based, Ali “Al” Yeganeh, often publicly voiced his hatred for the show and Jerry Seinfeld, but now runs a chain of restaurants called The Original Soup Man, his tagline being the very recognisable “Soup For You!”
The show was written unlike any sitcom. Instead of a writers’ room in which a team sits and brainstorms, each writer was supposed to individually come up with four storylines that worked together for each of the four characters. The writers dug into their own lives and experiences for insights that could be translated to the screen by four self-absorbed, shallow characters. Each episode was a standalone piece in itself, and every week a new opportunity. David’s motto for the show was “No Hugging, No Learning”, something the writers had to constantly remember as they looked for incidents rather than love triangles and emotional cliffhangers.
The first few seasons were mired with uncertainty, as very few of those involved believed that it would survive another season. This uncertainty, clubbed with the money the series had slowly but surely started raking up for NBC, helped provide David and Seinfeld with the freedom and license they needed to create the show just the way they wanted. Their lack of TV experience helped them infuse freshness into the sitcom scene – the content was new, edgy and daring, and everybody loved it. NBC let them take risks as never seen before on TV. For instance, The Chinese Restaurant, an episode set entirely in a restaurant’s waiting room, is now considered a classic, but baffled almost everyone involved.
Armstrong notes the difference in the comedic sensibilities of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. David’s complexity and darkness was balanced out by Seinfeld’s lightheartedness. This was even more evident in the last two seasons shot after David’s departure from the show. His absence created a void, and changed the tone of the show – but as many writers claimed, it also freed up new energy.
The show ended after season 9. Jerry Seinfeld maintained that the show was “the greatest love affair of my life” and “we felt we all wanted to leave in love”. David returned to write the 1998 finale, but the real closure was found on the sets of David’s HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the cast met for a reunion, playing themselves as former cast mates.
Seinfeldia is a great read, providing diehard Seinfeld fans and pop culture nerds with sketches about the most enduring comedy phenomenon of our time. The term coined by Armstrong comes from an insight that she spends 300 pages qualifying in the most entertaining way, but its frequent and exalted usage goes against the very idea of the show about nothing too big, profound or serious. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.