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“They don’t use the star system here,” says Jerry Seinfeld, as he and Larry David trudge up the mall stairs to a coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard. “That’s why I like it.” Sure enough, they put their names on a list and are told there’s a 10-minute wait. Actually, it is 25 minutes before a table is cleared for the creators of TV’s hottest sitcom.
Seinfeld and David are old friends from stand-up-comedy days, and their lunchtime banter has a comfortable, genuinely amused air. After a woman who once worked with David stops by to say hello, Seinfeld comments, “He has more friends, older friends, than anybody I know. It’s like a museum of cars that are maintained for hundreds of years beyond their useful life.”
Jerry is just the opposite, says David: “He has no obligatory phone calls. That’s how he keeps his friends.” “All my friends are comedians. They don’t care. No one takes offense.”
“And I walk around wondering who’s hating me this particular day.”
Sounds like material for a couple of Seinfeld episodes right there, but on this particular day, more pressing work is at hand. After lunch the two will repair to the Seinfeld offices on the Studio City lot across the street to rewrite this week’s script — a script that is already late and getting later. Yet they seem unfazed; on the Seinfeld show, scrambling to keep up is business as usual.
Now in its fifth season on NBC, Seinfeld is in its glory days. Last winter, moved to a Thursday-night time slot following Cheers, the show vaulted into the Nielsen Top 10. This fall, without Cheers’ help, it’s in the Top 5. Against all odds, this hip, insider sitcom about a comedian (Seinfeld playing Seinfeld) and his three Manhattan friends has expanded its appeal beyond a core audience of yuppie tastemakers. It’s that rarity — intelligent comedy that is funny enough for everybody.
According to the popular wisdom, Seinfeld is a show about “nothing.” Episodes are spun out of small, everyday trials and tribulations — looking for a parking spot, wearing a funny-looking shirt, trying not to masturbate (last season’s Emmy-winning episode The Contest, in which the characters competed to be “master of your domain”). In reality, the show is more densely textured, elaborately plotted and psychologically astute than any other comedy on TV. It is, moreover, the product of two distinct but oddly congruent comic personalities: David, 46, a dour ex-stand-up comic and writer (he appeared in ABC’s failed late-night show Fridays and spent one season writing for Saturday Night Live, where only one of his sketches ever aired), and Seinfeld, 39, a star who is just as active behind the scenes. Early last month, they gave TIME an inside glimpse of how they bring a Seinfeld episode to fruition.
THE SEED: “The hardest part of this show is coming up with the ideas,” says David. A Seinfeld premise is different from that of most other TV comedies; instead of a generic sitcom “problem” (Murphy’s mother comes to visit; Roseanne hates Darlene’s new boyfriend), Seinfeld typically starts with a small, recognizable life moment that causes outsize anguish. Says David: “I like something tiny that just expands.”
The Barber, like most Seinfeld episodes, expanded from a writer’s real-life experience. Andy Robin, 24, a former Saturday Night Live writer who joined the Seinfeld staff this season, remembered the anxiety he felt about switching barbers, from the old man who had cut his hair for years to a younger barber in the same shop. “It was like breaking up with your lover,” he says. He proposed an episode in which Jerry goes through similar angst after a bad haircut.
David and Seinfeld liked the idea. But with four main characters to showcase, a Seinfeld episode needs several stories going at the same time. Robin had another embarrassing moment to offer. Last year, when he was free- lancing TV scripts, he pitched an idea for a Seinfeld episode to David. Though David liked the idea, Robin left the meeting unsure whether he had a firm assignment or not. Why not put George (Jason Alexander), the hapless job seeker, in a similar dilemma? At the end of an upbeat job interview, the company president says, “I want you to have this job. Of course . . .” A phone call interrupts, and George is ushered out the door, befuddled.
THE SCRIPT: The show’s outline set, Robin starts to work in late July. He writes two drafts of the script, getting input from David and from supervising producer (and David’s chief lieutenant) Larry Charles. The barbers evolve into Italian brothers; after getting a bad haircut from Enzo, Jerry “cheats” on him by making a secret assignation with Gino. Meanwhile, George, unsure whether he has the job, decides to show up at work anyway. The tricky part is getting the show’s other main characters, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards), into the action. Robin comes up with a subplot involving a barber chair that they both want to buy.
Seinfeld and David like the episode, but have problems with the second half. “Act Two,” says Seinfeld, “is what separates the men from the boys.” The chief problem is the Kramer-Elaine subplot, which doesn’t seem to go anywhere. They decide to replace it with an entirely new story line, in which the barbers’ nephew arrives from Italy to claim the chair that once belonged to his late father, only to find that Elaine has bought it, precipitating a family crisis.
Most sitcoms are run by committee; the writers get together regularly to revise or “punch up” scripts. Not on Seinfeld. David and Seinfeld themselves write the last draft of every script. Sitting at abutting desks in David’s office, they labor over The Barber for three days. The clock is ticking. Seinfeld’s weekly production cycle starts on Wednesday and ends with a Tuesday-night taping. But this week’s script won’t be ready until Saturday — inordinately late. Even with the taping pushed back to Wednesday, the cast and crew will have to work all weekend.
THE TABLE: The pivotal event of a Seinfeld week is the table reading, when the actors get their first chance to read the script and the producers can see how it plays. On Saturday afternoon, a dozen actors and writers gather around a long picnic table on the Seinfeld set, scripts in hand. With director Tom Cherones interpolating stage directions, the actors perform The Barber. David fills in as one of the barbers himself, offering a florid Italian accent. There is much laughter and applause at the end.
The next stop is David’s office, for the “notes” session. This is where network and studio executives make their comments and suggestions. For new shows, or ones that are struggling, these meetings can be difficult and tense. For a proven winner like Seinfeld, they are relatively painless.
“It’s very funny. I have no notes,” says Todd Schwartz, the representative from NBC.
Glenn Padnick, a partner in Castle Rock Entertainment (the show’s production company), raises one problem. “Are you concerned about the absence of Kramer from the last part of the show?” This has occurred to David, but he is unsure what can be done. Padnick suggests that Kramer might take a more active role in mediating between Jerry’s warring barbers. Seinfeld wonders whether Jerry can have his secret barber assignation in Kramer’s apartment. David takes a few notes but makes no comment.
Generally, the day has gone well. “It was a very good reading,” says Seinfeld. “This is when most other shows go into the panic mode.” David is not quite so confident. “Actually,” he says, “I was a little disappointed.” Maybe it’s the Saturday-afternoon blahs, he muses. “I’ll have to see it on its feet.”
THE CRISIS: The show struggles to its feet on Sunday morning, as Cherones leads the cast in blocking and rehearsing scenes. This is an unusual Seinfeld show in that the guest stars — the Italian barbers — have a dominant role. Richards in particular seems to be groping for something to do in a long scene in which Kramer sits in the barber chair while the two Italians have an argument. One of the actors spontaneously reaches for Richards’ lapels to emphasize a point. “Don’t grab me,” Richards snaps, out of character. “I’m not a pork chop!” It is not a joke.
But it may be a forewarning. In mid-afternoon the cast performs a run- through for David. He watches, then retreats quietly to his office.
“It wasn’t working,” David says later. “The Italian element was too dominant. It didn’t feel like our show.” Seinfeld agrees: “We had created this Italian barber opera. It was a little overwrought.”
The remedy they come up with is drastic: they junk the entire story about the nephew from Italy (the barber brothers become nephew and uncle) and look for another subplot that will utilize Kramer and Elaine. David assembles the few writers who are around on Sunday for an emergency brainstorming session. Robin suggests that Jerry’s bad haircut force him to cancel some plans with Elaine. Larry Charles proposes a bachelor auction for charity; when Jerry can’t go, Elaine has to take Kramer instead.
It’s a neat solution, but time is short. Changes are often made late in Seinfeld scripts, but they’re rarely this big, this late. “I wasn’t panicky,” says David. “I was depressed because I had to do more work.” In a furious Sunday-night session, David does one more rewrite (Charles helps out by writing the bachelor-auction scene). He works until 10 p.m. and comes in early the next morning for some final changes. By Monday, the cast has a new script to learn and rehearse.
THE SHOW: On Wednesday night, a studio audience gathers for a show that finally seems to be in good shape. Despite a four-hour session of stops and starts, camera set-ups and retakes, the crowd is enthusiastic. When Jerry doffs a baseball cap to reveal his bad haircut, the audience roars. There is one technical glitch: at the bachelor auction, Richards does a virtuoso bit of prancing buffoonery to a silent house. The set is off to the side, nearly out of audience view, and the video monitors supposed to bring it to them are not working. “I couldn’t ride that wave of laughter,” says Richards.
Oh well, the laughing will be added later. Much will be subtracted too: a rough cut of the show is a hefty six minutes long. All in all, David is happy. “It was a tougher show than usual,” he says. “But it all seemed to work.” When the show airs a week from Thursday, viewers can decide for themselves whether he’s right.
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