Sunny Side Up
Jason Alexander is grateful that viewers are still loving George Costanza — he loves him, too. But now he’s blissfully leading Hit the Road, a new comedy for AT&T Audience Network, where his alter ego, Ken Swallow, “is very optimistic.”
Jason Alexander arrives 10 minutes early at L.A.’s Smudge studio, his favorite 7-11 coffee — blueberry with a splash of vanilla creamer — in hand.
He’s here to talk about his new series, but on a sofa tucked away from the bustle of his upcoming photo shoot, he first reflects on the ending of Seinfeld and the reactions he still elicits from fans. “I’m getting a lot of, ‘I grew up on it,’ now,” he says of the enduring legacy of the series.
One of his most memorable encounters occurred in 2009, when Alexander was dining with friends at a rooftop restaurant in San Francisco’s Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel. Sitting with his back to the room, the actor and occasional director — who was helming a play in the hotel’s theater — began to feel a presence behind him. He turned around to face 50 U.S. Marines.
The group’s commander proceeded to tell Alexander that their platoon had recently served in Iraq for 18 months and that when they came back, to laugh together again, they would watch episodes of Seinfeld. “And with that he went, ‘So we just want you to know that we think of you as the 51st member of our platoon.’ Then he barked a command and all 50 of them saluted me, and I was just gone,” he says, with a lump in his throat.
“I generally go through life thinking that what I do for a living is pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things. But when it is blessed like that, it just makes me love George,” Alexander says, referring to the iconic George Costanza, whom he played for nine seasons on the crown jewel of NBC’s Must-See TV. “George has enabled me to move throughout time and space with an extraordinary reaction from people. It’s hail-fellow-well-met.”
The series today continues to pick up new fans, who discover episodes in syndication or streaming on Hulu, which made a landmark purchase of the entire catalogue in 2015 for a reported $875,000 per episode. So perhaps now is exactly the right time for Alexander to remind people that he can be more than George.
Hit the Road — premiering October 17 on AT&T Audience Network — stars Alexander as the optimistic but misguided Ken Swallow (the name is his “cross to bear,” he quips in the pilot).
He’s the patriarch of the Swallows, a Partridge-esque family made up of Maggie (Amy Pietz), the unconventional mother; daughter Ria (Natalie Sharp), the beautiful diva seeking fame; son Alex (Nick Marini), the kind-hearted stoner; Jermaine (Tim Johnson Jr.), the nervous and neurotic adopted son; and Casey (Maddie Dixon-Poirier), the wise-beyond-her-years youngest sibling.
The Swallow family is equal parts Partridges, Carpenters, Osmonds and Cowsills, cranked to 11 for comedic effect. “The Cowsills were this all-American, wholesome family band,” Alexander says. “They sang the theme to Love American Style. And in the documentary [Family Band: The Cowsills Story] they’re on stage, smiling and waving, and then they hit the wings and it’s, ‘Up yours!’ They are basically the Swallows.”
The idea for the series was formed several years back, over sushi on L.A.’s Larchmont Boulevard. Alexander was lunching with his close friend and collaborator Peter Tilden, who began regaling the actor with a story about his friend who worked for a traveling circus. The situation — life on the road, living and working in close quarters with your family — all seemed like prime fodder for a sitcom.
When the conversation turned to The Partridge Family and whether David Cassidy and Susan Dey had ever gotten together during the making of the show, they knew they had hit on something. “Can you imagine being in a situation so extreme that the only attractive girl you see every day is your own sister?” Alexander asks.
“I wondered what it would be like if you couldn’t get away from your family,” Tilden explains later by phone. “That’s got to be kind of a nightmare. And Jason plays aggravated funnier than anybody I know.”
They took the idea to the executives at Fabrik Entertainment, who snapped it up and brought Dean Craig (Death at a Funeral) aboard as showrunner. “At the time, Larry Charles was also on board to direct, so for a Seinfeld lover like me it felt like a dream project,” Craig says. Swallow — as it was known then — was shopped around town until the final pitch was given to the executives at AT&T Audience Network, who offered a 10-episode order in he room.
“The pitch was hilarious and developed into a great conversation,” says Chris Long, Head of AT&T Audience Network. “At a time when we’re seeing much of the comedy space turn in the direction of dramedy, we really responded to the idea of doing a straight, laugh-out-loud comedy.”
For Alexander — who, besides his comedic acting, brings his singing and drumming skills to his role — there was more to think about than his own performance. That’s because he also serves as an executive producer, along with Tilden, Craig, Long, Melissa Aouate, Henrik Bastin, Mark Burg, Shane Elrod, David Guillod and Bart Peters.
Eight weeks prior to filming, four out of the 10 scripts had been written, the music — which Alexander would end up writing much of himself — had yet to be composed and a writers’ strike was looming. “If you had said to me, ‘Jason, you can take the over or the under, is this show going to get made?’ I would have said, ‘There’s no way,’” the actor says, laughing about it now.
Tilden remained optimistic. “The man was on the number-one show in television,” he points out. “ Everything else is difficult. Seinfeld had craft services the length of my house. I don’t think it was more difficult than most, I think it was just difficult as these things are.”
Four months later, the network reviewed the pilot, outlines of 10 episodes and executions of five — and asked the creators to make the show more cable-friendly. “They wanted something rougher around the edges,” Alexander says. “In the original there wasn’t as much [bad] language. It wasn’t quite as inappropriate as it is now.”
Inappropriate, perhaps, for a broadcast network, but very much in keeping with the cable and streaming worlds: along with the expected language, the pilot includes a sex scene between Ria and a much older man and a couple of rude punch lines playing off the family name, graffitied on their tour bus. In another scene, Ken reluctantly performs a sex act on a male radio producer to secure a free on-air promo for the Swallows concert.
The notes from the network also led to staff changes in the writers’ room. But that was welcome for Alexander, who felt up until that point that his presence was giving him too much say.
“I was in the writers’ room for the entirety of the first group, and initially for the second group,” he says. “Then I learned that there’s a difference between running a show and running a room. I can’t run a room. I don’t know enough about it. It was a good thing for me to get out, because without meaning to be, I was the 800-pound-gorilla.”
Ultimately, Alexander would get the final pass on the scripts — a polishing that no doubt allowed him to help the writers home in on the key difference between George and Ken. “George basically came at the world thinking, ‘I’m not good enough,’” he explains. “Ken is actually very optimistic — he thinks he’s great and very deserving. George thinks he’s not deserving, but should have it anyway. And that colors them in a very different way.”
Born Jay Scott Greenspan, Alexander — who crafted his stage name by taking his father’s first name as his last — grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, a little more than an hour from Broadway.
He was first exposed to the theater at five years old, when his parents took him to see the original 1964 production of Fiddler on the Roof. His destiny for the stage was guided again at age 12, when he was plucked from a community pool by a group of pre-teens eager to have him perform in their show.
A few months later he was studying voice and dance (tap, modern, jazz and ballet), and soon after that, at 14, he began working professionally. “I grew up in my living room fantasizing about the Tony,” he recalls.
He would win one at 29, for his leading role in the 1989 musical Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, which required the actor to portray multiple characters from several well-known productions. It was also the year he would land his role on Seinfeld, and one year before his turn as a slimy lawyer in Pretty Woman.
Seinfeld brought him so much recognition, however, that he was initially worried audiences wouldn’t be able to accept him as any other character after the show ended. “When I was growing up, if an actor did a signature role on a successful series, it more often than not signaled the end of their career. That was my big concern, that I was going to be identified with George in a way that I couldn’t capitalize on.”
Leading roles would follow in the comedies Bob Patterson and Listen Up, about a bad motivational speaker and a sports talk-show host, respectively, which would both fail to take off. So looking back now, does he put any stock in the infamous “Seinfeld curse”?
“I mean… it only affects guys? Cause Julia [Louis-Dreyfus is] doing fine,” he jokes. “You either are involved in something that makes an audience go, ‘I want to check that out,’ or you’re not. And Seinfeld, one way or the other, isn’t going to save you. If anything is true about the curse, it may be that most producers don’t want that three-second first reaction where somebody goes, ‘Oh, that’s George!’”
Yet Alexander has never felt pressured to stay in the same wheelhouse as his best-known character, or conversely, to play against type. “One of the reasons George is iconic,” he says, “is because he finds himself squarely at the heart of what most comedy is: mistaken assumptions, enormous stakes and the subsequent choices of action. I’m a short, bald, Jewish guy. There’s only so many ways I can evoke that without some similarities.”
When Alexander finds himself flipping through the channels now, he will occasionally pause to watch that short, bald, Jewish guy who made him so famous.
“Because the truth is,” he reveals, “I stopped watching before the series ended.” Going on to explain that the shows were heavily edited, and his lines were often cut down as a result, he says, “The actor in me went, ‘How dare they muddle with my performance!’ Now, I don’t remember what the hell I would have said, so I can watch them. But at the time I remember being very frazzled by it all. So I have not seen a good two to three seasons’ worth.”
It’s a situation he is unlikely to find himself in this time around, as the co-creator, executive producer and first name on the call sheet for Hit the Road. But if Alexander has learned anything in his 40-plus years in the business, it’s that nothing can be predicted. It’s one of the many pieces of wisdom he relays to acting students in the master classes he often teaches.
“They want to know how to get my career, and no one — including me — can tell them how to do it, because it’s an accident. I could have done a different pilot the year of Seinfeld and we wouldn’t be talking right now,” he says with a smile.
“I also quote Gertrude Stein to them: ‘There is no there there.’ That thing you think is going to make you successful, happy, complete… you’ll get it,” he says, still sipping that 7-11 coffee, “and you’ll be the same person you were the minute before you got it.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2017