What happens when "Seinfeld" vets try to leave the nest?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus was so close. A major broadcasting executive was considering the former Seinfeld star’s new show, and the deal seemed a hair away from closing. Then series cocreator Larry David accused the exec of stealing his kung po shrimp. In true Seinfeldian fashion, the whole arrangement collapsed like a half-baked loaf of marble rye.

Luckily, these events happened only in the twisted meta-Hollywood of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the tube-skewering HBO comedy created by David, co-father of Seinfeld and reputed model for Jason Alexander‘s George Costanza. But will Louis-Dreyfus fare any better in reality? Her actual comeback show, a real-time sitcom about a lounge singer tentatively titled 22 Minutes With Eleanor Riggs, debuts this March on NBC.

So far, the post-Sein record of Jerry’s old dinermates is anything but sponge-worthy. This month, ABC yanked Alexander’s motivational-speaker laffer Bob Patterson after only five episodes, while NBC’s The Michael Richards Show lasted just nine outings last season.

Why can’t the leads of one of history’s most popular sitcoms catch a break? ”People talk about the Seinfeld curse, but that’s bulls—,” says Patrick Warburton, who’s trading in his Puddy persona for a spandex-clad superhero on Fox’s The Tick. ”You can put the most amazingly talented people on a show and it’s not going to work for everyone,” says Warburton, whose new show lured 6.7 million viewers on its Nov. 8 debut in a tough Thursday time slot. (That’s almost 2 million less than a recent rerun of Seinfeld pulled in syndication.) ”Michael Richards is one of the funniest people out there, but you put him on the wrong show and it may not work out.”

Puddy always had a gift for understatement: Richards was the first to burn up on re-entry, debuting his detective sitcom a mere two years after the 1998 Seinfeld finale. ”I don’t want to defend the quality of our show, but there was this fierce anger that we would even dare,” says one writer. ”It wasn’t just ‘Your show sucks.’ It was ‘Your show sucks and we hate you.”’

Indeed, launching a new series with a beloved TV actor is always tricky. While a star like Mary Tyler Moore managed to succeed as both Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, others have stumbled. The challenge may be especially steep for the players of Seinfeld, which defied so many network conventions. ”If anything, there’s nothing but resentment out there” toward the show, says Peter Mehlman, an ex-Seinfeld writer and creator of ABC’s ephemeral It’s like, you know…. ”Seinfeld broke every rule. And everybody really likes their rules.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. While we’re no ”Svenjolly,” these Rules of Reincarnation might help the former Elaine Benes emulate the critical success of Curb and crack the curse.

TAKE YOUR TIME. It doesn’t pay to be hasty, says Dave Hackel, creator of CBS’ Becker, whose star also had to measure up to a retired but still popular character. ”The first time Ted Danson was not [Cheers‘] Sam Malone [in CBS’ short-lived 1996 sitcom Ink], the public didn’t let it happen,” he notes. And with syndicated Seinfeld reruns regularly averaging 8 million viewers, it’s still very hard for the ‘feld fold to take a vacation from themselves.

Bob Patterson
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