In her new book about Seinfeld (out now), former EW writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong pieces together the remarkable backstory of the landmark show. Below, EW is excited to premiere an excerpt from Seinfeldia: How A Show About Nothing Changed Everything.
Jerry Seinfeld ventured into a Korean deli one night in November 1988 with fellow comic Larry David after both had performed at the Catch a Rising Star comedy club on the Upper East Side of New York City. Seinfeld needed David’s help with what could be the biggest opportunity of his career so far, and this turned out to be the perfect place to discuss it.
They had come to Lee’s Market on First Avenue and Seventy-Eighth Street, maybe for some snacks, maybe for material. The mundane tasks of life and comic gold often merged into one for them. Sure enough, they soon were making fun of the products they found among the fluorescent-lit aisles. Korean jelly, for instance: Why, exactly, did it have to come in a jelly form? Was there also, perhaps, a foam or a spray? The strange foods on the steam table: Who ate those? “This is the kind of discussion you don’t see on TV,” David said.
Seinfeld had told David a bit of news over the course of the evening: NBC was interested in doing a show with him. Some executive had brought him in for a meeting and everything. Seinfeld didn’t have any ideas for television. He just wanted to be himself and do his comedy. He felt David might be a good brainstorming partner.
Seinfeld and David had a common sensibility, in part because of their similar backgrounds: Both had grown up in the New York area and were raised Jewish. Both seized on observational humor for their acts. They had their differences, too, that balanced each other nicely: Seinfeld was 34 and on the rise thanks to his genial, inoffensive approach to comedy and his intense drive to succeed. David was far more caustic and sensitive to the slightest audience infractions (not listening, not laughing at the right moments, not laughing enough). He was older, 41, and struggling on the stand-up circuit because of his propensity to antagonize his audiences out of a rather explosive brand of insecurity.
They’d first become friends in the bar of Catch a Rising Star in the late ’70s when Seinfeld started out as a comic. From then on, they couldn’t stop talking. They loved to fixate on tiny life annoyances, in their conversations and their comedy. Soon they started helping each other with their acts and became friendly outside of work.
Seinfeld had gotten big laughs by reading David’s stand-up material at a birthday party for mutual friend Carol Leifer—one of the few women among their band (or any band) of New York comedians. David, nearly broke, had given Leifer some jokes as a birthday “gift.” Too drunk to read them aloud, she handed them off to Seinfeld; he killed, which suggested some creative potential between the two men.
As a result, it made sense for Seinfeld to approach David with this TV “problem” he now had. David remained the only “writer” Seinfeld knew, someone who had, as Seinfeld said, “actually typed something out on a piece of paper” when he churned out bits for sketch shows like Fridays and Saturday Night Live.
Seinfeld was smart to consult David on this TV thing. David did have a vision, if not a particularly grand one. “This,” David said as they bantered in Lee’s Market, “is what the show should be.” Seinfeld was intrigued.
The next night, after their comedy sets, David and Seinfeld went to the Westway Diner around the corner at Forty-Fourth Street and Ninth Avenue. At about midnight, they settled into a booth and riffed on the possibilities: What about a special that simply depicted where comics get their material? Jerry could play himself in that, for sure. Cameras could document him going through his day, having conversations like the one at the market the night before; he’d later put those insights into his act, which audiences would see at the end of the special. As they brainstormed, Seinfeld had one cup of coffee, then two. He usually didn’t drink coffee at all. They were on to something.
From SEINFELDIA: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
To read the rest of EW’s exclusive excerpt, pick up the July 1, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or subscribe digitally at ew.com/allaccess/.