Seinfeld: From Flop to Acclaimed Hit

Initially, Seinfeld met with a lukewarm response, a baffled network, low ratings and a volatile creator. So how did it become such a hit?

“Pilot performance: WEAK.”

That was the research report verdict on the 1989 pilot of new NBC sitcom Stand Up, written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. The episode had excited “lukewarm reactions among adults and teens and very low reactions among kids.” The audience found it annoying that the main character, a fictionalized version of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, “needed things to be explained to him.” The lead was too wimpy, the show was “too New York” (and therefore too Jewish) and worst of all, nothing happened in it. “You can’t get too excited about going to the Laundromat,” as one respondent put it. The report’s conclusion was stark: “No viewer was eager to watch the show again.”

Fast forward nine years and the Seinfeld finale drew an audience of over 76 million to NBC and has since then generated over $3 billion in syndication fees. From flop to enormous, critically acclaimed, cash-printing hit in just under a decade. How did Seinfeld pull it off?

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“Garbage dump theatre”

Any of the show’s cast and creators will tell you that they were hanging on by the skin of its teeth in the early days. The research audience weren’t the only ones unmoved by the pilot. Instead of picking up the sitcom (then renamed The Seinfeld Chronicles) for the autumn season, the network aired it in what NBC’s former late-night overseer Rick Ludwin called the “garbage dump theatre” summer slot, where it died an unsurprising death.

So convinced was production company Castle Rock Entertainment that NBC was going to pass on The Seinfeld Chronicles, that it pitched the pilot to Fox, who roundly turned it down. Before that even, co-creator and later executive producer, Larry David, had heard the show’s death knell. In making-of documentary Seinfeld: How It Began, David remembers saying goodbye to writing partner Seinfeld after the pilot was filmed “thinking that [he] wouldn’t see [him] again for another couple of years.”

Seinfeld’s co-star Jason Alexander, the actor who brought George Costanza – a thinly veiled version of David – to life, had a similarly downbeat response. His verdict on whether their pilot would be a hit was, “No way. No way. I said to Jerry, ‘I think the number one show in America at the moment is ALF. If that’s the number one show in America, who’s going to watch this?”

The problem wasn’t that The Seinfeld Chronicles wasn’t funny – one group who instantly became fans were Seinfeld and David’s fellow stand-ups at New York’s Catch A Rising Star comedy club – it was that people, the network included, just didn’t get it. It took being championed by NBC’s Rick Ludwin, staying the course in the face of studio interference, and piggy-backing on the hugely successful Cheers in the schedules that steadily transformed Seinfeld into a massive success.

Before all that though, the show had to decide what it was.

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“Just, you know, making fun of stuff”

Seinfeld and David met on the New York comedy club circuit in the early ’80s, and as they and others tell it, their first creative collaboration came about haphazardly. At the birthday party of a friend (comedy writer Carol Leifer), Seinfeld read aloud some material David had written for Leifer in lieu of a gift. “I got big laughs reading this routine, and it was the first time that I thought his material really works well with my voice,” Seinfeld remembers. The next night, after performing at a club, the pair went to a diner and swapped ideas on potential TV shows. Following spots on The Tonight Show, Jerry Seinfeld had been approached by NBC to pitch a series, and he needed a writer.

It wasn’t until the duo’s post-diner visit to a Korean grocery where they set about riffing about the shop’s products, that the idea for Seinfeld began to form. “It occurred to me,” remembered David, “that this is the kind of discussion you never really hear on television… and that it would be funny.” “Larry said this is what the show should be,” recalls Seinfeld, “Just, you know, making fun of stuff…”

The first idea was for a show about how a comedian gets his material. The plan would have been to follow Seinfeld around for a period of time, watching him have experiences that would eventually be turned into the stand-up set that would finish the episode. (The oft-quoted “show about nothing” line doesn’t describe the actual pitch for Seinfeld, it was a meta in-joke created for season four’s arc – one of many taken directly from David’s own life – in which George and Jerry pitch a TV comedy to a network and describe it as exactly that. Far from being a show about nothing, Seinfeld, particularly in its early days, juggled multiple plots and featured triple the average number of sitcom scenes per episode – largely a result of the creators’ inexperience and endeavour to give each main character a storyline each week).

Unable to stretch that premise to the planned 90-minute special, the idea for a half-hour series was born. Rob Reiner at Castle Rock Entertainment pin-pointed the central dynamic that eventually drove the series to success. “Larry and Jerry shared such a great sensibility. What was wonderful was you had this curmudgeonly, misanthropic, dyspeptic Larry David being pushed through by this very accessible, likeable Jerry Seinfeld… it was a marriage made in heaven.”

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“He was not the kind of stand-up who embraced the audience”

The partnership may have been made in heaven but David was hardly an angel to work with, as he readily admits. Having quit a writing position on Saturday Night Live midseason (and then, brilliantly providing the inspiration for Seinfeld episode “The Revenge,” going back and pretending it had never happened after realising the financial error of his ways), David had a well-deserved reputation for volatility that led to him eventually being banned from Seinfeld network meetings.

Fiercely protective of his work and resistant to any and all network notes, David remembers being on the attack from the off. Seinfeld recalls the initial NBC pitch meeting (which apparently bore a striking similarity to the way George and Jerry’s played out in season four episode “The Pitch”) in which David berated the studio for imagined interference. “Nobody had even suggested we change it yet, but he was throwing down the meaningless gauntlet.”

When changes were made to the pilot script, David remembers being incensed. “It wouldn’t have mattered who rewrote it, Woody Allen could have rewritten it, I would have hated it. […] To this day I have a lot of difficulty watching that pilot”.

Difficulty characterized David’s response to the success of Seinfeld, each instance of which appeared to cause him pain. While Seinfeld, who refused to worry about anything in the knowledge that David was worrying enough for the both of them, remembers “we always had fun writing it. It was never a struggle,” David recalls tears coming into his eyes when thirteen episodes were commissioned for season two. Having first worried how to fill a ninety minute show, then how to fill the paltry four-episode order NBC first committed to (“my initial reaction was not joy”), the idea of writing thirteen was traumatising to him. When season three was ordered at a whopping twenty-three episodes, David report crying “tears. Actual tears”. It’s little wonder him quitting the show became such a regular event over the nine years that Seinfeld existed – David would eventually leave after season seven, returning only to write the record-breaking finale two years later).

This, from the stand-up who famously walked off stage during one lacklustre gig, swearing at the audience and telling them “Fuck you. I don’t need this”, was par for the course. As Carol Leifer remembers of David at that time, “he was a great stand-up, but he was not the kind of stand-up who embraced the audience.”

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“Jerry, Larry, doesn’t something have to happen in this show?”

And neither would Seinfeld be that kind of comedy.

Top of the phrases that swam around the glut of Seinfeld retrospectives (“a show about nothing” was endlessly, erroneously, repeated) was “no hugging, no learning”, the instruction David made the writing team follow. Seinfeld’s characters were never supposed to evolve or support each other. They were self-involved, obsessed with trivialities, and generally despicable. David recoiled from resolution – each week, smirking nods to past jokes aside –  the characters would start more or less afresh.

Director Tom Cherones, who would go on to be behind the camera for no fewer than 81 Seinfeld episodes recalls thinking, upon receipt of an episode script: “I would read it and I would say ‘who cares? What are they talking about? Who cares what lining somebody has in a jacket? Who cares if they use real turkey for a sandwich? Why are they so picky?”

He wasn’t alone. NBC executive Warren Littlefield remembers receiving the script for the now-acclaimed “The Chinese Restaurant,” which saw the central trio become increasingly frustrated waiting for a table for 23 minutes. “I read that script and I thought, ‘nothing happens. Am I missing pages? Are they trying to save money?” NBC hated the concept and pushed against it at every step of the way, eventually holding back the episode until the end of a run. “I remember fighting that episode,” says Littlefield, thinking “Jerry, Larry, doesn’t something have to happen in this show?”

Crucially, though it disagreed with everything about it, NBC didn’t stop the team from making “The Chinese Restaurant” (which, like so much else in Seinfeld was based on a real event in David and Seinfeld’s life that took place in the Genghis Cohen Chinese on Fairfax, fact-pickers). The bottle episode would go on to become one of Seinfeld’s best loved instalments. Why?

Tom Cherones knows why. Who cares? What are they talking about? Why are they so picky? None of that mattered because “when the actors would read it, it would be funny.” Comedy was Seinfeld’s golden principle; if it was funny, it was in. Forget poignant, forget stirring, forget social taboos (the show repeatedly sailed close to the wind with plots about masturbation, orgasms, cunnilingus, bodily functions, disability, religion, and more), even forget story to some extent… Funny ruled, and that’s what gave the show longevity.

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“This, that, and the other

Not that NBC didn’t try to mold Seinfeld into something more generic. The network that had seen Cheers go from the 27th most watched show on its first outing to ten seasons that America took to its bosom and continued to adore in repeats for decades afterwards, thought it knew what Seinfeld needed: a Sam and Diane.

One good note NBC had given the pilot, and one of the few readily accepted by the team, was that The Seinfeld Chronicles needed a woman. Before Julia Louis-Dreyfus became indivisible from the character of Elaine, hordes of actors were seen for her role, from Will And Grace and Parks and Recreation’s Megan Mullally, to Everybody Loves Raymond’s Patricia Heaton, and Rosie O’Donnell. Larry David had worked briefly with Louis-Dreyfus during his SNL stint, and she duly became the fourth key member of the group, which numbered Seinfeld, Jason Alexander and Michael Richards.

David remembers being “strenuously” asked by NBC to bring exes Jerry and Elaine back together, and assenting, in his own way. The result was season two episode “The Deal,” in which the pair cynically negotiate guidelines for adding sex to their friendship without becoming a couple. It’s a deeply funny episode, but – just as David planned – leaves the heartstrings utterly untouched. Seinfeld stuck its course, and its intransigence saw it through.

“…Cheers’ little brother”

Prioritizing laughs over all else and refusing to bow to network pressure were two ingredients in the show’s success, but all signs point to one extra ingredient (the third kind of heat, to quote one of its many NBC heirs, 30 Rock) being key in Seinfeld’s success: its timeslot.

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After the initial season run of four episodes was commissioned (“the confidence four” as Jason Alexander wryly refers to it), the team was given a choice: air the quartet now on a Wednesday night and maybe have a chance at being picked up for the autumn season, or miss that opportunity but air on NBC’s famous Thursday comedy night after the Cheers rerun. It was a no-brainer. Cheers provided the piggy-back Seinfeld dearly needed in its early days, much to Larry David’s chagrin. “If they weren’t watching on Wednesday night, I don’t want them watching on Thursday night”, he remembers saying, repeatedly airing the view that he didn’t want Seinfeld “to be Cheers’ little brother.”

David’s pride wouldn’t get them anywhere. When Seinfeld was moved to Wednesday nights, its audience dropped significantly. Only back in that Thursday night slot (the line-up went, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cheers, Seinfeld) did the show start to amass the enormous following that led to over 76 million sitting down to its 1998 finale.

From a Korean grocery conversation then, to Time Magazine covers, obscene wealth and a critically respected legacy any sitcom would give its back nine for, via the canonisation of low-talkers, close-talkers, high-talkers, sidlers and soup Nazis. Seinfeld’s inexperience, obduracy, and fixation on just being funny took it from flop to crossover hit. Pretenders to its throne have come and gone, but the show’s legacy continues, and long may it continue to do so.

This story originally ran in November 2014. It’s being repromoted in honor of the first episode of the revamped “Seinfeld” on May 31, 1990.