The great strength of Seinfeld was that it took the most private experiences of the educated middle class and put them in, of all things, a sitcom. Nobody expected this. Who expected to see something like “the tap”–which George Costanza got on the shoulder as a signal to return north when he was “down there,” trying in vain to pleasure a woman in a 1993 episode–on NBC at 9 P.M.? What about the time Jerry tried to excite a woman with bawdy talk, only to go too far by asking her if her mother laid out her panties the night before?
But it wasn’t just the raw stuff concerning male sexual insecurity. Reflecting its namesake’s fanatical need for order, Seinfeld made note of almost every facet of bourgeois experience in thousands of offhand observations: Jerry remarks that he never had a really good pickle; a married couple harasses everyone to come out and see the new baby (who, it turns out, is a dead ringer for Lyndon B. Johnson); the drive from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport isn’t so bad until you hit the Van Wyck Expressway; after a woman sneezes, you had better give her husband the chance to say God bless you, or face the consequences.
For a decade of talk–Court TV, Oprah Winfrey, WFAN-AM, CNBC, MSNBC, Dr. Laura, the Internet, a logorrheic President– Seinfeld was the talkingest show ever, with a name or catch phrase for practically everything: “The vault” is where you keep secrets; talkative moviegoers are “the unshushables”; a “pre-emptive breakup” is a relationship strategy that allows one to break up with someone before getting dumped; “friends in law” are your friends’ friends (George and Elaine started out as friends in law through Jerry); “the dreaded apparatus” is the term for that last-ditch solution to constipation, the enema bag.
A lot of people have patience for this kind of thing now because, face it, there are no great crises to contend with. This goofball period of Pax Americana, in which the President equals Jerry Seinfeld in his refusal to grow up, isn’t a time of great crusades, but of fine-tuning. In politics as well as the arts, it’s a time of self-examination, of scaling back, of safe bets, and Jerry Seinfeld is the right comedian for the national mood. He’s neat, trim and useful. He doesn’t pretend to be Richard Pryor. His stuff is meant to be the comedy equivalent of dessert. In the 80′s, we were doing battle with the Evil Empire, and comedians like Sam Kinison were screaming their heads off; now the Dow Jones has hit 9,000, voters are focused on the Presidential penis rather than matters of policy, and so we’ve got as our national comic a guy who endlessly examines urban manners, foibles and the human body, inch by inch.
Presenting this seemingly endless supply of deliciously trivial material before an audience that built to roughly 29 million viewers over nine years, Mr. Seinfeld proved that he could kill, in the stand-up comedy sense of the word. For his final trick, he must show that he can die, too, at least as a sitcom star. It won’t be easy. Given the ugly nature of the job, Mr. Seinfeld did something that wouldn’t seem in keeping with his need for tidiness: He ceded control of the final episode of the show he has run for the last two seasons to its co-creator, Larry David.
It was a beautiful partnership: Mr. Seinfeld is an extremely well-adjusted freak of nature, and Mr. David is a humble egomaniac. In seven years of backstage drama at Studio City, where Seinfeld is filmed, Mr. David played the bitter, idealistic John Lennon to Mr. Seinfeld’s adorable, pragmatic Paul McCartney. Together they made a show that drew from Jack Benny (Jerry’s direct, affable manner with his audience), Abbott and Costello (the repartee), Philip Roth (the mixture of the fantastic and the everyday, not to mention masturbation and a Hitler obsession), Mad magazine (Kramer is like a Don Martin drawing sprung to life), Mel Brooks (the scatological stuff, a devil-may-care treatment of ethnic differences, Hitler) and its most closely related progenitor, the movie Diner , with its boys clubhouse sensibility and its endless banter over small topics that mean everything in the world to its characters.
If you were a network executive, Mr. David is not the man you would want in charge of your most hyped event of the year. NBC is getting between $1.5 million and $1.8 million per 30 seconds of advertising time for the May 14 finale, and the network’s entertainment president, Warren Littlefield, has been trying to assure everyone that things are under control. “Their goal is not to shock,” he told the New York Post . “They’ve always understood who their audience is.” The executive added that there were “frequent adjustments” to the last Seinfeld script.
Told of Mr. Littlefield’s comment, Mr. David snarled over the phone: “What is he talking about? Bullshit. Ridiculous.”
He added that the network executives will not even know the ending of the show until it airs. He also put the kibosh on press reports claiming that the ending will be shot close to the air date. The episode has been shot, he said, and, after the edit, it will run between 70 and 80 minutes (including commercials).
After the final shoot, at 3 A.M. on April 9, Mr. David had a glass of champagne on stage. “I stood there basking in my own glory,” he said. Mr. Seinfeld, the outside guy, was the face of the show, while Mr. David, the inside guy, was its guts.
Even with the Seinfeld cast and crew in group-hug mode, Mr. David was not shy about reasserting his presence on the set after a two-year absence. “I got the story,” he said. “I came up with a story, and then I told them what the story was.” And then did he go to the much-vaunted team of Seinfeld writers and work out the final draft? “No, no, no.” Rewrites? “No.” No fiddling, no nothing? “You know, Jerry and I went over it, but …” Asked to say something about the final show’s plot, Mr. David said, “I’m not going to be able to comment on that. I love saying that, by the way.”
So was it tough? “No. At the beginning, even in the writing of it, I was a little at sea for the first hour, and then things clicked in. Same thing going back. It was a little awkward at the beginning, but then it was like I had never left.” Didn’t the new team resent his coming back to dictate the destinies of the characters he created with Mr. Seinfeld? “I think they were pretty tired,” Mr. David said. “And deservedly so. They worked pretty hard. So, no, I think they were pretty happy that I was doing it.”
Thank God it’s going off the air, by the way. It’s funny to see a group of characters in their 30′s and early 40′s giving full expression to their most childish impulses, but the sight of a 50-year-old man pulling off something like George’s “pre-emptive breakup” would seem merely pathetic.
Mr. David, who amused his fellow comedians more than civilians with his crash-and-burn stand-up routines at New York clubs in the 70′s and 80′s, was asked if he could have concocted a hit sitcom without Mr. Seinfeld. “Could I have?” he said. “I doubt it, I doubt it … He’s a very likable fellow, along with the three others.”
Despite his lack of a sunny disposition, Mr. David said he has no desire to make dramas in his new career as a film director. “I would never consider that for an instant,” he said. “I wouldn’t know where I was going. I would be so at sea, it would be awful. When I’m doing comedy, I have an objective in every scene, which is not only to further the story, but to be funny. Without having that as a goal, I would be completely lost. I would be furthering a story, but, gee, I would just be gone. It wouldn’t work at all. Anyway, I have no need to express myself that way.”
In the most recent Vanity Fair , Mr. Seinfeld talks of cutting off his hair, returning to stand-up comedy, moving back to New York (a more grown-up place than Los Angeles?) and starting an advertising agency. Mr. David’s post- Seinfeld career began in earnest just hours after he had wrapped the last episode. That’s when a few critics entered a screening room on Broadway to see his first movie, Sour Grapes , a tight piece of comedy that feels like Seinfeld distilled to its essence. Its two main characters–a successful surgeon and an absurdly confident mama’s boy who wins a jackpot–are as petty and mean as the Seinfeld bunch, but they’re not adorable in the least. By the end, in their increasingly vile attempts to get revenge on each other, they’ve driven away their girlfriends, as well as Mom, and we’re left with two bastards who have only each other. Along the way, the surgeon botches an operation and cuts out a hunky sitcom star’s testicles. In his gelded state, the young actor attracts the surgeon’s old girlfriend. “But I have no balls,” he tells her in his high-pitched whine. “I know,” she says. It’s nasty and entertaining, like something Albert Brooks might have made in a really bad mood, and the early word from Variety was good.
You might think that the comedy of Sour Grapes and Seinfeld would come out of someone who had a miserable childhood, but Mr. David said he had it good growing up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. “My life went in the opposite direction,” he said. “I started off good and then went sour. Maybe it was when you get out of college and all of your friends are, I guess, in law school, or becoming doctors and are earning a living and have good jobs and girlfriends and you’re living in a tenement with nothing, I don’t know, it’s bound to have some effect on you.”
Anyone with more than a passing interest in Seinfeld knows by now that the show came about when Mr. Seinfeld turned to the man he knew a little from working in comedy clubs and told him he had a shot at an NBC sitcom. They weren’t exactly close friends–they had never driven each other to the airport, which represents the highest plane of Seinfeld -ian friendship–but they enjoyed talking with each other, making each other laugh with bits of observational arcana. The birth of the show is pretty well re-enacted in the coffee shop scene from “The Pitch” (episode No. 42): George and Jerry are wondering if Spanish people have a tough time distinguishing between the words “salsa” and “seltzer” when George announces, “This is what the show should be!” Then they slip into Abbott and Costello repartee, with Jerry asking, “What?” and George saying, “This,” and Jerry saying, mildly exasperated, “I still don’t know what ‘this’ is,” and George gesturing back and forth and saying, “This. Just … talking.”
The first episode of Seinfeld , then called The Seinfeld Chronicles , was a slow-moving half-hour; it aired July 5, 1989. For the next order of four shows, which aired starting in May 1990, Mr. David grew a little more confident, but still couldn’t imagine that he could come up with enough stuff to fill a whole season, much less the 135 shows he ended up writing himself or having a major hand in as a rewrite man.
“You have to do it, so you do it. You have no choice. It’s like driving a taxicab,” said Mr. David, who used to drive a cab to make a living. “Where’s the next fare? You could drive around for 20 minutes, no fare. Am I going to have another fare? Then all of a sudden, there’s a fare. Hey, I got a fare. And then the fare leaves and you go through the same thing all over again.”
By the second Seinfeld episode, George was already lying to impress a woman, saying he was Art Vandelay, an importer-exporter, and the characters’ trademark weaknesses were coming into focus. The show was starting to roll, but even Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC head of programming with the golden gut, said it was “too Jewish”–a remark that echoed all the way to the final episode, filmed over the nine days ending April 9.
“In the last episode,” said Mr. David, “in one of the scenes, I went up to Jason [Alexander, who plays George], and I gave him a note, and the note was, ‘More Jewish,’ and it was the first time in the history of the show that I had ever given that note. It was sort of a discussion he was having with Jerry, and I needed it to sound more in a Jewish singsong-y way. So I really laughed and Jerry, of course, heard it, and we all got a kick out of it.”
In the sixth episode, a Southern belle breaks up with Jerry because she has seen his stand-up act. Sounding like Mr. Seinfeld’s detractors, she says, “It was just so much fluff.” Showing his own nasty streak, Jerry replies, “But you’re a cashier!”
By the 17th episode, in which George unintentionally gets a busboy fired by feigning anger over the service, Mr. David said he had figured out how to move beyond the A-plot, B-plot structure of traditional sitcoms. “It was the first time we combined two stories,” he said. “I don’t know if you remember, but the busboy and Elaine’s boyfriend had a fight in the hallway and we overheard the fight. Those two stories kind of collided in the hallway, and that really opened my eyes.” By its fourth season, Seinfeld , the show about nothing, was the most densely plotted sitcom ever, with some episodes having four intertwined story lines.
But the ado over the end of Seinfeld –the announcement made the top of the New York Times front page last year–doesn’t have anything to do with its multilayered plots or even the belly laughs it got out of a huge segment of the population. The reason everyone’s going so crazy is that, for an entire generation, the one born between the years 1945 and 1964, the end of Seinfeld means the end of the kind of overgrown adolescence that is synonymous with the show. This baby boom’s parents did the dirty work of suffering through the Depression, killing millions of World War II enemies and then keeping the Evil Empire at bay while making themselves into the good Eisenhower-era citizens who knocked down all the trees and put up suburbs–and why’d they do it? For the children! So what did these children of paradise do with all that peace and prosperity and safety? They grew up to be information maniacs who wanted to carry their Beatles lunch boxes with them all the way to their graves. They didn’t live life so much as examine it. They complained. They may have helped their elders put an end to racial segregation and the war in Vietnam, but then they went on to found Nick at Nite, the cable network Elaine calls Jerry’s main interest in life. Where their counterparts of a hundred years before were classically educated, they became insanely well schooled in the minutiae of pop culture and sexual relationships. As Elaine told Jerry outside the opera house, “All your knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny.” If Seinfeld proved anything, maybe it was that the overexamined life is worth living–but not indefinitely.
Every show that lasts has some deep question that must be answered. The Fugitive ? Find the one-armed man! Mary Tyler Moore ? Will Mary find love and happiness, and make it as a single woman in a city as cold as Minneapolis? M.A.S.H. –can the gang survive this crazy war with their sanity intact? It’s less easy to spot the underlying thread of Seinfeld , but it’s there: Will these characters grow up? When will they stop postponing the messy business of life? While we enjoy watching them figure out who can refrain from masturbation the longest, or complain about such things as “regifting” and hello kisses, or suffer the presence of close talkers and low talkers, or dream up institutions that might serve their own intellectual interests, such as a toilet paper museum, we’re secretly wondering how long they can go on like this. Their procrastination gives the show its suspense. Mr. David felt it was time to lay Seinfeld to rest at the end of the 1995-1996 season; Mr. Seinfeld needed a couple more years.
Once in a while, TV gives you a moment that can make the hairs stand up on your back. For some people this happened during moon launches or the day Ronald Reagan was shot or maybe when they interrupted a Knicks playoff game to show a white Ford Bronco leading a squadron of police on a slow chase through Los Angeles. The Seinfeld moment most likely to produce this primal reaction in the show’s most faithful viewers came at the opening of the 1995-96 season. Mr. David’s script put George and Jerry in Monk’s coffee shop again. They were kvetching about women again, when Jerry stopped the conversation dead to ask George just what the hell they were doing with their lives. Why didn’t they have wives or children? Why were they still sitting in a coffee shop booth, discussing things like Aquaman and Ponce de León? Why were they not men, like their own hardy fathers? George spent the rest of the season trying to make himself into a man worthy of his father’s generation, until he convinced his bisexual girlfriend, former NBC executive Susan Biddle Ross, to marry him, only to regret it. Mr. David, in his last episode as executive producer, let George off the hook by having Susan die after licking cheap envelopes meant to hold their wedding invitations. As Mr. David told The Observer at the end of that season, “There’s not one thing I’ve ever done in my life that I could picture my father doing. 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.”
In the next two seasons, under Mr. Seinfeld’s watch, Seinfeld was apparently a sunnier place to work, but the show was broad and manic, and relied too often on reprising old bits and characters with wink-wink nudge-nudge allusions to previous episodes. Mr. David’s attempts at saying goodbye to all that adolescent game playing in relationships evaporated. With the May 14 episode, the time comes to make good on that hint at the beginning of the ’95-’96 season, or else allow the characters to remain scoundrels until they meet a more bitter fate.
With Mr. David’s bile and masochism, best displayed in his alter ego, George Costanza, and Mr. Seinfeld’s cool, unflappable quality mixed with an endearing, open presence–not to mention the mollish charms of Elaine Benes and the comically raw animal character of Kramer– Seinfeld was beautiful while it lasted. But the joke’s over, and this comedy of manners for an age when there were none will be just one more permanent rerun.
Now Seinfeld is done. Now Jerry has to leave Superman, his refrigerator, his stereo, his boy’s apartment, and now history can get on with it.