MASTER OF THE DOMAIN: WITH HIS CREATIVE PARTNER LARRY DAVID GONE, WILL
JERRY SEINFELD STILL EMBODY THE NEUROTIC NINETIES?
New York Observer September 16, 1996
Written by Jim Windolf
TO NEUROTIC NEW YORK, SEINFELD IS NEWS AT 11
Reruns of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer Are Dark Nightcap for a Weary City, But Can Slick Comic Keep Quality Up Without Demonic Genius Buddy Larry David?
I am struck by how seriously - religiously, indeed - New Yorkers watch television. In other parts of the country, television is taken as an escape from reality; in New York, all things being relative, it is considered a window into reality. - John Updike
Each weeknight at 11, before a shrunken audience, Chuck and Sue are still doing their old routine on Channel 4, John Johnson and Michelle Marsh continue to smile their way through their own ratings apocalypse on Channel 2, and over on Channel 7, Bill Beutel keeps trying to impose his own grim sense of social order on an unruly city. But in the last year, the anchors have lost a good number of viewers, and even some of their authority, to a mere rerun.
That is because the rerun in question is Seinfeld, and Seinfeld delivers the real news for a city marked by cutthroat ambition and the accompanying fear of success. The strong pull of Seinfeld at 11 also explains the halting cadence that creeps into your phone conversations around 10:58 each night.
In the gamey warmth of good old brown-hued Channel 11, WPIX-TV, Seinfeld gives the city the same nightly dose of clarity and community that an ideal newscast would provide. Since Seinfeld debuted as a rerun last September in the old Cheers slot, it has made local television history as the station's first 11 P.M. show to beat all three newscasts in the ratings, pulling off this feat more than once.
Seinfeld's characters have made themselves experts in the urban arts of lying, betrayal, dognapping, sexual skullduggery and alternate-side-off-the-street parking as they halfheartedly chase after love and success. For millions of New Yorkers who are daily compromised by the personal and professional demands of the meanest city since Gibbon's Rome, Seinfeld's tales of the bourgeois urbanite in trouble make the case that you can be both morally wretched and somewhat lovable.
"I like taking the worst qualities that a person has and trying to make something funny out of it," said Larry David, the show's obsessive head writer for the last seven seasons. "Doesn't everybody do terrible things and have terrible thoughts? Just by trying to be as funny as you can, you're going to deal with a lot of things that are real - so the show's really about something. The whole thing about the show being about nothing is ridiculous. I'm sounding like a pompous idiot. Don't use any of this, I'm begging you."
MASTERS OF OUR DOMAIN
Every night at 11 on Channel 11, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer tell us we can be both morally wretched and somewhat lovable. JIM WINDOLF talks with the sitcom's departing mad genius (and George Costanza doppelganger) Larry David.
The show that Mr. David used to run before he quit last spring provides a rock-solid alibi for any New Yorker driven to casual acts of cruelty at work and in love. As a late-night rerun, it simultaneously gives its viewers a comforting bedtime tale and an opportunity for a little end-of-the-day reflection and self-flagellation. It's al so good for a belly laugh in a way that David Letterman isn't anymore.
With Seinfeld, Mr. David came up with a way to address the pitiful generation that came of age in the 60's and 70's, the end-of-the-baby-boom kids whose fathers had suffered through the stiff-upper-lip work of realizing the American dream in the 50's and 60's. Mr. David would probably agree with Bob Dole's San Diego convention comment that the Clinton generation "never grew up, never did anything real."
"There's not one thing I've ever done in my life that I could picture my father doing," said Mr. David, who is 49. He was a man. He had a cigar, he went to work, he came home at night. You never saw him hanging out with his friends."
So you get a wimpy, information-age man-child like Jerry Seinfeld, who starts an abortion debate in a restaurant for his own amusement and plays games with women. When Elaine Benes tells him she's enthralled with her new boyfriend because he "doesn't play games," Jerry asks, "Then how do you know who's winning?" Or you get a coward like George Costanza, who sprints out of a child's birthday party when a fire breaks out in the kitchen, knocking over an old lady with a walker on his way out. When the fireman asks George how he lives with himself, he says, "It's not easy, it's not easy." Later, in Mr. David's final episode, George can't quite bring himself to mourn the sudden demise of his fiancee, Susan, who died while licking envelopes for their wedding invitations. Soon after her death, George calls Marisa Tomei (playing herself, as a friend of Susan's) to see if she's free to do something after the funeral. A number of critics said Mr. David went too far in his swan song.
"I mean, it was obvious how he felt," Mr. David said. "He'd been trying to break up with her, but he couldn't break up with her. He didn't have the intestinal fortitude. He mentioned the thing about the plane crash earlier, so it was totally set up so that, when it comes, do people expect him to feign some bereavement? It would have been dishonest to make him upset, and that's why it's funny. Somebody showed me something in some magazine where they wrote this was a 'fuck you' to the network. Why would I do something like that? Why a fuck you, when all they did was let me do whatever I wanted for seven years? If anything, I was totally appreciative of everything they did. So where's the fuck you?"
None of the stuff that makes Seinfeld part of the New Yorker's nightly ritual would exist without Mr. David. He gave the show its ugly depiction of sexual politics and situational ethics. More specifically, he gave Seinfeld George, who is alternately self-loathing and preeningly vain (and who is based on Mr. David himself); and he gave the show George's mother, Estelle Costanza, the humorless kvetcher partly based on Mr. David's own mother; and Jerry Seinfeld's father, Morty Seinfeld, the no-nonsense retired garment worker (like Mr. David's own father) who served as president of a Florida condominium (as does Mr. David's own father). Not to mention a host of minor characters who share names with people Mr. David has known. And Cosmo Kramer is based on Kenny Kramer, how a 52 year old Manhattan resident; he lived 20 floors above Mr. David in the 70's and then across the hall from him for six years and eight months in the 80's. The real Kramer has watched the show closely since it started and used to talk regularly with Mr. David about what worked and what didn't in a given episode.
"These are the most shallow, superficial, self-indulgent people - people who mug old ladies, burn down log cabins, break up other couples, think about it!" Mr. Kramer said, referring to the sitcom's four main characters. "Horrible, despicable human beings. But we see there's a little of us in them, our own dark character." And Mr. David considers himself just as despicable. "Larry once told me he has the two worst traits a person could have - a vicious temper combined with no guts," said Mr. Kramer.
Discussing an episode from last season - the one in which Elaine interviews a boyfriend to see if he's worth the use of one of her precious last contraceptive sponges - Mr. Kramer said, "Think about Elaine, with 'sponge-worthy.' All she cares about is her sponge and not getting pregnant. I mean, she'll fuck anybody, doesn't care about diseases, AIDS, doesn't care about anything. Think of the body of Larry's work - the masturbation episode, the blabbermouth rabbit, the episode trivializing the whole abortion issue, the one that trivialized the AIDS ribbon. The beauty of it is he's disguised this thing as family entertainment!"
The show's one strong hint of optimism, what keeps it from being an exercise in misanthropy, is the bond among Elaine, George, Kramer and Jerry. Although they betray each other all the time, they have reached the highest plane of friendship - the sharing of the apartment keys. The long friendship between Mr. David and the real Mr. Kramer (who is an expert guide through Seinfeld lore in his Reality Tour, call 268-5525) existed at perhaps an even more rarefied place: The two men had just one good pair of dress pants between them, and they shared it for years, reserving it well in advance.
Seinfeld at 11 liberated us from having to watch the skull-bashing local nightly news shows, with their creepy five minutes of death stories and creepy 10 minutes of "funny" sports and weather and the two-minute clip at the end usually involving an animal getting loose in Florida.
Seinfeld doesn't turn away from the sad fact of adult masturbation ("treating your body like an amusement park," to quote a line from a Larry David stand-up routine that made it to the show) or men failing to pull off the trick of cunnilingus (George Costanza gets "the tap" from a woman he is trying to please, a signal for him to quit fooling around down there; Elaine drives a sax player to blow a big gig on the night he decides to add "everything" to his sexual repertoire) or the role that long minutes spent on the pot play in our fates (George emerges from Jerry's bathroom with his pants around his ankles, but too late to get the phone call that would have meant employment for him; in another episode, George loses a girlfriend because he emerges from her bathroom without his shirt on - he needs room when he sits on the pot, and this time he forgot to get dressed afterward) or bouts of impotence (Jerry can't function when in be with Elaine, even after bragging that he can satisfy her in 15 minutes; a despairing George looks downward while in bed, preparing to give the unwilling body part a backhanded slap) or the inadequacy that adults born in the 50's feel in comparing themselves to their fathers (Jerry telling George that they have been acting like children their whole lives, without wives, without children - a scolding that George takes to heart, leading to his doomed engagement) or the hell of domestic bliss (Kramer reminding Jerry that living with a woman entails having to respond to the question, "How was your day?"; George being forced to watch a videotaped episode of Mad About You in bed with his fiancee, just as a Yankee game is being broadcast from California) or sheer pettiness (Kramer gets in a slap fight with a chimpanzee, saying, "He started it!") or greed (Elaine purring for Jerry when she sees how much he earned for a show) or spinelessness (Elaine agreeing to date a creepy clerk simply because he went to the trouble of special-ordering a hard-to-find-pen) or pure evil ("Newman!") or even death (TV executive Russell Dalrymple dies at sea in his attempt to impress Elaine as a Greenpeace warrior; George's fiancee Susan, who had been monopolizing the time George would have spent in Monk's Cafe, discussing Aquaman and Ponce de Leon).
In a 1961 essay, Philip Roth argued that novelists would inevitably lose out in a world dominated by news events that were beyond the imagination. But back then, Mr. Roth couldn't imagine that the mad events of the nightly news would come to overwhelm the human need for a good yarn. He was probably right in suggesting that novelists will never again have the cultural power they exercised at mid-century - but at least Mr. David's writing for Seinfeld (a show that's exactly halfway between Portnoy's Complaint and the nightly news) has filled the void, proving that even journalism in a sensational age can't outstrip pure storytelling. The Olympics bomber on top of the Unabomber on top of Oklahoma City on top of the World Trade Center bombing, with O.J. Simpson, David Koresh and the brothers Menendez in the muck at the bottom of the scrum, has proved to be more of a media clusterfuck than the story of how we live now. These are distant, television-ready disasters, with seemingly no relevance to the time New Yorkers spend standing on line for good soup or fighting one another for good parking spots. To counter the television news notion that the world has gone suddenly magical-realist, a nation has turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio, dunking his doughnut at the coffee shop counter (episode No.18).
The chronicles of Seinfeld's four main characters' mundane encounters and offhandedly evil deeds show that those global catastrophes take place in miniature oat the local level. Which brings us back to the fevered brain of Mr. David. If he had written two Off-Broadway plays with the comic snap and dark undercurrents of Seinfeld, rather than just having had a hand in 134 episodes of a lowly sitcom, then he would be the toast of the Arts & Leisure pages in The New York Times.
Seinfeld certainly wouldn't have been possible without the cold charms of its title character, but the show's ruling intelligence is Larry David. Or it was Larry David, before he finally succeeded in quitting after five years of threats ("I'm afraid of challenges," he said, explaining why he left. "My tendency is to run away from challenges.") He's now at work on a screenplay in the Los Angeles office of Castle Rock Entertainment, the company that produces Seinfeld for NBC; if it gets made, he'll direct it.
Asked what Mr. David brought to Seinfeld, Castle Rock television president Glenn Padnick said, "Oh, come on!" His meaning was clear - a meaning made explicit by Mr. Kramer in a separate interview: "What Larry David brought to the show was the show."
But in the collaborative culture of Hollywood television, it is considered uncouth for any one person) with the exception of Steven Bochco) to sit up on his hind legs and say, "Look at me, I'm the auteur!" Mr. David himself gave this reporter a pre-emptive tongue-lashing in an attempt to knock anything out of the article that would slight the show's wiring staff and stars. But his tendency for muscling a script has been a sore point for a Seinfeld writer or two and a blessing for the show's viewers.
Even Mr. Padnick, the Castle Rock executive whose company still has a big financial stake in Seinfeld, did not sound altogether sanguine about the coming eighth season of the show (scheduled to make its debut Sept. 19). "I don't think people across America are going to say, What happened to Seinfeld?' when they see the three shows we have in fact done for this season," Mr. Padnick said. "But the loss of Larry is the loss of the unknown. The certain thing he could have come up with, you don't know what you're missing."
In the mid-70's, Mr. David was famous among his fellow comedians for his tendency to go down in flames at comedy clubs in Manhattan. "I was extremely temperamental on stage," said Mr. David, "and I didn't handle adversity well. Lots of times, the audience thought I was kidding around when I was screaming, but I wasn't."
Mr. Kramer recalled a show at Catch a Rising Star in the 70's when a female heckler was riding Mr. David, to the delight of the audience. Every time she hollered something out, the audience would laugh it up, and there was Mr. David getting very small on stage, absolutely mum, without a comeback. But the time he finally came up with something to say, it was more a self-loathing observation than aggressive counterattack. "You know," he began, "the worst part of this is I'm looking at your boobs, thinking I would still date you."
That is the stuff of Seinfeld, the same impulse that causes George to leave one girlfriend to devote himself to impressing Jerry's girlfriend, a woman who hates him so much that George is tantalized.
Another time, when Mr. David found himself performing for an audience that wasn't paying attention, he cried out in his booming baritone (the same voice that serves as the voice of George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld), "This is pearls before swine here! What is this? Fuck you!" and he threw down the microphone and stomped off stage.
"Larry could do a show so vile that it would just vacuum the laughs out of the room," Mr. Kramer said. "Richard Pryor could come on next and there would be nothing."
Mr. David did some stand-up that he described as "very confessional." In one routine, the man who would go on to write the classic Seinfeld episode about refraining from masturbation ("The Contest") put himself on trial as a 14-year old freak for the crime of self-abuse. He played five different parts in this one-man sketch. In the voice of a vaguely continental defense attorney, Mr. David asked, with greasy sincerity, "Is it a crime to love yourself? And if it is a crime to love yourself, will it one day be a crime to love others? And then how long will it be before it's a crime to love soup?" He also had a routine where he played Hitler being very entertained by a magician. After the magic act, Hitler goes backstage to find out what the magician has done with the rabbit. In a wildly angry diatribe, Hitler demands, in his German accent, to see the little bunny; but the magician, mindful of the magician's code, refuses the Fuhrer's request.
In the 80's, during a hiatus from stand-up comedy, he was a writer-performer for Fridays, the most lame Saturday Night Live knockoff that lasted two seasons on ABC. The Mr. David wrote for Saturday Night Live, where only one of his sketches was used in a full season of turning in comedy bit after comedy bit. All the while, he was writing screenplays that were optioned but never produced. But NBC took him on, anyway, even after being less than thrilled when he actually pitched Seinfeld as a "show about nothing." as did his television alter-ego, George Costanza, in the 1992-93 season.
Mr. David, who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and Mr. Seinfeld, who grew up in Massapequa, L.I., made a strange pair. Take a few lines from their stand-up acts to show how different their sensibilities were.
Mr. David, on women: "I don't go out with women. I find them to be too effeminate."
Mr. Seinfeld, on the lug competition in the winter Olympics: "The only sport where people could be competing against their will and you wouldn't know it."
Mr. David, on the one good time he ever had with a woman: "I was hugging a woman and we were jumping up and down and embracing and then I realized that it wasn't love but the Yankees had just won the World Series."
Mr. Seinfeld, on the phenomenon of parakeets flying into mirrors: "Even if he thinks the mirror is another room, why doesn't he avoid hitting the other parakeet?"
Mr. David, on what he likes in a woman: "I look for someone who has large breasts and likes to throw rocks at deer."
So here's Mr. Seinfeld's ability to spin almost any topic into a fine joke, and Mr. David's absurdity mixed with a crazed take on sex. Mr. Seinfeld was the pro, while Mr. David was a crash-and-burn genius lucky to make a living.