Doctor Who was the first TV series
to be included in the Special Movie
Section (and it’s urgently needs
updating). Here’s the second TV
“Yada, yada, yada”
||The most expensive teeth in American television. © NBC, 1989-1998
So, we go into NBC, we tell them we’ve
got an idea for a show about nothing.
They say, "What's your show about?"
I say, "Nothing."
There you go.
(A moment passes)
I think you may have something there.
They made it, quite simply, the greatest comedy series on the planet. (Monty Python is the greatest sketch show). “The pitch for the show,” Jerry explained in 2014, “the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it’s the opposite of that.”
A how about… everything. Waiting for a table, double dipping, sponge worthy, marble rye, fix-ups, virgins, de-gifting, reverse chronology, low-talkers, high-talkers, close-talkers, heart attacks, the hand sandwich, hand-modeling, puffy shirts, nose jobs, Visa cards, implants, marine biologists, faked orgasms, The Hamptons, taking it out, the kiss hello, winks, shower heads, Jo(h)n Voight’s car and, of course, masturbation.
Jerry and Larty’s credo was post-modern. No hugging, no learning, no aging, commitment or obligation.
The formnat recalled the BBC’s greatest show, Hancock’s Half Hour, which reigned on radio and TV during the 50s/60s. It’s extremely doubtful that Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld ever listened or watched or even heard of the classic. (Seinfeld was more in to Abbott & Costello, the way Woody Allen revered Bob Hope. George’s middle names is Louis for Lou Costello). Yet Hancock comprised an amazingly similar motley collection of friends, also headed by a comic, Tony Hancock - Kramer would have loved his Homburg hat and astrakhan coat. ’Ancock’s group comprised a lugubrious pal (and lodger), Australian comic Bill Kerr, and despite the term being unknown at the time, a real hipster doofus of a neighbour (not exactly but he was always there) and forever full of money-making ideas in South African Sidney James. And, yes, there was even a girlfriend who was not really a girlfriend - Moira Lister, then Andrée Melly segueing into the glorious Hattie Jacques, twice if not thrice the bodyweight of Julis Louis Dreyfuss and extremely funny with it. Like Seinfeld, most of Hancock’s non-plots took place in his home. He had 23 Railway Cuttings in East Cheam. Jerry had 129 W 81st Street in Manhattan, constantly invaded by one or other or all of his crowd. George would arrive miserable, Elaine usually more joyful and Kramer like a tank.
At various times this also was a show about nothing. Sid James never actually never crashed through doors, but when he arrived it usually meant Hancock’s money would fly out the window. There was one momentous episode about (yawn!) how boring Sunday afternoons (yawn!) were… Other nothings included amateur radio hamming, and donating blood. (“A pint? Why, that's very nearly an armful!”
Hancock, the man, was never was cool as Jerry. As star, he was bigger than The Beatles - they didn’t empty streets as people rushed home to watch hem. An alcoholic, alas, Tony was a sad man with troubled soul, self-critical to the nth degree as he searched perfection; he never recognised it (or trusted it) when he not only found it, but found he was it. One by one, he ostracised his writing and performing partners, almost deliberately ruining his reputation. He commited suicide in Sydney, Australia in 1968, tragically worthy of George Constanza’s signature line: “I’m disturbed. I’m depressed. I’m inadequate…. I’ve got it all!” As late as 2002, BBC radio listeners sill voted Hancock their favourite British comedian.
I write about “The lad,” as Hancock’s character was known, with sadness because I knew him. Slightly. (No one really knew him, except, perhaps, his brother Roger, who suggested that self-analysis killed him). I merely interviewed Tony a few times - akin to quizing Elvis in those days. Tony had grown up in Bournemouth, where I worked on a local paper that loved any “local” stars. Visiting him on location in Bognor Regis for his final film, The Punch and Judy Man, in 1962, I asked during the morning if he’d sign a photo for me. Sure. He still had not done so by the time I had to leave. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said miserably (he beat Peter Sellers for misery). Pause. “I just don’t know what to write.”
Getting back to our US heroes… Larry David was under-employed and Jerry Seinfeld a minor stand-up - loved by the Tonight Show - but no writer, much less actor (fired after two Benson shows in 1980). As they complied the show, Jerry, like Cary Grant and John Wayne, would play “himself,” the voice of reason, the gentle persuader, among his crowd, while obsessing on the life’s minutiae, Superman, Lois Lane, and breakfast cereal, a germnaphobe, neat feak thought by others to be gay “because I’m thin, I’m single, and I’m neat.”
Well, Seinfeld started badly - thrown away as a hopeless pilot in 1989 - and pretentiously as The Seinfeld Chronicles (changed due to an ABC flop, The Marshall Chronicle). NBC’s Mr Big, Brandon Tartikoff, a New York Jew himself, complained:“Who will want to see four Jews wandering around New York acting neurotic?”
Tartikoff was always praised as the sole NBC suit with the insight to allow the show to evolve on-air. (Not quite… Hating the pilot, he tried to dump the show on Fox!). The saviour was Rick Ludwin, head of late night and special events, who saved Jerry and Larry by finding more money for the budget by the simple expedient of cancelling a Bob Hop special. (Woody Allen was not pleased). That paid for four more episodes (“An order for six is considered a slap in the face,” said Alan Horn, head of the show’s Castle Rock production company). They were aired the following summer, collecting high ratings by another simple expedient: piggy-backing the current NBChamp, Cheers.
Ken Tucker, the Entertainment Weekly TV critic, hailed Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer as “a group dynamic rooted in jealousy, rage, insecurity, despair, hopelessness, and a touching lack of faith in one's fellow human beings.”
Tartikoff changed his tune, and accepted all the plaudits. “It’s one of the most important and appealing shows of the '90s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is what it has to say about friendship, family and growing up.”
The “nothing” he tried to lose was soon enough able to charge $550,000 for 30-second commercials, and making NBC $200m a year in gross revenue! Jerry is the only character to appear in all 172 episodes. Elaine missed three, Kramer two and George one (and was angrily convinced he was being written out).
||The gang’s all here… © NBC, 1989-1998
George Costanza . Larry said he hired Alexander after just ten words of his audition tape... He had rivals galore as David and Seinfeld searched for Jerry’s friend George Costanza - based on a David mate but named after a Seinfled pal, Michael Costanza. He later sued the creators and NBC for $100m, for invasion of privacy and defamation of character! The case, which did not need aid from Jackie Childs, was dismissed.
First off, Jerry “begged” fellow comic Jake Johannsen to play George. No way! He was happier as an acclaimed stand-up, a David Letterman favourite. Jake’s 1992 HBO comedy special This’ll Take About an Hour was one of People magazine’s 10 Best TV Shows in 1992.
The hunt then widened from unknowns Steve Buscemi, better suited for Kramer and finally headlining Broadwalk Empire, 2010-2014… Kevin Dunn: he joined Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep in 2013… Anthony Edwards, ER’s Dr Mark Greene, 1994-2002… Brad Hall, Julia’s husband, who created The Single Guy and Watching Ellie shows… the thoroughly irritating Larry Miller, who guested as The Doorman in 1955.. and Bronx writer and comic Robert Schimmel.
Plus top TV and Broadway stars Danny De Vito and Nathan Lane. Even David Letterman’s music man Paul Shaffer was seen because he resembled Larry David. And David Alan Grier, because he didn’t. Yes, indeed, George was nearly black. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Jason Alexander, of course, was another Broadway star. “And,” recalled Jerry, “he had that funny loser look… Jason was a super-pro… Remember, ‘the sea was angry that day, my friends…’ We gave him that speech - pages of it! – [actually just 159 words] - one hour before before we shot it. He looked at it and just went, ‘Got it - roll ’em !’ I can’t believe he’s getting the speech perfect. How did he do that?”
George’s best line: “George is gettin’ upset!”
Then again, he had so many… “In high school it was always ‘Bonjour, le George,’ ‘How’s it going le George?’ ‘Hey, let’s stuff le George in le locker’.” “My name is George, I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.” “Yesterday for lunch, I had a soft-boiled egg and a quickie. Now, if I could add TV to the equation, that would really be the ultimate.”
The Jerry show within the show did not get picked-up by NBC. As nearly happened to Seinfeld. After the July 5, 1989, pilot, the suits were worried. Too Jewish, too New York and too male-centric. The Chronicles was about three guys. “You know,” said Larry, “three guys instead of two. We thought that was great!” The network did not. From above came the order: add a regular female character (no ethnicity stipulated) or be axed.
There had been a female character in the debut - Lee Garlington as the coffee shop waitress called Clair, full of sassy advice for Jerry and George. She wasn’t there for #2 table read. Jason Alexander says she annoyed Larry David by rewriting her scenes. (Jerry denied this legend). Garlington went on to guest in shows galore - Boston Legal, CSI, Judging Amy, LA Law, Lie to Me The Practice, Roseanne, Quantum Leap, The West Wing, Will & Grace.
So Clair became…
Elaine Benes . “She’s nuts,” Elaine’s alter-ego, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, told New York Magazine. “The woman’s nuts… I’m sure it’s a self-esteem problem. I mean, she’s hanging out with these three guys, in that ratty apartment - where’s the self-esteem there?”
She couldn’t dance, either.
Yet, JLD loved her first script. “Nothing had ever been written like that before, like it was just a conversation as opposed to a setup, punch line, setup, punch line. And I just remember thinking: This is so nice and relaxed.”
Elaine was based on various exes of Jerry and Larry (Susan McNab, Monica Yates, if you must know, and Carol Leifer - she became one of the writeers). Larry knew Julia from Saturday Night Live (he spent a year there, and had just one sketch used). Like Harrison Ford in Star Wars (and Gérard Depardieu in so many outings), JLD turned up at precisely the right moment to save the product. “Get out!”
Mariska Hargitay tested - and was called back to be Elaine in the Jerry pilot episode… Jayne Mansfield’s daughter has since become the highest paid US TV actress towards the end of her year run as Detective Olivia Benson in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, 1999-2015.
Other Elaine maybes included… Patricia Heaton, chosen by another stand-up, Ray Romano, to be his wife, Debra, in Everybody Loves Raymond, 1996-2005. (Kramer testee, Tony Shaloub, was best man at her 1990 wedding to David Hunt)… writer-performer Jessica Lundy, best remembered as Gloria in NBC’s Hope & Gloria, 1995-1996…. Megan Mullay, aka Karen in Will & Grace, 1998-2006… Rosie O’Donnell, comic-turned-actress-turned producer-turned-talk show hostess… and the Lebanese-Irish-American Amy Yasbeck, aka Madison the mermaid in Splash Too, TV, 1988, and the Wings sitcom,1994-1997 (with Shaloub).
Oh and Elaine is named after Terry Benes, a TV documentary producer friend of Larry David. And like various NBC suits whose monickers became characters - Alec Berg, Lloyd Braun, Davola, etc - she didn’t sue.
Elaine’s #1 line:“I don’t know how you guys walks around with those things.”
Cosmo Kramer . Jerry’s volcanic neighbour grew out of Larry David’s volcanic neighbour, Kenny Kramer. At first, Kramer was Kessler when Kenny refused any use of his name unless he played the role! (His other demands were met and Kessler reverted to Kramer).
Jerry and Larry shuffled through four final choices for Cosmo (almost Conrad). Tony Shaloub, the future Monk, 2002-2009… Steve Vinovich, who has kept himself private and unknown despite 100-plus screen roles,,. and Larry Hankin, who popped up in five episodes of Friends, which said Jerry was a naked rip-off of Seinfeld. Excetp for the hugging and learning.
These guys lost out to Michael Richards, from an earlier Larry David collaboration, Fridays (think Friday Night Live!), 1980-1982. Hankin, however, became Kramer in the series within the Jerry series in the Season Four finale, May 20, 1993.
“Kramer,” said Jerry, “is the kind of guy you tolerate because he’s funny… Michael would work and work and work on these little pieces of business…”
Kramer’s biggest laugh: “Yeah, I’m out. I’m out of the contest!”
Newman . Although a potential George was black, until the 1995-1998 arrival of Phil Morris chaneling Johnnie Cochrane as Kramer’s hot-shot lawyer Jackie Childs, the sole complaint about Seinfeld had been the total absence of black characters.
Then, Jerry’s nemesis was born in Season Three’s 15th episode. Jerry only ever said “Hello, New-man!” 16 times - but to chubby Wayne Knight during 45 episodes. Never to the first signed, filmed and ultimately deleted William Thomas Jr - a tad too old at 45 to be the (schooldays?) annoyance of Jerry at 35. During 1991-1992, Thomas was Vanessa Huxtable's fiance, Dabnis Brickey, in the other long-running NBC hit, The Cosby Show.
Tim Russ, also black, tested for the US Postal worker. As he had been for Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987, before winning Vulcan officer Tuvok in the Star Trek: Voyager crew, 1995-2001. He remains the sole Trekkie to co-star with all the first four captains: William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew.
Elaine on Newman: Maybe he’s an enigma, a mystery wrapped in a riddle.
Jerry : Yeah, he's a mystery wrapped in a twinkie.
Newman’s best line: “Just remember, when you control the mail, you control... information!”
Frank Costanza . George’s first dad in The Handicap Spot episode - May 13, 1993 - was the Tony-winning Broadway veteran…. who had co-starred with TV son, Jason Alexander, in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound But letting his shrewish wife wear the pants was not funny and Jerry Stiller took the role to glory. Co-creator Larry David had Stiller re-shoot the Handicap scenes when the cult series went into syndication. Randolph’s scenes have never been seen since the original airing on May 13, 1993… excepting Asian and South America re-runs. Randolph was also known for getting a whole new life by turning into Rock Hudson in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, 1965 - the actor’s first movie for 15 yearts after being the longest victim of the Hollywood blacklist.
Frank’s best line: “Ya wanna piece-a me?”
The Soup Nazi . “No Soup Nazi for you!!” The veteran Richard Libertini tested for the crazy soup chef. That was why Larry Thomas, an actor moonlighting as a bail bondsman, felt he’d lose another role. Libertini was one of his acting idols. He was working with Alan Arkin, Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams, etc, while Thomas… well, as he said: “The only people who’d seen my work were the four people in the audience of the plays I was doing.” But after checking Mid-East accents with Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, Thomas nailed it… while dressed up like Saddam Hussein! He was called back to do it it over for Jerry - laughing his head off, yet asking him to make the Soup Nazi slightly nicer. “It was the audition of my life but then I blew it because he wanted something different.” But no, he was told to report to work at 1pm. Then, Jerry told him: “Hey, forget about the direction I gave. Just do what you did... For some reason, the meaner, the funnier.” “That’s Jerry. One of the most powerful men in the industry tells some nobody actor: ‘Your idea was better than mine.’ When something’s funny to him, his ego is not involved.” Thomas next made Julia Louis-Dreyfus laugh so hard she fell over the first time he yelled “No soup for you!” - swiftly joining such classic Seinfeld lines as: “Yada, yada, yada/Master of my domain/Sponge-worthy/Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The studio audience gave him a a standing ovation - as did 33.1m viewers on November 2, 1995. And he won an Emmy nomination. After paying for the $100 application fee, himself!
(Almost) Everyone Else . Just as the show’s busiest “extra,” Norman Brenner, was invariably the passerby on one street or another in 29 episodes, Larry David was the busiest voice-off. The man in some other street, man at softball game, man on beach, man in hallway, man in cape, man on raft… Such a busy body. He was the first voice of Newman (1991), and always voiced George’s main boss, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (who did not want to co-operate at first, thinking George had been named after him just to send him up!). Larry was also to be heard as a prisoner, comedy club MC, cop, limo dispatcher, newsstand owner, car thief, heckler, airport and subway announcers, soap opera director, boxing referee, kosher meal passenger, sports commentator… even JFK Jr an Saddam Hussein.
About 30m viewers a week made Seinfeld #1 in the Nielsen ratings for the final four years. Only three shows have matched that record: the 50s’ I Love Lucy, 70s’ All in the Family and the 80s’ Cosby Show. Even with Jerry’s eventual $1m per show, and the others moving way above half-a-million, this still meant NBC was raking in an annual $120m profit from just this one show. Jerry decided to quit after nine years (“like The Beatles,” he said). Estimated audience for the May 14, 1998 finale was 78m viewers! One cable channel, TV Land, shut up shop for the hour, leaving a sign: Back after the finale.
Yeah… not about nothing at all.
PS JERRY'S #1 line
I have a suspicion that he's converted to
Judaism purely for the jokes.
And this offends you as a Jewish person?
No! It offends me as a comedian!