'They started to sneak Jewish things in. It gets more apparent as they get more confident'

A sitcom for the rest of us: ‘Seinfeld’ two decades later

‘Seinfeldia’ author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong examines how the show about nothing changed our culture forever

Jerry Seinfeld wearing the shirt that inspired a viral comparison to Melania Trump 20 years later. (Screenshot: Youtube)
Jerry Seinfeld wearing the shirt that inspired a viral comparison to Melania Trump 20 years later. (Screenshot: Youtube)

Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention last month sparked endless controversy — specifically, the portions of it that were stunningly similar to those delivered by Michelle Obama eight years ago.

However, what received additional buzz on social media weren’t Ms. Trump’s words, but the billowy white dress with puffy cuffs she wore while giving it.

Bearing a likeness to the puffy “pirate shirt” worn by Jerry in a memorable episode of the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld, the dress has been mocked by Twitter users claiming that Melania plagiarized her outfit, too. A satirical side-by-side pic of the two quickly followed.

Seinfeld officially ended in 1998, but its 180 episodes featuring the four self-absorbed characters Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine remain seemingly alive and perpetually relevant. Examining the show’s history and steadfast appeal is journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong with her new book “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything” (Simon & Schuster).

Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Times of Israel caught up with Armstrong at her home office in Manhattan to discuss how the sitcom, which concluded almost two decades ago, continues to mesmerize today.

The Times of Israel: You are a Chicago native. Can you tell us about your childhood in the Windy City and how you came to write books on TV history?

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong: I was sort of always a pop culture nerd from very small. I used to love getting The TV Guide in the mail because that is how we used to know what was on television. I would sit and circle all the shows I wanted to watch and read all the articles. So, that was clearly indicative of my future career. When I was at Entertainment Weekly — I was there for 10 years — I ended up specializing in television and television business and from there I started writing about television. That’s how it all came together.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of 'Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.' (Jesse Jiryu Davis)
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of ‘Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.’ (Jesse Jiryu Davis)

What propelled you to write a book about Seinfeld?

The boring and honest answer was through conversations with my publisher, but actually there aren’t a lot of shows that you can write a whole book about. Even if you really love the show it doesn’t mean that it warrants a book. But Seinfeld in terms of TV history has one of the most interesting stories. Moreover, it’s history continues up until this day because people watch it so much in reruns and now in streaming that it remains really vibrant in everyday culture and conversation. People not only watch it, but also still talk about it everyday.

What’s particularly unusual about Seinfeld is that there seem to be more people who have come to love the show in syndication than when it was on the air.

Yeah, we all know that it’s made a gazillion dollars in syndication and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to quit anytime soon. That’s extraordinary because usually something goes into syndication and then people get tired of it and it fades out rather quickly. However, like you said, whole new generations of people keep discovering it via the reruns and I’m guessing now that it’s on Hulu that will start happening there as well.

Cover of 'Seinfeldia.' (Courtesy Simon and Schuster)
Cover of ‘Seinfeldia.’ (Courtesy Simon and Schuster)

Your previous book was about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Are the two sitcoms similar in any way?

Well, fun fact, The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of Jerry Seinfeld’s favorite shows. A lot of standup comedians watched it because it was on late at night in reruns and when they’d get home — at least in New York — it was on at the exactly the right time for them to watch. I loved this weird little fact. I learned that they would all discuss last night’s rerun of The Mary Tyler Moore Show the next day at the club. Also, the biggest thing is that these are both shows that helped to push the form forward and helped to reinvent sitcoms of the time, as well as had a great lasting influence on popular culture and on sitcoms that came after.

I was surprised to discover in your book that initially reception to Seinfeld (then titled The Seinfeld Chronicles) wasn’t so hot. Could you tell us a little about those early shows and why it wasn’t quickly cancelled?

This is why Seinfeld is a good story and more than “Hey, there was this cool sitcom that was on TV.” If you watch the early episodes, especially the pilot, it’s very weird. Elaine wasn’t in the pilot. She didn’t exist yet. If you’re used to the “classic Seinfeld” when you go back to see those first few shows you’ll wonder what has happened. It’s very quiet and definitely slower. It’s just what they had originally pitched, which is two guys talking. Jerry and George are talking about stuff and there are no interlocking plotlines. I don’t even think there’s a B plot much less a C and D plot in those first episodes. Kramer was a very different character. He knocks before he comes in. He’s a shut in. Even George is playing a Woody Allen-like character and he’s giving Jerry advice about women, which is very strange. We all know that Jerry later becomes this ridiculous ladies man and George is completely clueless.

‘We all know that Jerry later becomes this ridiculous ladies man and George is completely clueless’

It definitely took some time for them to figure out what they were doing, but at least a couple of executives at NBC at the time led by Rick Ludwin who was in charge of Late Night and Specials really believed in the show even though the network decided not to pick it up after the pilot got poor reviews.

Ludwin really liked Jerry and his sensibility. He thought there was something funny with Seinfeld. The way he got the next season was that he gave up a Bob Hope Special that was scheduled for the year in order to get the budget for Seinfeld. A Special is two hours and he used that budget to make four half-hour Seinfeld shows. They put them on the following summer and that’s when Seinfeld started to show some promise. That’s when they were seeing that people who had tuned-in to watch Cheers reruns, which were running immediately before the new Seinfeld shows were staying to watch Seinfeld. That’s when they went, “Hmm…maybe there’s something here,” and then they gave them a 13-episode order for the following mid-season. So, it was a very uphill slog, but it was also made possible by the faith of some network executives.

The character of George is often said to be close to writer Larry David’s real personality. Why didn’t David instead of Alexander play the role of George?

I don’t think it even occurred to Larry David at the time. He had enough with writing the scripts. By the way, David was always freaking out about whether he had enough material, which is funny considering they eventually made more than a 100 Seinfeld episodes.

Also, David wasn’t a star then. Yes, he was a standup comedian, but he wasn’t as much of a star as Jerry. Jerry had already been doing a lot of the late night shows and was fairly famous. David playing himself just wasn’t something that was in the cards at the time. We know things changed later. He now plays himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but a lot had to progress before that could happen.

The cast of Seinfeld. (Wikimedia Commons, Andromedoide)
The cast of Seinfeld. (Wikimedia Commons, Andromedoide)

How was the female character, Elaine, introduced to the show?

When they came back from the pilot the big stipulation was that they had to add a woman. This was one of the few things that was imposed on them and happened. It seems like it was a good idea, I think, because Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s energy really adds something.

Seinfeld is the creative baby of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. In Chapter 1 of your book you recount how they came up with the show. Could you speak a bit about their individual strengths and how the two complemented each another?

I always say, and I’m sure not the first person to say this, but they have a kind of Lennon and McCartney vibe to them where they’re better together even though they’re amazing separately as well. It seems like they balanced each other out really nicely in their sensibilities. If you look at Jerry Seinfeld’s standup comedy it’s been very consistent. It’s observational, but very clean and really just focused on everyday little struggles. Larry David is interested in those everyday struggles as well, but he has a much darker side to him. I think if you’re going to have it be a mainstream hit — it’s surprising that the show was a mainstream hit at all — you’ve got to have Jerry Seinfeld balancing out the Larry David. Personally, I really appreciate the Larry David sensibility that makes it a little darker, edgier and cerebral. Also, I don’t think that Curb Your Enthusiasm comes on the scene without Seinfeld. It’s a much more acquired taste because it’s a lot stronger.

Jerry Seinfeld’s parents were extremely supportive of their son’s decision to pursue a career in comedy. Could you tell us a little about Larry David’s background?

Jason Alexander, left, and Larry David speak onstage during the 2015 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions/JTA)
Jason Alexander, left, and Larry David speak onstage during the 2015 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions/JTA)

Actually, I don’t know a lot about his family life. He hasn’t talked that much about it. I have no idea if it’s a secret. I do know that Jerry Seinfeld and him have a lot of bonding points. They are both New Yorkers and even though Jerry grew up in the suburbs of New York, he was born in NYC and came back to the city later. They both love baseball. They’re both Jewish. Honestly, there’s a hugely Jewish sensibility to Seinfeld and to both of their comedy. There’s a definite connection between what they do on Seinfeld and the more traditional borsch-belt kind of stuff.

Tell us more about the show’s “Jewish sensibility.” Would you go so far as to say it’s quintessentially a Jewish sitcom that became mainstream?

Oh yeah, for sure. They weren’t going to synagogue every week or anything, but they started to sneak Jewish things in. It gets more apparent as they get more confident. I wrote a little about this in a blog post. I was a Midwestern girl. I grew up in the South suburbs of Chicago where the fact that I wasn’t Catholic was weird. I’m not kidding. I was the exotic one who was Orthodox Christian instead of Catholic. I knew one Jewish girl and she moved away after a few years. I knew nothing about Jewish culture and basically my first big entry into Jewish culture was Seinfeld and suddenly I was asking what’s this “babka” business.

‘There’s a hugely Jewish sensibility to Seinfeld and to both of their comedy’

It’s more of a cultural thing than a religious thing on the show, but they do have an episode about Elaine’s shiksa appeal that comes from them going to a bar mitzvah. It comes into play more and more as the show goes on. There’s also this strange disconnect with George Costanza. His last name is Costanza but his parents come off as pretty Jewish. Jerry Stiller, who plays his dad, is Jewish. There are implications that maybe his mother is Jewish and his father is Italian. That’s how they kind of bridge that gap eventually. It’s very obvious from Curb Your Enthusiasm that Larry David is very interested in exploring Judaism through his comedy.

What do you think makes all four characters on Seinfeld so lovable and relatable?

[Armstrong giggles wildly before responding.] I don’t know about lovable, but that’s one of my favorite things about them honestly. Relatable, absolutely and that’s what makes them lovable. It’s not their sweet characters, but that we get what they’re going through. They give voice to what we go through everyday. I think the key to the characters is that they kind of do and say the things that we wish we had the guts to say or do. I’m not sure I want to go around acting like George Costanza but he’s giving voice to that side of us.

One of my favorite things that the writers told me when I interviewed them was that Larry David had told them to use stuff that happened to them in their real lives as inspiration for their story lines. He wanted them to have the characters do what they wish they had done in a particular situation. To me that encapsulates Seinfeld’s appeal. They’re doing things we wish we had the guts to do or say in annoying situations.

Jerry Seinfeld performs in Tel Aviv on December 19, 2015. (Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Jerry Seinfeld performs in Tel Aviv on December 19, 2015. (Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

I’d add that the characters, especially George, are constantly posing the question “why” and addressing social mores.

That’s exactly what it is. When I did this podcast interview with Vulture one of the other people who was on it with me said something about how it seems like George is simply asking why does everyone keep asking me to do stuff in life? We all feel that way sometimes and think “Oh my God, what now?”

In fact, don’t you find yourself having “Seinfeld moments” almost daily?

That’s the whole point of it. There are just so many things that happen to us and the more you watch and think about Seinfeld the more you’re going to notice these almost on a daily basis.

Why did you entitle the book “Seinfeldia?”

One of the things that I found most interesting about Seinfeld is the way it’s been around in our pop culture for so long and because it draws so much real life inspiration for its plots. There’s a little world, a little dimension that has sprung up between reality and Seinfeld. You can’t miss it if you’re a fan. For example, the guy who played the Soup Nazi, Larry Thomas, does appearances all the time. He basically makes a living playing the Soup Nazi. He’s also the spokesman for Original Soup Man, which is the company owned by the real guy who inspired the episode.

The 'Soup Nazi' played by actor Larry Thomas. (flickr/Gary Hess)
The ‘Soup Nazi’ played by actor Larry Thomas. (flickr/Gary Hess)

John Peterman is a real person and J. Peterman is a real catalogue. You can still order from them online today. It uses ridiculous catalogue copy that inspired that character and his dramatics. The guy who inspired Kramer, David’s former neighbor, gives bus tours of Seinfeld-related sites in New York City and that’s his thing. He’s a man about town and he even came to my book’s launch party. Then there’s this new element to it, which is that online there is some very intense Seinfeld activity. For example, there are warring Twitter accounts that imagine Seinfeld if it was on today. There’s Seinfeld emojis and other stuff that just continue to perpetuate Seinfeld in our actual lives as opposed to just this thing we watch on television.

In what way did Seinfeld change TV comedies forever and is anyone writing comedy for television today trying to recreate something similar?

Definitely, and I think they raised the bar significantly for comedy overall. I don’t want to say that there was nothing artful about comedy before that, but I think that it raised the bar, as did a few other shows in between. However, Seinfeld taught us that we could take comedy seriously and that it’s a real art form.

In our current world driven by social media we don’t see the same interaction between people as we did on Seinfeld. Would you say that the show’s lasting appeal is that it depicted personalities in all their complexity?

‘They could obsess about a marble rye because they had the space to do that’

It’s true. I don’t like to use the word “nostalgia” for the show. However, I think it’s a nostalgia factor of the 1990s and a time when we were a little less overwhelmed with all of these devices and communication. Like you said, the characters on Seinfeld went to their various apartments and interacted. It feels a little simpler and it was a simpler time. The pre-9/11 time was a simpler time period. They could obsess about a marble rye because they had the space to do that and they interacted with each other in this way through discussing all these social mores.

Seinfeld coined many new words and phrases, which have become part of the American lexicon. Could you relay a few of them?

Yeah, there’s so many right? I think this is a huge part of the show’s enduring appeal because they give us ways to talk about stuff essentially that didn’t have words. For example, the word “shrinkage” is just one of those things that men deal with. This was perfect for George who is constantly humiliated and emasculated all of the time.

Another is “double dipping.” People love to do that around me now. When you write a book about Seinfeld people think they’re very cute when they say “Seinfeld things” to you. “Yada-yada” is one that really caught on. The writer who wrote that episode, Peter Mehlman, just heard someone say that once in a meeting and he thought it was funny and put it in the show. He didn’t know that it was really going to catch on. He was surprised. “No soup for you” is also very popular.

I know you’ve probably been asked a million times, but what’s your favorite Seinfeld episode and why?

I am actually so into this question because everyone does ask it.

Does it get boring?

No, it doesn’t because I always preface it by saying, “It depends on the day.” Each time I answer it I pick from a variety of episodes to talk about and I always go with whatever immediately pops into my head. The first thing that pops into my head today is “The Finale” because it’s so hated. Therefore, I feel the urge to defend it more. I feel it got a bad rap at the time because the hype was so huge [76 million people tuned in to see in on May 14, 1998]. I don’t know what people thought was going to happen. That said, I like the way it not only makes a statement, but also brought back a bunch of characters we loved.

What foremost message do you hope those who read “Seinfeldia” will come away with?

I think and hope that it would make people happy to learn even more about a show that they love and allow them to revisit it in another way yet again. I hope it shows the magic that some television shows like Seinfeld can have. People love the real human interaction they’re having with this show. I think it’s cool that a television show can actually connect with people on such an everyday level that they’re quoting it all the time and continue to go to events like “Festivus.”

Maybe that’s silly, but life sucks so hard right now in so many ways that I think this little bit of human connection among millions and millions of people in the US and throughout the world is amazing. Having this thing that they can connect on is special, important and magical.

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