By Stephen Ostrowski | September 14, 2016 | People
There’s a lot to say about nothing—that is, the ‘show about nothing,’ the unofficial slogan bequeathed to aberrant '90s TV show Seinfeld, which continues to be the subject of intrigue and examination—including Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s latest tome, Seinfeldia, a madcap origin story chronicling the show’s roots, on-air life, and subsequent pop culture immortality. Amidst a speaking tour in her native Chicago, Armstrong dissected the irreverent phenomenon that keeps on GIFing.
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.
Nearly two decades after the completion of the show and after so much literature and critical analysis has already been published on Seinfeld, what prompted you to add to the collective Seinfeld conversation?
JENNIFER KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: I was really into the idea of kind of telling what I call the ‘complete history,’ which is starting at the beginning but also all the way up until now. I think it’s really important to talk about its afterlife. It’s actually got, I think—I don’t want to say a more vibrant afterlife than its actual life—but it's pretty close. It almost feels like it’s one continuous thing. It really feels like it almost never went off the air because it’s still so present in our lives.
Can you distill what ‘Seinfeldia’ as a concept means?
JKA: I noticed while I was doing my research that a part of its longevity is the fact that there’s this kind of little alternate dimension—that’s how I was imagining it, that’s what I call ‘Seinfeldia’—between the fiction of Seinfeld and reality. And since the show’s inception and all the way through till now, this sort of weird vortex allows fans to continue to interact with it in real life.
So it’s mainly because so much of it was inspired by real life. The Soup Nazi is based on a real person and he [Al Yeganeh] still sells soup in New York City; you can go to his soup stand on 55th Street. He also sells soups now as Original Soupman in supermarkets. And the best part about this is that his spokesman is the guy who played him on the show, Larry Thomas, who has made basically his living for the past couple of decades playing the Soup Nazi. And this is a character he played once on a TV show 20-something years ago.
And there’s a whole bunch of these what I call the “bizarros”. There’s him, there’s Kenny Kramer: the real Kramer, who the character of [Cosmo] Kramer is based on, he was Larry David’s neighbor in New York City; he still lives in the same building. And Kenny gives bus tours of sights from the show in New York City.
Kenny Kramer, what is he like in real life? Is Cosmo Kramer an accurate projection of the real-life Kenny Kramer—is he really that high-voltage character that he seems to be?
JKA: The physical part isn’t quite there. That’s definitely an invention of Michael Richards, a genius with physical comedy. So he’s not constantly like flipping over furniture or sliding into rooms or stuff like that. But I see it. I definitely see the seed of the character in him. Like he’s always got his little schemes, but you don’t really understand what he does all day for a living. He’s very charming and affable and fun.
Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.
Does anyone seem to regret that their life is forever defined by what is essentially a few minutes on one episode of a television show? Or, do you think everyone pretty much happily embraces the phenomenon?
JKA: Well the guy who was the Soup Nazi really did not for a very, very long time. Which is why it’s kind of extraordinary that he only just signed Larry Thomas to be his spokesman like last year. And it was this very slow level of acceptance for obvious reasons, I suppose.
And even to a lesser extent, [recurring Seinfeld character, clothing catalogue magnate] J. Peterman, the real J. Peterman, had kind of a weird situation where his business became incredibly known because he had a whole character who kept coming on, based on him, on the show. But in his zeal to capitalize on that, which made sense, like ‘I’m on the biggest show on television, I’m gonna open a bunch of chain stores’ and all kinds of other things that he had not originally been planning on doing—and he ended up going bankrupt because he expanded too quickly, and he said that part of the problem was no one understood that J. Peterman was a real person. So they recognized the name, but it didn’t translate into sales. So he has recovered, and he actually recovered adorably with the help of an investment from the guy who played him on the TV show, John O’Hurley. So you can still buy things online from J. Peterman, but it was not always an easy road.
Having to go up against [Seinfeld creators] Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David for comedic approval must have been mentally and emotionally daunting. Did you get the sense that anyone really felt like they were just chewed up and spat out completely?
JKA: I think some did. I will say also I believe that there’s a little bit of a selection error in the sense that probably the people who chose to talk to me about it had adjusted, had accepted their experience on some level. A huge part was, first of all, that they often replaced a lot of the writers each year. The way I saw it was that they would kind of like mine these writers for their ideas, for their real-life experiences that they could use in plot lines, they’d use them and then they were like, ‘thank you,’ and now you’re on your way. [But] a lot of the people I talked to, even though they had been let go after a year, went on to do a bunch of other things, because they were in huge demand after being on Seinfeld.
[Former Seinfeld writer] Fred Stoller, was one of my favorites to talk to; he’s written and talked extensively about his sort of negative experience on the show, but I loved hearing his perspective because I felt like it really illuminated why it was so hard. If you were not buddies with Jerry and Larry already, and you were not assertive—which Fred was not—[it was] very difficult, because you’d basically have to get their attention to pitch them and they’re really busy. And you’d have to get four stories approved, one for each character, before you could even outline. Then you’d work on the outline, and then you’d get that approved, and then you’d start writing the script and then Larry and Jerry would rewrite it.
So it was a really arduous process that I can’t believe even produced one half hour of television much less all of these. I was fascinated by that because most other shows, the writers all work together in what’s called a writer’s room. This was every man for himself and this just incredibly difficult process to go through, which I think makes it great, but also, like I said, makes it astounding that they made 180 of them.
Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, and Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld.
Are there any case studies that didn’t make the final print that you would’ve liked to include, whether it’s an anecdote or a general theme or observation that you had?
JKA: I really got into how Seinfeld is translated in other countries. And there were certain countries where it’s surprisingly not popular. Like there’s some [places] where it really is. Asian countries love it, India loves it, South America loves it, Australia is obsessed with it. One of the things that I got really interested in was, “Why isn’t it that popular in Europe? That’s so surprising to me.” Because it has a lot of sort of avant-garde qualities. I mean, that might be pushing it, but you know what I mean, it’s cool. It’s not like a traditional sitcom in America.
And so when I looked into it, it turns out they usually dub; they usually do the overdubbing thing, and that means they have to translate it first, and it’s really hard to translate, because it’s based so much on language jokes, essentially. There’s so many things that just don’t translate right. Whereas something like Friends is so much more straightforward that you just translate the jokes, whereas Seinfeld—the one example I used extensively in this piece that I did was, the one where Jerry can’t remember his girlfriend’s name and it rhymes with part of the female anatomy. You can see how that becomes massively difficult very quickly. Because the word has to rhyme, but it has to rhyme in your language, and then you have to figure out a name and part of the female anatomy in your language that will rhyme with that. There’s a lot that you have to do."
Do you think Seinfeld will have an expiration date on its legacy when our collective nostalgia for it starts to wither, or do you truly think that since it’s so tailor-made for this build-and-rebuild and copy-and-paste era of the Internet where it can live on, on Instagram or Twitter, do you think it will be the exception? Like, do you see our children and our grandchildren watching Seinfeld?
JKA: I think I do. To me it seems more suited to now—that’s an overstatement a little bit, because obviously it has very 90’s qualities too—but it definitely feels as suited to now as then. Mainly because of the Internet. I really think it’s an Internet show: It bears repetition, people want to overanalyze it; I think it was weirdly before its time in that way. It’s so suited to Internet viewing, like recapping, live-blogging, and memes, and all this stuff, and GIFs; it really lends itself very, very well to that. Now it’s on Hulu; that has helped tremendously because the one thing is that kids don’t watch TV the way we did, the way old people did. Hulu’s really going to help that.
PHOTOGRAPH BY A. JESSE JIRYU DAVIS (HEADSHOT); Courtesy Simon and Schuster (BOOK); BY Andrew Eccles/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images (CAST)
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