Thursday, December 17, 2009

"The 'Seinfeld' Variations"

I recently wrote here about successful TV series hitting their stride, noting that some shows hit the bulls-eye in their pilots, while other take time to find their quintessential sweet spots.

I mentioned that Seinfeld was a show that needed time. It wasn’t that the series didn’t show signs of promise from the get-go; it was that the early signs were fitful and sporadic.

I’ll make a confession here. When Seinfeld first came on the air, I refused to watch it.

That’s silly.

I know, Italics Man. I can be petty sometimes. The thing is, when Seinfeld first appeared, I was working as a consultant on Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, co-created by Garry and a wonderful writer – and a sweet man – named Alan Zweibel.

The two series seemed troublingly alike – two single Jewish comedians playing themselves, chronicling their life experiences. (As you might know, Seinfeld was originally called The Seinfeld Chronicles.) It wasn’t team loyalty that made me reject Seinfeld. I checked it out, and found the Shandling show to be the superior product, more imaginative in its conception and execution, and funnier.

Were you right about that?

Absolutely. (Though some may disagree.) Early Seinfeld sparkled with those inspired conversational runs – like the debate about the placement of the second to the top button on men’s shirts – but when it came to story selection, early Seinfeld seemed familiar and disappointing. (Plus, the characters were, as yet, not fully developed.)

I became a Seinfeld fan when the show changed. (Also, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show went off the air.) Unlike any hit series I can remember, throughout its long run, Seinfeld continued to evolve in its storytelling. “Evolve” is the wrong word – it wasn’t straining towards to some advanced state, like some mutating amphibian struggling to make it to dry land. The show simply kept reconfiguring itself.

(I was very curious about how this happened – the inside story of this “evolutionary” process. The only time I met Larry David was when I was consulting on a pilot created, coincidentally, by his longtime buddy, Alan Zweibel. Unfortunately, Larry didn’t want to have much to do with me, partly, I think, because, when I met him, I gushed like a teenaged groupie, a condition unbecoming to a middle-aged man, and less than a picnic for the gush-ee.)

An early Seinfeld story:

A girl from out of town asks Jerry if she can stay at his apartment, and Jerry thinks sex is in the offing, only to be disappointed when it turns out that the girl is engaged. If they continued do stories like that – or Jerry’s apartment gets robbed – ho and hum.

But they didn’t.

The list of episodes I printed up shows that on “Episode 15”, Seinfeld served up “The Chinese Restaurant”, a skillfully written one-act play of an episode about the “nothing” that George championed so passionately when he and Jerry pitched their pilot at NBC – in this case, the “nothing” was the gang waiting an excruciatingly long time to get seated at a Chinese restaurant.

The storytelling on Seinfeld had fundamentally changed. The show had abandoned the tried and true, setting out, instead, to find its own Seinfeldian way. Rather than being intensely plot driven, “Episode 15” relied on the “we’ve all been there” frustration of waiting endlessly for a table. No sex-steeped storyline. No “only in sitcoms” improbabilities. It was – boldly and innovatively – just the thing itself, the unvarnished situation. “They said it wouldn’t be long, and we’re still not eating. We’re going to die waiting for this table!”

“Episode 19” brought us “The Pen” Dr. M’s all-time favorite. Nothing complicated or twisty. Jerry casually compliments a man on his pen, and, despite his objections, the man insists that Jerry take it. After he leaves, Jerry’s mother berates him for taking the man’s pen. Simple and true. And painfully funny for anyone who’s ever had a mother.

Which brings us to “Episode 22.” Demonstrating “The Chinese Restaurant” was no one-time anomaly, here comes “The Parking Garage.” Four people, wandering aimlessly around a shopping mall parking garage, unable to find their car. I have been there, my friend. That’s what makes it special.

Having won me over with identifiable storylines, Seinfeld took yet another turn, this time, in a mouth-droppingly inspired direction. Three or four sub-plots, seemingly disconnected, wind up, to the viewer’s shock and surprise, intersecting in the final resolution. In Scene One, Kramer comes in wearing a white jacket he got on loan from a deli , only to end up later posing as a white-jacketed dermatologist. I sat there, laughing my head off, at the same time wondering, “How did they do that?”

Applying this storytelling technique, Seinfeld scored week after week, with hilarious episodes heightened by gasp-inducing (as in “I didn’t see that coming!”) climaxes.

As Seinfeld wound down, and with Larry David no longer involved, Kramer turned his apartment into the set from The Merv Griffin Show, and I was looking for my coat. But that happens when every series sticks around past its creative hey-day, to rack up more episodes for syndication.

There were many elements that made Seinfeld my favorite comedy of all time. But the greatest of them could be the way the show continued to re-invent itself structurally. I wish I could have gotten Larry David to talk about how that happened. Unfortunately, if you insist on gushing, you’re going to put people off.


Anonymous said...

Very early on, the characters just needed to find their character. George, in the first shows was just a bad Woody Allen copy, Kramer..too dark and normal. But it didn't take long before they found them. To me George and Kramer changed the most, and the best. George became a little more Jackie Gleason, but also something else...a great character NOT based on another.
Towards the end, yeah, but the actual series finale...I find perfect in every way. After time, we all were on thier "side" but they were incredibly shallow, and not particularly "nice"...and when they end up in jail, denounced by all they have mocked and hurt, and still...back to the top button shtick ("I think we already discussed this") was purely wonderful. It was like taking the blinders off and seeing them for what they had been the whole time.

Anonymous said...

That visit to the parents in Florida almost finished me off! I had just returned from a similar 'holiday' at my dad's in Pompano so the memories were very fresh. There were Jerry's parents saying all the same things I had endured for the week. My dad had hysterics when we suggested springing for the paltry toll to take the thruway to Miami or up to Boca, rather than to creep up an down 'Powerline'. Air conditioning was never used so Jerry's mom swathed in her sweater of martyrdom put me into cardiac arrest. But the best, by far, was the pull-out couch. My back aches, just remembering. The early-bird specials.....and, of course the constantly "why do you need to go there?? buy that??" etc. That episode won me over. Recognition.
I see a lot of that in "Modern Family" too.

Paloma said...

Thats why i've always loved Seinfeld, because of the "ive been there", you could just relate.
Gotta love a show about nothing

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I would have placed the Chinese restaurant before the parking garage as the episode that set the tone for the early Seinfeld years. I certainly flipped when I first saw it. I remember before that another great moment... when George wanted to show someone something on his computer and Jerry and some other people had to wait a minute before the computer was started up. Now, that's genius,

jsalexandra said...

Nice post. I think Seinfeld is a fabulous show. Some people think that it wasn't that good at the start but I liked it from the word go. In fact most of my favorite seinfeld episodes are from initial seasons. And my favorite episode is "Soup Nazi”, I think Jerry has done a wonderful job in the show.

simran said...

Seinfeld is very interesting show. i always Watch Seinfeld Online. Its all episodes are best. I like it so much. Its fantastic.