By Heidi Simmons
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Reruns of the 90’s sitcom “Seinfeld” can be found around the clock somewhere on the hundreds of channels televisions now support. One streaming company touts the complete “Seinfeld” series as a subscription selling incentive. Almost two decades later, the show continues to garner acknowledgment for its unique perspective forever earning a significant place in television history.
A new generation is discovering “Seinfeld” and it remains a favorite for those who watched when the show first aired from 1989 to 1998 on NBC. In Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything (Simons & Schuster, 310 pages) entertainment writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong enters the world to discover what made a show about “nothing” so entertaining and successful.
Author Armstrong begins with an event at Coney Island’s minor league baseball stadium in 2014 where 7,500 people (a sold-out crowd) showed up to celebrate all things “Seinfeld.” It wasn’t the baseball competition they came for, but the other competitions like the “Elaine” dance off, the “Jerry” diamond run, a marble-rye fishing race and a pick-or-scratch contest. The stadium was temporarily renamed “Vandelay Industries Park.”
For Seinfeld fans, these are just a few references that have become part of a well-known Seinfeldia subculture.
Jerry Seinfeld was (and still is) a successful stand-up comedian living in New York. In the late 80s, he was approached by NBC executives to put together a situation comedy where the show centered around him.
The only writer friend Seinfeld had was Larry David. The two met doing stand-up, had a similar sense of humor and liked each other. Together, they reluctantly pitched the idea of a show around how a comedian finds material.
A similar TV episode has Jerry and “George” — Larry’s character — pitching the subject as a show “about nothing.” The show about “nothing” has stuck more for the episodic reference rather than because that is what “Seinfeld” is actually about.
David believed all the characters were more despicable than delightful. Each episode one of the characters schemed or lied to benefit themselves.
Author Armstrong covers how each of the main characters came on board and adjusted to their parts.
Jason Alexander was a Tony award winning New York theater actor. When the audition came up he was between jobs and never thought it would amount to anything. Network pilots rarely made it to the fall line up and David’s good friend was after the part, so he was certain he wouldn’t be in LA long. But, both Seinfeld and David knew right away Alexander was perfect for the role.
Julia Louis-Dryfus came on board after several episodes after several episodes were filmed as “Elaine.” The show needed more estrogen. In the beginning, Louis-Dryfus felt she wasn’t getting enough to do, so David told the writers to consider her as just one of the guys.
Michael Richards who plays the beloved “Kramer” was named after David’s real nieghbor in New York. Richards kept to himself and remained separate from the others during production breaks. Alexander felt that Richards was indeed a bit insane like his character. Richards was a perfectionist and did each take differently and was rarely satisfied. Richards was so popular, producers had to ask live audiences to not scream and clap when he come into the scene because it was disruptive.
This is a fun book for anyone who loves the “Seinfeld” series. Armstrong goes into detail about how the show overcame obstacles and found its groove.
Early on, the NBC execs did not know what the show was and let the sit com novices do their own creative thing. David continually believed the show would be coming to an end soon — and welcomed it. David and Seinfeld, more often than not, mined material from their lives and the writer’s lives and David feared there would be nothing more to do after each season.
There are many favorite and familiar episodes and classic scenes included throughout Seinfeldia. Armstrong discusses how the episode “The Contest” came about where the four characters make a bet regarding who can remain “master of their domain” the longest — a phrase that has become popular within the subculture and now fills in for masturbation.
The Seinfeld series continues to entertain and the quality of the writing, acting, directing holds up. Reading Seinfeldia is like reading about your friends and mutual experiences. It’s great to read what happened behind the scenes on favorite episodes and how Seinfeld and David maintained such a creative and different TV show.
Today, there are discussion groups and blogs and the series has an ongoing life that is growing. People share ideas about how Seinfeld might deal with modern topics like social media.
Armstrong includes references, a list of those she interviewed and an index, which is always nice. I felt like she not only answered my questions about the show and those behind it, but delivered an important book about a significant television series and how it continues to permeate our meta-reality.
Seinfeldia is a world locked in time, but the human dilemmas and behavioral observations are timeless.