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December 07, 2016

Master Of His Domain

For 34 year old stand-up Jerry Seinfeld, scoring a fancy network meeting was a sufficient symbol of success. But a November 1988 meeting at NBC — which screwed up his afternoon — led to no less than mastery of the medium and a place in television history.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
  • Illustration by Al Hirschfeld/The Margo Feiden Galleries
  • David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

By December 1997, after more than eight years starring in and running Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld was spent.

He wanted to stop making the biggest comedy of the ‘90s, which was within his rights, though it wouldn’t be easy. He was not just the figurehead of that product of his and Larry David’s imagination, Seinfeldia. In the real world, where millions of dollars meant something, he was also the linchpin in the most profitable network lineup in TV history.

He wanted to go out on top, he said. And he was there: Seinfeld had helped make its network, NBC, number one for three years running. The show had helped NBC reach $1 billion in profits the previous year, with $200 million of that from Seinfeld. The show had become the ‘90s equivalent of I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, All in the Family or The Cosby Show.

And though The Honeymooners remained the gold standard for Seinfeld — he wasn’t sure yet whether his show would hold up for decades the way The Honeymooners did — there was way more money at stake when it came to Seinfeld.

Bob Wright, the president of the network, called to say that he and Jack Welch, the chairman and chief executive of NBC’s parent company, General Electric, would like to have brunch with Seinfeld and his managers, Howard West and George Shapiro. For two weeks beforehand, they negotiated everything, down to what Seinfeld would like to eat — oatmeal? French toast?

When the day came, they all gathered in Wright’s apartment on the 38th floor of Trump Tower in New York City. Wright sat at the head of the table, with Welch and West flanking him. Across the table sat Seinfeld and Shapiro. Three waiters attended to them as they overlooked Central Park on a sunny, clear, early-winter day.

West was in heaven, talking to his business hero, Welch, about everything but Seinfeld.

Then it came: The GE–NBC guys started talking Seinfeld research, complete with charts. Seinfeld, Welch insisted, hadn’t reached its peak. The NBC guys felt like they’d nailed this. “You know, Jerry, I go all over the world,” Welch said. “People only want to know about one thing — Jerry Seinfeld and his show.”

But as it turned out, the sales pitch wasn’t enough. Seinfeld noted that there was only one way to find out where the show’s true peak was — by hitting the downturn, something that didn’t interest him.

Seinfeld wished it were a “regular show,” he later said, “like a grocery store. You don’t close it. You leave it open. ‘We’re making money here!’ But the show had its own rules, so I felt like I had to play by them.”

As Seinfeld continued to demur about doing another season, Welch said, “Jerry, come here,” and took the comedian off to the side for a private conversation. Welch wrote something on a slip of paper and handed it to Seinfeld: $5 million per show, up from the $1 million he was currently making. Another season of 22 episodes could net Seinfeld $110 million. That was Welch’s offer.

Seinfeld declined.

Seinfeld ’s ninth season would be its last.

Jerry Seinfeld ventured into a Korean deli one night in November 1988 with fellow comic Larry David after both had performed, as usual, at the Catch a Rising Star comedy club on the upper east side of New York City. Seinfeld needed David’s help with what could be the biggest opportunity of his career so far, and this turned out to be the perfect place to discuss it.

They had come to Lee’s Market on First Avenue and 78th Street, maybe for some snacks, maybe for material. The mundane tasks of life and comic gold often merged into one for them. Sure enough, they soon were making fun of the products they found among the fluorescent-lit aisles.

Korean jelly, for instance: Why, exactly, did it have to come in a jelly form? Was there also, perhaps, a foam or a spray? The strange foods on the steam table: Who ate those? “This is the kind of discussion you don’t see on TV,” David said.

Seinfeld had told David a bit of news over the course of the evening: NBC was interested in doing a show with him. Some executive had brought him in for a meeting and everything. Seinfeld didn’t have any ideas for television. He just wanted to be himself and do his comedy. He felt David might be a good brainstorming partner.

They’d first become friends in the bar of Catch a Rising Star in the late ‘70s, when Seinfeld started out as a comic. From then on, they couldn’t stop talking. They loved to fixate on tiny life annoyances, in their conversations and their comedy. Soon they started helping each other with their acts and became friendly outside of work.

Seinfeld had gotten big laughs by reading David’s stand-up material at a birthday party for mutual friend Carol Leifer, one of the few women among their band (or any band) of New York comedians. David, nearly broke, had given Leifer some jokes as a birthday gift. Too drunk to read them aloud, she handed them off to Seinfeld; he killed, which suggested some creative potential between the two men.

As a result, it made sense for Seinfeld to approach David with this TV “problem” he now had. David also remained the only “writer” Seinfeld knew, someone who had, as Seinfeld said, “actually typed something out on a piece of paper” when he churned out bits for sketch shows like Fridays and Saturday Night Live.

Seinfeld was smart to consult David on this TV thing. David did have a vision, if not a particularly grand one. “This,” David said as they bantered in Lee’s Market, “is what the show should be.” Seinfeld was intrigued.

The next night, after their comedy sets at the Improv in Midtown, David and Seinfeld went to the Westway Diner around the corner, at 44th Street and Ninth Avenue.

At about midnight, they settled into a booth and riffed on the possibilities: What about a special that simply depicted where comics get their material? Jerry could play himself in that, for sure. Cameras could document him going through his day, having conversations like the one at the market the night before; he’d later put those insights into his act, which audiences would see at the end of the special.

As they brainstormed, Seinfeld had one cup of coffee, then two. He usually didn’t drink coffee at all. They were on to something.

Seinfeld liked the idea enough to take it to NBC. The network signed off on it, suggesting a 90-minute special called Seinfeld’s Stand-Up Diary that would air in Saturday Night Live’s time slot during an off week. As he thought about it, though, Seinfeld worried about filling an entire 90 minutes; 30 minutes, on the other hand, he could do.

By the time he and David had written a 30-minute script, in February 1989, they realized they had a sitcom on their hands instead of a special. Jerry and a Larry-like guy could serve as the two main characters, who would discuss the minutiae of their lives and turn it into comedy — like Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett for television.

“Two guys talking,” Seinfeld said. “This was the idea.” To that setup, they added a neighbor. David told Seinfeld about his own eccentric neighbor, Kenny Kramer — a jobless schemer with whom David shared a car, a TV and one pair of black slacks in case either had a special occasion. He would be the basis for the third character.

They set the first scene in a fictional coffee shop like the one where they’d hatched their idea, and called it Pete’s Luncheonette.

Seinfeld had already made several smart choices in his fledgling career, and among them was to sign with manager George Shapiro.

Shapiro was inspired to go into show business like his uncle, Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner. He had spent the early years of his career at the William Morris talent agency in New York. There, he’d helped put together TV comedies such as The Steve Allen Show, That Girl and Gomer Pyle.

Now, as a talent manager for young comedian Jerry Seinfeld, he may have been simply doing his job when he told NBC executives that his client belonged on their network. But he was also speaking from decades of experience during TV’s formative years.

Shapiro sent regular letters to NBC’s entertainment president, Brandon Tartikoff, and its head of development, Warren Littlefield, every time Seinfeld had a good performance on The Tonight Show or Late Night. In 1988, he made his strongest epistolary plea as Seinfeld prepared for his first concert broadcast at Town Hall in New York City.

“Call me a crazy guy,” Shapiro wrote to Tartikoff, “but I feel that Jerry Seinfeld will soon be doing a series on NBC.” He closed by inviting Tartikoff to attend the Town Hall event. No one from the network came, but Tartikoff invited Seinfeld and Shapiro in for a meeting.

Seinfeld didn’t know his manager had badgered NBC about him. He was still unaware when he and Shapiro headed to NBC’s Los Angeles offices on November 2, 1988, to discuss the possibility of a network project with Tartikoff, Littlefield and the head of late-night programming and specials, Rick Ludwin.

Seinfeld hadn’t the first idea what he’d do on television — his main career plan was to be a stand-up comedian for as long as he could. He was also a little annoyed at this meeting screwing up his whole afternoon. He’d become a comedian partly to have his days free from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. This meeting was at 5:15 p.m., cutting right into his free time, but he sucked it up and went anyway.

“What would you like to do in television?” Ludwin, a milky-skinned, bespectacled executive, asked. “Would you like to host a late-night show? Would you like to do prime-time specials?”

“The only thing I had in mind was having a meeting like this,” Seinfeld said, half joking. A fancy meeting with network executives had crossed his mind as a symbol of success in comedy, but he’d never thought beyond that. He told the executives he’d want to play himself in anything he did, but that was all he knew for sure.

Seinfeld had joined forces with Larry David on the script, starting with their fateful discussion in the diner. Once they had come up with what they believed was a solid sitcom proposal, Seinfeld had to return to pitch it to the network executives.

For a real, ongoing sitcom, they’d also need a studio to finance production, and Shapiro hooked them up with Castle Rock Entertainment, which Carl Reiner’s son, All in the Family star and movie director Rob Reiner, had just cofounded.

The studio had also considered Seinfeld for a pilot called Past Imperfect. Now they signed on with Seinfeld’s possible new project, given that the network had just agreed to air it. Why not? The deal was done with NBC. The studio simply had to finance it, which was easy with a recent investment they’d gotten from Columbia Pictures.

The network had already promised to put the show on the air, which guaranteed at least some return for the studio. Several Castle Rock executives sat in as David and Seinfeld outlined the new sitcom concept to NBC in entertainment president Brandon Tartkoff’s office. The comedian charmed the room, got some laughs.

Tartikoff signed on with a bit of a shrug. It would require a small development deal. He and his executives liked Seinfeld’s humor. They, too, thought: Why not?

“George,” Tartikoff said to Shapiro, “now you don’t have to send me any more letters.” They weren’t sure about this Larry David guy, some struggling comic who had never written a sitcom script, much less produced a show. But they went along with his involvement for the moment since it seemed to be what Seinfeld wanted.

The executives had one suggestion: They envisioned the show as a multicamera production — that is, a traditional sitcom shot in front of a studio audience, like I Love Lucy and most other TV comedies since the 1950s — rather than a one-camera show, shot more like a film, as the comedians had pitched it.

David hated this change. “No, no, no, no, no,” he said, “this is not the show.” Silence descended. “If you think we’re going to change it, we’re not.” Seinfeld proved the more diplomatic of the two, as he would in many instances to come. He said he and his partner would talk about it.

Once David and Seinfeld left the meeting, David remembered the $25,000 he was being paid for the pilot. David agreed to the change. He would at least make his 25 grand and move on.

Soon came another test of the budding relationship between Seinfeld and NBC, when a scathing review of Seinfeld’s stand-up show in Irvine, California, ran in the Los Angeles Times.

In January 1989, Lawrence Christon wrote: “He’s expressive. He’s clear. And he’s completely empty…. There isn’t a single portion of his act that isn’t funny — amusing might be a better word — but 10 minutes or so into it, you begin wondering what this is all about, when is he going to say something or at least come up with something piquant.”

As Seinfeld fretted over the review, Shapiro asked a staffer to photocopy a bunch of Seinfeld’s positive reviews and deliver them to Littlefield and Ludwin at NBC. In the end, though, it seemed that Seinfeld and Shapiro were far more concerned about Christon than NBC was. They didn’t bat an eye. Seinfeld and Shapiro desperately wanted this show to happen — and NBC didn’t care much either way.

By the early months of 1989, David and Seinfeld were assembling a sitcom pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles.

(From Seinfeld: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. ©2016 by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2016

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