From ‘Soup Nazi’ to Today Sponge: How ‘Seinfeld’ Became a Cultural Phenomenon

August 10, 2016 | , ,

“Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $26


“Seinfeld” aired its finale a little over 18 years ago, but the show hasn’t exactly gone away. Every day, reruns continue to air on stations all over the world, and last year, Hulu coughed up a reported $160 million for the right to stream all 180 episodes digitally. There may be a few television watchers out there who couldn’t pick Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer out of a lineup, but not many. And an enormous number of people, if prompted, can still summarize a dozen episodes’ intricate plots or spool out a series of the show’s catchphrases: “yada yada yada,” “close talker,” “master of his domain.”

What’s left to say about a show that was so celebrated during its nine-year run, and remains so familiar almost two decades later? Quite a bit, it turns out, as evidenced by Jennifer Keishen Armstrong’s “Seinfeldia,” a quirky, readable chronicle of the so-called “show about nothing” created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

Not that Armstrong’s nuts-and-bolts history of the sitcom, reconstructed from published material and her own interviews with many of its writers, contains many surprises. The end of the story just seems too inevitable: It may be news to some fans that, for example, Tony Shalhoub once read for the role of Kramer, but who else but Michael Richards could possibly have gotten it? The same goes for the rest of the cast and so many of the show’s other iconic elements, like its wordless, slap bass theme music and its establishing shot of Tom’s Restaurant on the Upper West Side. The partnership of Seinfeld and David and the way they pitched their show to NBC is itself already at least vaguely familiar to fans, if not from earlier profiles, books and articles, then from the show itself, which mined its own origins for an inspired meta-plotline about an NBC sitcom called “Jerry” in the fourth season.

Nonetheless — and despite not really making a case for how, per the book’s subtitle, the show “changed everything” — Armstrong’s narrative hums along, lively and studded with choice anecdotes. What she offers in her retellings of the familiar backstage stories is a palpable sense of the intensity that was required to create such a masterpiece. Despite the goofiness of his character, Richards was apparently a brooding perfectionist, unflinching in his pursuit of the funniest bit. Seinfeld and David, too, were fiercely committed to quality: They would hire a slate of observational comics, scour their real-life experiences for plot points, and then fire them and start over the next season — a kind of observational comedy strip mine. And, as Armstrong notes, the hours for the show’s staff could be grueling, much worse than on comparable sitcoms, especially after David’s departure in 1996, when the staff “would work for something like fifty-six days in a row without a break.” They could do so, because “no one had kids.” It was just a half-hour sitcom at the end of the day, but to make it into the cultural phenomenon it became, the actors, writers and producers put “Seinfeld” before absolutely everything else.

A show that required so much of its creators surely deserves an assiduous chronicler, but here and there, the history Armstrong provides feels worse than dutiful, its details a little too trivial — which is really saying something when her subject is the show that, at its best, transubstantiated trivialities into abiding art. Does anyone really care what color car the longtime “Seinfeld” writer Peter Mehlman happened to be driving in 1995, on the day he heard on the radio that the Today Sponge was being discontinued, inspiring a beloved episode? Just in case, Armstrong asked him, and lets us know.

Some granular detail of this variety might have helped clear up some of the questions that remain about the show’s treatment of Jewishness — but here too Armstrong doesn’t reveal much that isn’t already well known. She synthesizes deftly from existing sources, giving a stylized account of the network’s initial concern that the show would come off as “too Jewish,” and outlining responses by critics and the Jewish community, such as the 1996 scholarly symposium at Stanford University where Alfred Kazin dismissed the show as insufficiently weighty while others celebrated it for bringing Jewish voices and cultural artifacts to the attention of a broad television audience. On the question of the Constanzas’ ethnicity, Armstrong quotes Jerry Stiller, who virtuosically played George’s father, Frank, and called them “a Jewish family in the witness protection program.”

Armstrong’s most revealing remark on the subject — and the book’s lone “personal note” — is that when she watched the show in the 1990s with her family in the Midwest, she “thought nothing of Seinfeld’s ethnic background.” She was hardly alone. The founder of an early “Seinfeld” internet fan page, Adam Rainbolt, tells her that he enjoyed it “even though he ‘didn’t even know what Jewish people were.’”

But the fact that a show like “Seinfeld,” explicitly invoking Jewishness in many plots and in its settings and rhythms, could not register as such to intelligent viewers bears more examination. How many “Seinfeld” viewers remained in the dark on this question, and for how long? When Jewish subjects came up explicitly on the show — whether George’s kosher girlfriend or a bar mitzvah — how did such viewers receive them? Unfortunately Armstrong does not pursue answers to these questions, sticking to published reviews and reactions and not probing deeper into her own experience as a fan.

If not in its narrative of the show’s founding and development and not in its treatment of Jewishness, Armstrong’s book makes its greatest contribution in its reporting on what she calls “The Bizarros,” those real-life people and institutions whose histories intertwined, inextricably, with the show’s, blurring the line between the real and imagined with all the verve of a postmodern novelist.

She tells the story of how Jeremiah Bosgang, one of the NBC executives who’d helped to get “Seinfeld” off the ground, later auditioned to play the role of Jeremiah Bosgang on the show, only to be told they decided to “go in a different direction.” She offers substantial detail on how the J. Peterman Company, a real business based in Kentucky, was so emboldened by the free publicity it received from the show that it over-expanded and soon had to declare bankruptcy. She follows Larry Thomas, who played the “Soup Nazi” for a few minutes on television, as he discovers he can make a living, indefinitely, getting into costume and screaming, “No soup for you!” to delighted fans at autograph conventions. The profiles go on and on, from the extra who modeled for the poster of a fictional movie (“Rochelle, Rochelle”), to the brains behind two “Seinfeld”-related Twitter accounts.

Complex legacies and intricate fan responses aren’t as unique to the “Seinfeld” universe as Armstrong sometimes implies — and she never tells us if or how George Steinbrenner’s life changed after David portrayed him — but there is something about the way the show deliberately played up its relationships to real people and landmarks from the outset that makes it more than just trivial to learn about these odd afterlives. The territory of “Seinfeldia,” ably mapped by Armstrong, constitutes an extreme example of how even before reality television, pop culture and life just couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

If no one has forgotten the show, it has been harder to remember just how massive a phenomenon it was. At the height of its popularity, when it was the No. 1 show on American television, 30 million people tuned in to “Seinfeld” each week. Closer to a 100 million watched the finale. Armstrong’s “Seinfeldia” fittingly celebrates it as a landmark, perhaps the last truly great network show.

That “Seinfeld” was a watershed in comedy and mass media need not be argued. But now that television audiences have shrunk and segmented, and most movies don’t reach as widely as they once did, it’s worth wondering: Have we sufficiently considered what it means that the 150 hours of “Seinfeld” might turn out to be, second only to the Torah, the most widely consumed Jewish story in human history?

[Originally published in Haaretz.]