It’s easy to forget that Seinfeld has been off the air for nearly 20 years. Maybe this is due to the never-ending airing of reruns; maybe it’s the fact that Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Larry David are still everywhere; maybe it’s the way the show’s vocabulary has worked its way into our pop lexicon. Despite embodying so much of what we think of as “the ’90s,” Seinfeld is as much a part of the cultural atmosphere today as it was during its run.
In her new book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, the journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has set herself two tasks: The first is to give a history of the show’s production and development over time; the second is to examine the Seinfeld phenomenon from the time the show became the biggest hit on television to the present day. She accomplishes these with a mixture of interviews (writers, actors), reporting, and analysis.
I recently spoke with Armstrong over the phone. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we discussed the pros and cons of working with Larry David, an unproven theory about Elaine, and the best episode ever.
What aspect of Seinfeld now feels the most dated to you, culturally speaking?
Recent events, and talking about the show amidst recent events, have made me realize how innocent it really was. A show that was obsessed with this level of detail about modern upper-middle-class life without any awareness of the greater world: I think it’s that more than anything else. It’s just so striking. Could Seinfeld be made now with constant horrible news about terrorist attacks and gun violence? Could they tackle that stuff in any way?
The show never really tackles anything. There aren’t really even plot arcs with big season finales. The only big plot arc involves a character dying, and that’s presented as a joke.
That’s absolutely true. The genius of the show in a lot of ways is how they completely strip the sitcom of everything but jokes, of everything except what’s funny. It’s the Larry David cliché about no hugging and no learning. The characters don’t really change or mature. They address issues on the show only in a detached way. With “not that there’s anything wrong with that” and stuff like that, it wasn’t like there was a gay character who taught a straight person something.
In terms of other differences, besides the fact that the show would be on cable, I can’t believe they would ever cast four white actors.
For sure. That is a huge thing. It’s another way the show is a little dated. I don’t want to be an apologist because I think diversity is incredibly important, but for it’s time, at least the background characters look like New Yorkers, and a lot of the people they encounter are more diverse than, let’s say, on Friends. That’s not to say it was doing a bang-up job.
You wonder how diversity would have changed the comedy. So much of the humor comes from how smugly comfortable and privileged they all are.
One thing I have thought a lot with Girls, too, is that is gets really complicated when you have a show where you are kinda making fun of your main characters and their privilege. I can see why that would make you slightly scared of diversity. But that said, they would have been able to talk about issues a lot more and make jokes that they weren’t able to make as an all-white cast.
What about Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David surprised you most?
I spent a lot of time with the writers and learning about that process. The whole way both of them ran it was so totally different than any other sitcom. And I presume that is because they hadn’t worked on another sitcom. So they made up their own system, which in a lot of ways seemed a lot harder than the traditional system. They didn’t have a writers’ room. That’s the biggest thing. In a traditional sitcom setup, you have a writers’ room with people sitting around bouncing jokes off one another and figuring it out together. Whereas this was sort of every-man-for-himself, and I say that because it was mostly men. You would have to get Larry or Jerry. There wasn’t a pitch time; you had to snag them. And you had to get four different stories approved, one for each character. Then you would go off and write an outline by yourself and then bring it back to work on it with them again. It seemed really stressful, and a lot of the writers said so.
Larry David likes to characterize himself as an asshole—George Costanza is based on him, Curb Your Enthusiasm is obviously unflattering. Did his co-workers share this opinion of him?
It’s not like people said, “Oh my God, it turns out that in real life he is a teddy bear who cries constantly.” There wasn’t a huge disparity between his persona and how people described him. There were definitely moments people told me about that sounded like the persona. I am thinking about Fred Stoller, the writer, who was someone who had a really hard time.
Until I read your book, I had not realized that Stoller also appears in one episode as the guy who keeps forgetting Elaine.
Yeah. I love that story because there is a happy ending: He’s really a good character actor, and that is what he should be doing. He’s delightful and was not cut out for this system. Larry picked on him a lot in that Larry way. It seemed like it was affectionate, but Larry also sensed that weakness in Fred. He’d always ask him, like, “when did you get laid?” But Fred also said that just when he would feel picked on, Larry would do it in the same tone but it was almost caring. He told him that he could step up and pitch and do this. He was trying to help him.
I think Jerry is great on the show, even though he is a bad actor.
I do too. He was playing himself. He was smart, right? He wasn’t going to play Kramer. It was a brilliant move, and it wasn’t unheard of, but it was less prevalent: playing a guy with your own name, first and last.
OK, let’s get nerdier here. I am going to bounce some theories off you, and you can correct me. I divide the show into three eras. The first is the initial three seasons, where they were trying stuff out. The fourth through eighth seasons are incredible. And then the ninth season, which I see as a disaster: way too broad, Elaine and George are much meaner.
I think that’s about right. I am aware of this more talking about it. “The Chinese Restaurant” is in the beginning, in the midst of all these other episodes that don’t know as much what they are doing. They vaguely hit upon the idea of multiple plotlines coming together at the end. They stumbled upon it and then started doing it. But the middle is where they got it all down. And then at the end what happens is that Larry David leaves.
OK, but he was gone for both the eighth and ninth seasons, and the eighth season is great and has “The Bizarro Jerry” and other incredible episodes.
I think what’s happening is spillover. They had so many stories that they could have had a lot of stuff going already. Some of the writers told me that they had storylines left over from Seinfeld that they used on Curb.
Looking over the episodes from Season 8 right now, I think you are correct. The first half is amazing, and then it gets significantly worse.
What it is too is that you are getting further and further away from the Larry David sensibility. Even those good ones that you are talking about are getting goofier. The “Bizarro” episode, to me, I love it—
It’s my favorite episode.
I like it when they comment on themselves, but it’s more high-concept. Then we get into things like “The Frogger” and other goofy storylines that have more of the slapstick quality. It’s almost like a cartoon. The writing staff that came in after Larry left were all very young, almost fresh out of college. They had more of a light sensibility, and Jerry didn’t counter that the way Larry did. Plus, they were just getting tired. They were working 24/7.
I also think they lost control of George after Larry David left. He was always yelling and angry.
The other thing that I was told is that the younger generation came in as fans. That’s why you get the “Bizarro” and other episodes where they are commenting on the show. But they also said that they were much better at writing Kramer. They were much more interested in Kramer, the big goofy character, than in George. They had been watching since they were younger. It was probably the first thing they loved about the show. Larry was able to ground George a little better in humanity, even when George was being nuts. But they saw him as just this bald guy who yells.
I am actually obsessed with Elaine, and I have this whole theory that has no basis in reality, which is my read on the show near the end.
That’s what we want.
Toward the end, I have this vague feeling that Elaine—and “Bizarro” is the evidence for this theory—is starting to realize what is going on and wondering, “Why am I hanging out with these losers all the time?” And she is trying to get out. [Laughs.] By the end, when they all go to prison, she is going to go to the women’s prison. She’s close to having her epiphany already. You can almost see it on her face when they are in the cell, and she is going, “They are having this conversation again.” I picture her being sent to the women’s prison and having an enlightenment and making friends with the other women and saying she will never talk to those losers again.
There are all these references to her not finding a husband and moving out to the suburbs in later episodes.
Yep, and her friends are all moving out.
Friends we never see.
She’s the one with the most going on, honestly. She is beautiful, and they don’t pretend she isn’t, which I love because sometimes they do that on television. “Oh, Grace is so disgusting on Will & Grace.” She does fine with men. And she has had a series of pretty good jobs. There is no reason. [Laughs.]
I like that. OK: favorite episode?
I say a different favorite all the time. What am I going to go with today? Now that I am thinking about Elaine I am going to go with “sponge-worthy.” I really like that one, and I remember it being a big deal to me when I watched it the first time. I was old enough to get it but young enough to be impressionable about it.
“Elaine, make-up sex is all I have.”
They go for it with Elaine! It’s so explicit in that episode that she has recreational sex and sex with men who aren’t going to be her husband. I loved everything about that. It was topical without being annoying.