Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.
Seinfeld the show and Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld the writers, succeeded because of talent, luck, and culture. In her book, Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong takes us to the set, through the history, and into once in a lifetime experience. What are the chances that another show’s finale will have commercials that cost more than those for the Super Bowl?
Seinfeld got his XMBAs at comedy clubs in college. Armstrong wrote, “He used his attendance at Manhattan comedy clubs as a kind of independent study. He analyzed comics’ approach to their material and even wrote a forty-page paper on the subject.”
David too took his turn on the stage, though he was more petulant. He needed Jerry as a ballast for the ship known as S.S. Televisionvision Show. Roz Hewsenian warned Ted Seides about brilliant grouches, “Do they recognize their own shortcoming and do they pair themselves with somebody who’s is sane?”
David, Seinfeld, and the show also benefitted from great talent around them; Julia Louis Dreyfus with her SNL and acting experience, Jason Alexander and his classic training, Michael Richardson and his physicality. Like Bryan Mills, they had a very particular set of skills.
On set, the culture was good, but tough. Culture isn’t about great craft food’s tables, it’s about great work with great people. Mike Reiss said about The Simpsons (who were almost network mates with Seinfeld) “Maybe that’s the key to the show’s longevity – there’s no drama at our comedy show. The Simpsons keeps rolling along because everyone gets along: the cast, the animators, and the writers all respect each other.”
Like The Simpsons, Seinfeld was mostly left alone. In Bill Belichick’s words, it was a do your job set. This surprised Alexander. “As soon as Alexander got the full pilot script, he noticed a major difference between The Seinfeld Chronicles and other shows he’d done. The pages contained few to no behavioral cues or stage directions; they had nothing but dialogue.”
NBC network executive Rick Ludwin, Armstrong wrote, “was known for protecting the creative talent behind the shows he supervised.” He told another executive to let Larry and Jerry make the show they wanted, “even when the network didn’t understand what the producers were doing”
This decentralized command was even celebrated. Armstrong again:
“In this spirit, Seinfeld celebrated its hundredth episode with a one-hour retrospective special on February 2, 1995. At the hundredth-episode party stood a centerpiece, a ten-foot-tall blowup of NBC executives’ list of requested changes to the pilot way back when. Almost none of them had been made.”
Seinfeld and staff needed this support because they were doing something different. Jerry said that early pitches for writers were, “all these sitcom ideas. I tell them we don’t want sitcom ideas. I tell them what we don’t want to do, but it’s hard to explain what we do want.”
Great shows are different. A network executive, Jeff Sagansky, agreed, “All hits are flukes.”
After the show finished, Seinfeld said that uniqueness came from newness – in the people writing and running the show – “this is a model that all networks subsequently ignored and never did again, except for HBO. That’s a network that hires people that they like and says that’s the end of their job.”
But Seinfeld wasn’t too different. Derek Thompson wrote about the Most Acceptable Yet Advanced (MAYA) theory. He suggested that cultural hits are different but not too different. There’s a Goldilocks zone.
Larry and Jerry found the sweet spot with fresh faces. The writer turnover was high because Larry and Jerry used those personal histories like raw materials and their writers like an assembly line. Many of the stories germinated in reality. For example, when they hired Carol Leifer they tapped the reality of woman, an often overlooked part of the room.
After nine seasons, Jerry turned down an offer for five million dollars an episode. He reflected, “I didn’t want to twist a dry sponge.” The finale was the third most watched in TV history (MAS*H & Cheers). TV Land broadcast a static door during it.
Larry needed Jerry and Jerry needed Larry and while Seinfeld got his public praise early and often, David got less. But he was just as important. “People won a lot of acclaim and a lot of awards for Larry’s work,’ writer Alec Berg said of the scores of scripts credited to staffers but heavily revised by David.”
Fellow Larry – Bird – said something similar about LeBron James. “[Former Pacers’ GM David] Morway was trying to get me to trade for them [J.J. Hickson and a selection of other teammates of James], but I ain’t takin’ any of them fucking guys up there…I said ‘you don’t understand son. Them guys playing with LeBron James look a whole lot better than what they really are.’”
Conditions matter. In an FT conversation, Vitalik Buterin rants about Bitcoin Bulls, “It’s the luck of the draw, where everyone who won the draw seems to feel like they deserved it for being smarter, ‘I was loyal and I was virtuous and I held through and therefore I deserve to have my five mansions and 23 lambos!’ ”
Seinfeld was one of a kind once in a lifetime creation. It might have been the last show to join the zeitgeist with staying power. But it worked because of the professionalism, creativity, and camaraderie of the people who made it.
Thanks for reading.