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'Seinfeld' is back, baby!

The show gains an 8th season, but loses Larry David

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After a morning of network corporate-speak at the semiannual convention of TV critics in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 15, reporters for whom coffee alone was not incentive enough to stay alive snapped out of their stupors and snapped on their microcassette recorders at the unbilled performer introduced by NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. Striding to the front of the room in a fine haircut and an even finer suit, Jerry Seinfeld was there to announce that, buoyed by the enthusiastic reception his show was getting this year and jazzed by the fun everyone was still having — ”like we did in the beginning, when we were a bomb” — he and the cast had definitely, finally, at long last, after much waffling and despite rumors to the contrary, decided to continue Seinfeld for an eighth season next fall.

Applause all around. Then he took a few questions. No, he hasn’t made any decision to marry his 20-year-old girlfriend, Shoshanna Lonstein, even though ”I hate to go counter to the great American tradition of revealing things about your personal life in front of the media before you do to the people that are actually in your life.” No, the show is not likely to do any crossover episodes with any other NBC property, since ”as you’ve probably noticed, we’re not joiners. For some reason, we’re at the party but we’re never really in the main group of people. We’re the people making wisecracks over by the bad meat.” He made his audience laugh. He posed off stage for grip-and-grin pictures with NBC chairman Robert Wright and West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer. He looked glossy and powerful and Hollywoodish and a long way from the gig-a-night stand-up comic who had hit the comedy-club circuit for 16 years before a TV series came his way. Then he was off, in a whoosh of ultraexpensive wheels.

That Seinfeld is coming back for one more, possibly, probably final season is happy news for Littlefield, who counts on the series as a major magnet in the network’s powerfully attractive Thursday-night lineup. Once a cult taste with a rocky future, now the mature success story against which every other sitcom about untethered friends who banter a lot is measured, the show earns a bundle for the Peacock network, commanding an estimate of nearly a million bucks a commercial minute — Super Bowl-size rates. That’s because, seen by an average of 31.8 million people per week (the show’s all- time high), Seinfeld is now TV’s top-rated sitcom. In syndication through Columbia TriStar since last September, the series is aired on a record 224 stations, where it ranks in the top 10, pulling in an average viewership of 9.7 million. (The felicitous effect is to attract new viewers, rather than take a bite out of the existing audience — a problem Home Improvement is currently facing.) And in a deal between United Airlines and Columbia TriStar to promote the syndication, six episodes will be shown January through March on United’s domestic flights. In other words, the show is now as much a staple of American pop-cultural life as a ”fasten seat belts” sign.

But the equally good tidings for fans — the relief, really — is that the cranky, quirky, funny big sibling to Ellen, Mad About You, Friends, Caroline in the City, The Single Guy, Partners, Ned and Stacey, and every other sitcom featuring articulate, neurotic urbanites, has, in its golden years, recovered its sharpest instincts. The writing is fresh and elegant, with a recent run of sophisticated, complexly structured episodes including the already classic “The Rye,” which managed to weave a horse-drawn carriage, implications of oral sex, and a loaf of marble rye bread into a richly detailed tapestry of nudnickdom. This year, following a season that, despite continued high ratings, received raised eyebrows from critics and devotees for its departure into windier, slapstickier directions, Seinfeld has reclaimed its focused joie de misery.

“Now,” says Seinfeld with satisfaction, sitting in a booth on the Seinfeld diner set the day after his announcement, “we’re older inept singles.” Which is ironic, really, since, in the course of seven years of togetherness, the individual players have matured far beyond the range of their characters’ stunted lifestyles. Drastically exceeding the capabilities of Elaine, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 35, and her husband, Single Guy creator Brad Hall, have a son, Henry, now 3; Jason Alexander, 36, who plays George Costanza, and his wife, Daena Title, are the parents of Gabriel, 3, and another child is due this month; Michael Richards, 46, is the father of Sophia, 20, and is currently single; and Seinfeld, 41, and Lonstein have been a fairly steady couple for three years. Even Larry David, 48, the show’s dyspeptic cocreator, unofficial creative director, and inspiration for commitment-phobe George, married Laurie Lennard in 1993 and is the father of 2-year-old daughter Cazzie, with a second child on the way.

And yet, here’s Jerry: “We play the oldest losers around.”

Rich losers. For a show about shlubs, the Seinfeld team has made a mint, and syndication brings in an additional bundle of dough — the series reportedly earned over $2.5 million per episode in licensing fees — and by industry standards, creators Seinfeld and David and producer Castle Rock Entertainment stand to clean up. (This does not, however, hold true for fellow cast members Richards, Louis-Dreyfus, and Alexander, who are compensated as talent but own no piece of the pie. “A bone of contention,” admits Alexander, “but that’s how the deal was done.”)

In addition, the foursome — who’ve remained an ensemble troupe, with no one break-out cast member unbalancing the scales — have all benefited from endorsement deals. “We’re all millionaires many times over,” claims Richards, pointing out that at least he and his colleagues have unanimously agreed not to do anything so crass as to endorse products in character. (“A diet soda!” the man who once hawked Pepsi fulminates, eyeing a magazine ad campaign featuring the cast of Another Sitcom. “Do those kids know what’s in that stuff?”)

There’s one announcement Seinfeld didn’t make that morning among the flashbulbs, and it’s a big one: A key player — a player arguably as important as Jerry himself — will not be on board next season. In an exclusive announcement to EW, Larry David has said that he absolutely, positively, is not coming back. True, he’s made these noises before and has been courted back before. (Asked to place his bets a few days before David confirmed his plans, NBC’s Littlefield could only shrug noncommittally and say, “Well, you know Larry.”) But this time, David says, his mind is made up.

“I’ve wanted to leave since this show began,” he insists, mashing up a soft-boiled egg at a breakfast interview the morning that news of Seinfeld‘s return had made the daily papers. “The time is coming when I should be doing something else. I would have preferred if we had ended this year, yes,” he admits. And when the season began, David and Seinfeld had agreed that this season would be the last. “They will do the show,” he says with jumpy lugubriousness. “I can’t stop them from doing the show. I probably won’t watch it.”

“I knew how he felt,” Seinfeld later confirms. “I know he’s felt tremendous pressure. Larry is sensitive about the press we get. For some of us, this is a glorious struggle. For others, it’s just a struggle.”

“For Jerry, it’s fun,” Alexander adds. “For Larry, it’s blood and agony.”

When David does leave — because he’s had enough, because he wants a change, because, in Seinfeld‘s creative process (which is unlike any sitcom factory around) not a script or line delivery or camera angle escapes his input — the show is in for some major reorganizing of responsibilities, and, possibly, of sensibilities. But David takes diplomatic pains to make clear that he’ll be available “to help out” (and hey, nothing’s written in stone, not even this story). Seinfeld, meanwhile, calmly plans to “expand the brain center” with writers already on board.

“Jerry has promised that I won’t get to blubber. And I blubber regularly,” David says glumly. “When the shows finish filming at the end of March, I’ll go back to being a f—-off.” He pauses. “Look — leave me out of the whole thing, okay? Don’t quote me, I beg you. I can’t stand it.”

There is one area where David remains both vocal and in synch with the rest of the cast. They can’t fathom, they each kvetch, why any critic would say that Seinfeld is back, since as far as they’re concerned, Seinfeld was never away, and they’ve got the ratings research to prove it. “The critics are just trying to stay with a trend. People don’t understand the racket of TV” is how Richards explains away any negative press. “Oh, and by the way, my wardrobe is not out of the ’50s. It’s the late ’60s.”

Neither can the company understand how anyone could suggest that some of the writing on the show last season was weak, since as far as they’re concerned, last year was their best year ever. “We’re all amused by those perceptions. But it’s an urban myth,” says Seinfeld. “Maybe it was time for people to think it’s not as fresh and new. But I understand what you [in the press] have gotta do. You’ve gotta have an angle.”

And as for all the praise they’re receiving from critics for this year’s work, they all say, essentially, Get over it. By their standards, they’ve been producing the same old superior product all along; maybe it just took prolonged exposure to inferior, overhyped, jejune rip-off sitcoms — like what’s that show on EW’s cover all the time, Friends? — to appreciate the specialness of the original. Only Alexander will stick his neck out. “I came into this season saying ‘I think we’re done.’ I thought creatively we had sort of played it out. In the fifth and sixth seasons the show went in a different direction that I wasn’t personally interested in. It went from being about the little things that happen to everybody, the minutiae of life, the funny examination of that stuff, to very broad story lines, very wacky.” But the company line is David’s: “The notion that the writing was weaker last year is preposterous.”

The fact is, although the ratings have remained solid (last season, with a weekly average of 30.3 million viewers, Seinfeld ranked second), criticism was leveled at last year’s creative direction even by those close to the production. One former staff writer (who, like other former writers, requests anonymity) “didn’t watch any of last year’s shows because it was just too difficult,” and suggests that “with a show like this, when it’s on for so long, there are only so many likes and dislikes, interests and passions, that you can explore. It’s hard to remain on the cutting edge. The writers are constantly thinking ‘Are we going over the same old ground?'” Another describes a production process that lends itself to burnout: “After you’d write a script, Larry would completely take it over and that’s the last you’d see of your script; the writer is just a cog in the system. Larry is definitely the ‘man behind the curtain.’ But I guess privilege has its attendant moods.”

Seinfeld and David themselves will, with prodding, admit to “maybe two or three [episodes]” that they weren’t satisfied with, although they won’t say which. “If this show started last season and ran in reverse order,” David counters defensively, “by the fourth season people would be saying ‘What’s happening to this show? I don’t get it! There used to be so much going on, the stories were so dense and interconnected, and now they just kind of sit there and nothing is happening, and then there’s stand-up comedy in the middle. What is this?”‘

“All I know,” says Seinfeld in summation, “is we went into this season thinking it was our last, but then we decided we were having too much fun to stop.”

When Seinfeld does stop, Richards dreams of doing an hour-long comedy series with a Rockford Files feeling. Louis-Dreyfus would like to take some time off “to be a mom.” Alexander will continue his stage and film work. And Seinfeld says he’d like to give career seminars for young comedians. “When you’re a comedian, you don’t feel like you’re in show business,” he muses in that polished, disciplined way that makes for great comic timing, terrific late-night talk-show appearances, and unnerving humanoid conversation. “It’s like you’re selling belts on the street; it’s not a real job. Anything with a camera is legitimate show business. With this show, I’ll have exorcised that demon. It’s my Mount Olympus.”

And what he came to television for is this, this scene during a random afternoon of rehearsal: In Jerry’s onstage apartment, Richards flings open the door, skids to a halt, waggles his fingers, throws back his head, and pops his eyes. It’s a classic entrance, a Total Kramer. But perhaps it’s not Krameresque enough. He leaves, opens the door again, flaps his elbows, and snaps back his chin, lips forming a little O. Leaves again, enters again, twists his shoulders in a Say what? attitude. Shuts, opens, shuts, opens.

No one pays the slightest attention. There are twice as many scenes to be nailed down in this particular episode as there are in the average sitcom, but this by-now well-oiled machine works pleasantly and swiftly. On the Costanza living-room set, Estelle Harris and Jerry Stiller run their lines as George’s parents. Backstage, Wayne Knight reviews his scenes as Newman; downstage, Liz Sheridan and Barney Martin sit in canvas chairs, ready to play Jerry’s parents. Circling the action, David wears the steely expression of a tax auditor looking for goof-ups.

“I don’t have much of a fear or panic response to anything,” says the show’s namesake, as placid as David is restless. “There were years in the beginning when we were aging by the minute. Now I don’t feel pressure. We’ve slain every dragon. I don’t think this feeling will be long-lived, because eventually you need another dragon. But for now, people are still laughing. And we have none of the obstacles other shows have to deal with. No awards to worry about. No critics. No network. Nothing.”

(Additional reporting by Jessica Shaw)