How `Seinfeld’ broke the mold

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

1989. Jerry Seinfeld was scoring with audiences when he appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and his radio spots showed a fresh and appealing observational humor. So when his managers, George Shapiro and Howard West, said, “What about Jerry?” we thought, why not?
The pitch was pretty simple. Jerry said he wanted to do a show about “just me and my friends hanging out and doing stuff.”
“That’s it?” we said.
“Pretty much.”
They found a writer and went to work, but they never showed us that script. Jerry felt it didn’t capture what he had in mind, and after much looking he decided to write it himself with fellow comedian and friend Larry David.
Already all the rules had been broken. Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment; Rick Ludwin, senior VP of specials, prime-time series and late-night; and myself committed to develop a show before we had the “approved show runner” or even a concept that anyone could repeat.
The pilot episode was called “The Seinfeld Chronicles” (original airdate July 5, 1989). Jerry lived in a studio apartment, the coffee shop was called Pete’s Luncheonette, Kramer was Kessler, and there was no Elaine!
We went to pilot because we thought it was funny material. Not a lot of “rooting interest,” no traditionally “identifiable characters,” but fresh and funny.
The more I learn, the more I realize success is extremely difficult to predict in television. Originality is more valuable than plutonium, and we thought these guys deserved a shot at a pilot based on originality alone. So we rolled the dice on Jerry. Nobody had credentials. Not Castle Rock, not Jerry, not Larry or the director, Art Wolff. Nobody was from TV’s elite circle of success.
From Day One we had Jerry, now we needed his friends. For Kessler, they wanted Michael Richards, and having already done a pilot with Michael where he stole the show with his looks of befuddlement and kamikaze pratfalls, I was already a big fan. Easy call.
The logic of having Jason Alexander went something like this: Jerry isn’t an actor, so as a trained and skilled “stage actor,” Jason was the seasoned professor among the group.
Looking at the pilot today, you can see the seeds of its success. No Elaine, but casual, offbeat and weirdly identifiable friendships existed in this (at times) funny half-hour.
After a record-breaking run of success in the mid- and late-’80s, NBC’s programming fastball was beginning to show its age. We still had “The Cosby Show,” “Golden Girls,” “Cheers” and “Family Ties,” but they weren’t quite the powerhouses they once were.
Pilot screenings were done for all fall contenders in May in the third- floor conference room at NBC Burbank. The conference room was equipped with several large-screen TV monitors whose sound system never seemed to work. This was always confusing to me. Forty of the network’s best minds, including programmers and sales, research, and senior executives from New York, were there to watch up to $50 million of development that on occasion contained a show that was worth a billion dollars to their network. It was a rarity if the sound and picture functioned properly.
The room’s mood would rise and fall mostly on the quality of the choices being viewed. What was true then is true today: One hit can turn around your network. Did we have it? Would we know it?
The demographic of the room was predominantly men 35 years old and over-not the best group to judge a number of program genres, but it was a good group for “Seinfeld.” They got it. They laughed. It was a contender for fall, but … was it too New York? Was it too Jewish? There were doubters in the room.
While you know “research day” is coming, and you’ve been there before, there is no way to adequately prepare your mind or body for this experience. On this day, most patients are told they have cancer. Loved ones die a painful death. The only saving grace is that it is swift.
And so it was on that day in May with “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” A “contender” going into the research session, its flame was quickly extinguished. I quote the research document that hangs in my office, framed and signed by all the cast members and Larry David:
Pilot Performance: Weak
“… Portions were very popular, most notably the stand-up routines Jerry Seinfeld performed at this nightclub locale, but the more typical sitcom scenes of Jerry and his friends at common day locations were negatively received. As one viewer put it, `You can’t get too excited about going to the Laundromat.’ No segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again.
“None of the supports were particularly liked, and viewers felt that Jerry needed a better back-up ensemble.
“George was negatively viewed as a `wimp’ who was only mildly amusing.”
Yada, yada, yada. The problem was and is that research rarely gives recognition to originality. It recognizes what’s familiar. The research department accurately identified “The Cosby Show” and “Golden Girls” as hits, but given the home-run quality of those pilots, it wasn’t surprising. Research is best used with familiar concepts or once a show is on air to provide feedback over multiple episodes. Who knows how many “Sopranos”-like golden nuggets were killed off by research?
The comedies that we did put on the 1989 fall schedule included “Sister Kate,” “My Two Dads,” The Nutt House” and “Dear John.”
While “Seinfeld” was not on the fall lineup, it refused to die. Rick Ludwin, who did not suffer from having too many mouths to feed on his program roster, kept up the fight, as did Glenn Padnick, president of Castle Rock TV. I continued to be a strong supporter, and finally one night, a weary Brandon agreed if I could find some extra money, we’d make some more. I sat with finance and reality sank in-no dollars left for additional series episodes-something about too much failure or, strangely, not enough failure yet, but there was some additional money stored away for specials in the 1989-90 budget. Without hesitation, Rick agreed with me to lose a few specials to save “Seinfeld.”
I told Castle Rock we could go forward to series.
“Great, how many episodes?” they asked.
Jerry called with a question, “In the history of television has there ever been an order for four?”
“I don’t know, Jerry. I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, thanks for the vote of confidence.”
This may have been our greatest contribution to its success. Jerry and Larry were convinced they were on a fool’s errand. They accepted the order but proceeded with a belief that the episodes would never be seen except by their closest friends. That was the group they made the show for. They didn’t worry about pleasing the masses.
We did ask for one creative change from the pilot: Add a girl. They agreed. Very quietly going through the casting directors (so it wouldn’t appear as a network request), I asked that they see Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’d done a brief stint on “Saturday Night Live” and had been a standout on a not-so-standout comedy called “Day by Day.” Though she had a development deal at the time, she read a script and was ready to sign on. Smart woman.
These four new episodes went into production: “The Stakeout,” “The Robbery,” “Male Unbonding” and “The Stock Tip.” What begins to emerge from the stone is a sculpture. Jerry and Julia have great chemistry and play out the quid pro quo nature of their unique male-female relationship. Monk’s Cafe is discovered. Kessler becomes Kramer and begins his famous entrances with his hair bobbing up and down. George Costanza only gets more insecure, more flawed and funnier. The music and pace signal a change from sitcoms of the past. Gone is the traditional situation comedy two-act, seven-scene structure. This is Jerry and Larry’s world, and we are along for the ride.
Long before reality programming took over, the summer used to mean promising experiments of new shows. We believed “Seinfeld” would best match up with “Cheers,” and so on May 31, 1990, the series debut began. During that initial four-week run
, I was named president of NBC Entertainment. Coincidence?
Those who said it would only play in New York were wrong. There was no discernable difference, regardless of city or region. It did a decent but not spectacular job of holding the “Cheers” lead-in and did so particularly well with young-adult males. The retention of the “Cheers” audience, the skew to advertiser-coveted young-adult men, along with recognition that something was starting to percolate creatively, led us to order 13 more episodes. It could have gone either way, but “Cheers” was a slow starter and, thankfully, we had learned a lesson in patience.
The only creative discussion with Jerry and Larry was about story.
Network: Don’t you need some?
Boys: We’ll get back to you.
Hence the birth of “It’s a show about nothing.” Ultimately, Jerry and Larry found that writing about nothing was very, very difficult. The shows began to be packed not with traditional A and B stories but eventually with three, four and even five story lines in the 23 minutes of show time. No one had ever shattered the mold like this before.
On Jan. 23, 1991, the series went back on the air-this time on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. following “Night Court.” Over the next 13 episodes, Barney Martin came on as Jerry’s dad, joining Liz Sheridan as Jerry’s mom. And the Costanzas were memorably played by Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris. These older characters were not only unbelievably funny, but they also helped to open up the show to generational and family stories that only broadened its audience appeal.
Memorable episodes for me include “The Pen,” “The Parking Garage,” “The Red Dot” and “The Pez Dispenser.” But the episode that told us we were now playing at a level that we had never played at before was hour-long “The Boyfriend.” In this episode, not only does Jerry utter for the first time, “Hello, Newman,” to his nemesis played by Wayne Knight, but more significantly, the episode contains a parody of Oliver Stone’s feature film “JFK” with the “second spitter” theory. It also features guest star Keith Hernandez. Upon watching this episode we have the realization that we have entered a new world of comedy. It’s brilliant, it’s biting, and it’s hilarious.
In April of 1991, I announce that the show is going back behind “Cheers,” and it stays there through the May sweeps. Its performance following “Cheers” is good but far from spectacular. As we screen pilots in May and rescreen some “Seinfelds,” I remember standing at the scheduling board pointing to its red metallic card and saying, “This is our future!”
Nevertheless, when I announce the fall schedule, “Cheers” is at 9 o’clock on Thursday, and “Wings” (due to a contractual obligation) is at 9:30. “Seinfeld” is matched up with “Mad About You” on Wednesday at 9. It is a good hour of comedy except for one small problem: ABC’s new hit show “Home Improvement” is opposite “Seinfeld.” ABC gets a 35-share, we get a 17.
Sept. 16, 1992, “Seinfeld” kicks off the season with a one-hour episode written by Larry David. “The Pitch” is where we see the NBC suits who like Jerry’s stand-up act invite him to pitch a sitcom. I’m portrayed for the first of many times by Bob Balaban, who listens to a pitch regarding a show about “nothing.” To say I’m portrayed as a suit without “flair” is an understatement, but NBC President Russell Dalrymple does buy the pitch.
Late in 1992, the phone call that marks the worst moment of my career comes from Ted Danson. He tells me he can’t be Sam Malone anymore. He’s got to find Ted. “Cheers” will soon be over. Can I be far behind?
Time magazine on Feb. 1, 1993, writes:
NBC, the onetime kingpin of prime time, has seen its fortunes turn sour almost overnight. Its biggest hit of the ’80s, “The Cosby Show,” took early retirement last spring, while several other veterans-“The Golden Girls,” “Matlock” and “In the Heat of the Night”-were given their unconditional release. (All were later picked up by rivals.) The network’s last remaining top 10 hit, “Cheers,” will call it quits at the end of this season; highly regarded younger shows like “Seinfeld” have not lived up to ratings expectations. … The network is desperately in need of a miracle.
On Christmas Eve, I meet with our top entertainment executives in the boardroom and decide “Seinfeld” will move to Thursday at 9:30 in late January. The Super Bowl will be our promotional vehicle to bring America to watch.
One caustic voice from the sales department in New York weighs in with this assessment, “Ya know, it’s a 17 share no matter where you put it.” Merry Christmas.
John Miller and Vince Manze brilliantly use the Super Bowl telecast along with a gatefold cover of TV Guide to tell America that “Seinfeld” is coming to Thursday right after “Cheers.” With only four months of “Cheers” left, the countdown begins, but this time we quickly see just how compatible and successful these two shows are together. Before long, “Seinfeld” starts to eclipse “Cheers” in the ratings, and “Cheers” executive producer and director Jimmy Burrows remarks, “I think the audience is telling us something.”
“Cheers” left with a flourish of accolades and ratings, but in the fall of 1993, “Seinfeld” does the impossible. Now in the 9 p.m. anchor position of the night, it improves on “Cheers” performance.
We had found our miracle.
Warren Littlefield worked in programming for NBC for 20 years and was president of NBC Entertainment from 1990-98. He is currently president of the Littlefield Company and has a production deal with Paramount Network Television.