Wednesday, August 23, 2006

SEINFELD

A viewer wondered what I thought of SEINFELD. I would rate it one of the greatest series of all-time for the masturbation episode alone! (Plus, it fits into my belief of “write what you know”)

SEINFELD is one of the very few shows to truly have a VOICE. The show created its own world. It’s own logic. It set its own rules – primarily by shattering existing ones. Contrivances, conveniences, stories about nothing, characters never growing or learning, Jews – SEINFELD shattered all the taboos.

In today’s television landscape I don’t know what’s harder – coming up with an inspired vision or holding onto it. There is SO much interference these days, so many notes from so many people. Just remembering what your vision was takes a Herculean effort.

Quick aside: years ago my partner, David, and I were doing a pilot for Paramount. After the network runthrough we got the requisite blizzard of notes from the network and studio brass and suddenly the Paramount Facilities Manager weighs in with a bunch of lines and moments that “concerned” him. WTF?? I was pissed. I gently stopped him and said, “Excuse me, do I tell you which stage to assign?”

SEINFELD is exactly the kind of comedy networks say they want and should be airing but they’ve now created an interference infrastructure that makes it impossible to mount the next one.

Consider SEINFELD’s origin. In the late 80’s, Jerry Seinfeld was a frequent guest host of the TONIGHT SHOW. NBC thought he might make a good candidate to replace Johnny Carson after he had retired. They wanted to keep Jerry in the fold. To throw him a bone they let him have a situation comedy. The original order was for six. Jerry chose sitcom neophyte, Larry David to create and run it. The network didn’t really care. It was just an exercise anyway. (At first he was paired with sitcom vet, Fred Barron but that lasted maybe eleven seconds.)

They made the six episodes. The network hated them. The testing came back. Lowest EVER. The network buried the show. They waited a year to air them. But the response wasn’t horrible (among the very few people who even saw them, buried in a bad time slot), Carson was still hanging on, Jerry was getting antsy, so NBC ordered a few more.

And so it went for a few years. Positive buzz started building as people discovered this gem of a show and when the network moved it to Thursdays at 9:30 behind top rated CHEERS it really took off. And then of course, all these network executives who hated it, never understood it, and tried to kill it now took credit for it.

Hatching a successful sitcom is like winning the lottery. So many things have to fall in place, so many amazing people have to all be available to come together at the same time. What if Jason Alexander happened to be attached to another pilot? What if Larry David didn’t know Michael Richards from their days together on ABC’S FRIDAYS? What if Larry David were writing a movie and didn’t have time to create a TV show? Or if Carson wasn’t planning to retire? Or if NBC thought Johnny’s heir apparent should be Gallagher?

I marvel at SEINFELD. It’s hilarious, it’s inspired, it’s revolutionary, but most of all, it was given a rare opportunity (maybe one that will never come again) and it DELIEVERED. It truly was the “master of its own domain”.

18 comments:

zazupitts said...

Seemed like a wonderful mix of circumstances. The show could grow probably because of the stubboness of Larry not to veer from its course, regardless of the "research," opinions or other noise.

There's only one captain of a ship and, as the show's captain, Larry hammered this one.

Great lesson and neat story.

Nathan said...

Ken,

You said that Seinfeld was one of the few shows that had a voice - which other shows do you think did something similar?

Would Arrested Development or Scrubs be in the same area? Or are they just quirky?

Nathan

Sullivan said...

Your comment about the Paramount Facilities Manager reminded me of a pic on Flickr of graffiti supposedly found at Paramount Stage 24. It reads, "This stuff must sound so witty when guys first write it...huh?"

The pic can be found here. http://www.flickr.com/photos/peggyarcher/212883771/

benson said...

Ken,

Couldn't the same-the stars aligned just right-be said for a couple of your shows, MASH and Cheers? MASH, from what I read, at the outset, CBS didn't quite know what to do with, and all those timeslot changes. And Cheers benefitted from the situation NBC was in, in the early 80's and survived inspite of pretty awful early ratings.

andrew said...

Hi

I live in Singapore, halfway around the world from the states, and I was always amazed how the Seinfeld stories could resonate with me, even though our cultures are different. I remembered one classic episode where the entire story took place in a parking lot. I thought it was inspired. And that was just one of many many inspiring episodes, and i am not talking about the soup nazi. Or Baboo...Or that comic who kept saying..THAT'S GOLD, JERRY, THAT'S GOLD!

by the way, KEN, do you have any TAXI stories to share? what was it like writing for that show? any anecdotes to share?

also, do you think a show needs time to find its voice, so to speak? i always thought TAXI only found its footing in later seasons..when christopher lloyd came in..

what are your opinions?

thanks
andrew

DrBear said...

It must be one of God's little cosmic jokes that in one medium where you figuratively have unlimited time to develop characters (if your show's a hit) and a show can develop, grow and find an audience, the people who run that medium won't give any new show more than a week to prove itself. It's as if somebody built a bridge to an island where the poor could become rich and slapped a million dollar toll on it.

Dwacon said...

I agree with you word-for-word. However, consider how the "common denominator-centricity" of network TV is supposed to be circumvented by the "demographically targeted" model of cable TV. Would a Seinfeld make it if pitched to Nevins at HBO or Greenblatt at Showtime? Could the next Jerry and Larry create their show bare bones and run it on a web site like YouTube and build the requisite audience?

How's that for Socratic?

Joshua James said...

I agree one hundred percent. I love that they never went for the dramatic moment, only for the laughs.

One could argue that FRIENDS was only successful because Seinfield blazed the trail, fact, Seinfeld argued that very thing, I believe.

Also, Larry David worked with Julia Dreyfous on SNL - so he brought a lot of that.

I believe Brandon Tarkoff championed the show in the beginning, he liked it even though it didn't get great ratings in the beginning.

Of course, neither did Cheers in the beginning, right? I wish the networks were more patient, sometimes.

Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

I never heard all that about The Tonight Show. It's tough to picture Jay Leno in the role of Jerry.

Anonymous said...

Once again, entertaining, illuminating, and a little bit frightening. It sounds like the execs who clamor for originality are the same ones who thwart fresh ideas with their (ugh) "notes."

Beth Ciotta said...

Ditto to everything that 'anonymous' said.

Cage Free Brown said...

why does a medium that so often rewarded by [i]serendipity[/i] do everything it possibly can to micro-manage everything?

don't
make
sense

Jason said...

Ken,

I've read comments by one of the Seinfeld writers, Peter Mehlman I think, that the show was crafted differently than other sitcoms. The writers generally wrote episodes individually instead of communally in the writers' room. Is that your understanding and do you think that contributed to the show's unique voice? Love your blog BTW, read it every day.

Jason

Mike said...

Do you realize the nightmares I'll be having about Gallagher hosting the tonight show now?

Just imagine Gallagher interviewing George W. Bush during a campaign (and possibly promoting his own run for governor).

On second thought, probably best if you don't.

Rick said...

Oh, please. How can anybody call "Seinfeld" great? Where were the complex, multilayered social issues that were dealt with in superficial and simplistic terms? Where was the scene at the end of every episode where the protagonists discussed the lesson they'd learned? Where were the 30-second pep-talks or confrontations that caused someone to do a complete 180 degree change in attitude or beliefs? Where were the "very special episodes"? Where were the plot contrivances that would have seemed far-fetched on "I Married Joan"?

Will Teullive said...

Between the short-leashed network execs. and reality TV the sitcom that isn't a immediate hit is doomed to hit the scrap heap.

Seinfeld would have never made it today on regular TV. It might have been a hit on HBO, Showtime, or Cinemax. These are the only places with comedies worth watching today.

steve said...

Larry David said in an interview that before the show he was going nowhere in the business, but when he hooked up with Seinfeld it was like taking 200 steps forward. So I guess he recognises how fortuitous it all was.

Geno said...

Executives only incentive is proving their jobs are worthwhile. Since "Seinfeld" (nee: "The Seinfeld Chronicles") was meant as a throwaway/vanity-project, no executive bothered to dirty their feet with it, figuring it would be forgotten and done by show six.

Since "Seinfeld" flew under the radar (along with another thousand serendipitous factors), it was free to make i's own mark and become a success before some suit could reject it for not being something wonderful (i.e., the desperately sudden Park Overall vehicle "Nurses") they've seen before.

Whoever wrote studio/network execs' only goal is to justify their jobs couldn't be more right. That's the main reason execs shoot down scripts even though they've already signed off on them months and weeks ago during outline/treatment.

Writers scratch their heads and bitch and "This was already approved!" before being (basically forced) to go ahead and do whatever execs arbitrary changes regardless if they're lateral or, more than likely, a punch down.

Fellow drunken, slovenly, near-suicidal writers! Send this column to all writers, producers and executives (anonymously if you must) in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, original or slightly radical TV programming will occur with the help of the suits rather than in spite of them. Good luck, you'll need it. See you in Hell, Motherfucker!