Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster
Seinfeld – the “Show about nothing” – is now revered as a comedy classic. It wasn’t even a modest hit at first, it could have gone the way of Herman’s Head and those sorts of late night nearly-cult shows…its network did its near-best to bury it. Somehow the show survived. The cast solidified, the writing improved, the point of its, well, pointlessness started to, er, take.
A couple of seasons in Seinfeld meant something. By season four it was appointment viewing.
The show’s run – 1989-1998 – circles about in re-runs now, there’s a full box-set or bite-sized season recaps. It directly inspired Curb Your Enthusiasm, which took the template further out toward the uncomfortable, and its writing – the focus on long-running character quirks and tying everything up together at the end but, crucially, without the feel-good hugs or the characters actually learning anything – has been not only a new template for sitcoms sitting outside of the cookie-cutter but also television’s now golden age.
Capturing all of this is Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, an entertainment writer who has covered The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of just a small handful of TV shows that occupied the sort of space Seinfeld now does as culture-shaping catchall, and stopped short of interviewing craft services when compiling this book about Seinfeld’s history and the universe it created.
Seinfeldia refers to the world that exists now outside of and around the fictional characters and episodes – the constant quoting, the references that resonated from muffin-tops to being master of your own domain, the euphemisms and yadda-yadda-yaddas…
So this book offers killer trivia and history notes, as well as working forward in a narrative that expresses the very real triumph of workaholic comic writers, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld; their all-hours approach eventually gave the show its unique voice and saw it succeed. But in the early days it could have toppled at any moment. It felt doomed.
You’ll learn about “the real Kramer’s” life based around the show – he inspires the character and that character then inspires a creative outlet for income, almost a loophole.
So many of Seinfeld’s colourful bit-parts were inspired by real people and corporations so we get to hear how all of that was wrangled; we hear also about the other casting choices for George – Nathan Lane and Danny DeVito among the options. Elaine was a late arrival, the show originally playing off an idea for a diner-styled scenario with a wise-cracking waitress breaking up the boys-club.
What makes this book succeed is Armstrong’s ability to thread together the research into a compelling narrative – we have the argument for Seinfeld as this great cultural force, but we also have the Little Engine That Could story first; the stranger-than-fiction scenarios where the man that inspired The Soup Nazi struggled to stay in business after grudgingly embracing the publicity the show brought his way. Meanwhile, the actor who took on that Soup Nazi character makes the greater part of his living from turning up and signing items and shouting catch-phrases.
That’s the crazy world of this most important comedy series.
And the best compliment here is that as with a great music bio that rushes you back to the shelves to find and re-listen to all of your favourite but somehow forgotten music, Seinfeldia begs you to stream, pounce upon or purchase up those legendary half-hour shows, line them up and fall in love all over again with so many close-to-despicable, charmless and hilariously pitch-perfect characters.