Derek Johnson Muses

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Why Seinfeld Worked

I have a confession: I love to watch DVD extras and audio commentaries, if they are talk about how a movie or episode (loser alert). Recently, I watched up some extras from Seinfeld DVD’s on YouTube about how Jerry Seinfeld developed his series for NBC and was blown away by his vision and work ethic. While it probably makes me a loser, I just find it fascinating how an individual idea can blossom from a two-sentence monologue to a full film or TV episode, or series. I learned a lot from how to turn conversations into the manuscript I’m now writing.

Here are some points I took from those DVD.

Strong self-image without being pushy: Seinfeld honed his crafted as a comedian for more than ten years before filming the Seinfeld pilot, and always thought of himself as a comedian, not an actor. He knew which network notes to take (adding Elaine) and which network notes to say no to (generic sitcom notes, specifically about “The Chinese Restaurant” episode), and didn’t try to go against NBC just for the sake of doing so. Jerry the character was a guy that “things worked out for”, against conventional sitcom wisdom.

Humility and lack of ego: didn’t take the best storylines his staff writers gave him and let them be used by the more eccentric characters on the show. As Jason Alexander noted, George and Elaine often had more interesting things to do than Jerry did. Jerry was the straight guy who often commented on the funnier antics of his friends.

And at one of the reunion roundtable, Seinfeld was concerned about if his co-stars felt like they were doing the right thing by walking away from the show when it was on top, after they had to return to the wasteland of reading tons of bad scripts.

Could take any story and make it funny: multiples times, one of Seinfeld’s writers would be telling Seinfeld and Larry David a story about something that actually happened to them, and it would end up as one of the stories.

Incredibly high standards: Recently, I happened to catch an episode of a typical 90’s sitcom which featured a single storyline throughout the episode. It was painful to watch the story stretch for twenty-two minutes. While other sitcoms where doing one or two stories, Seinfeld and David demanded four. They wouldn’t use ideas that writers said they’d always used before, and every idea had to be original. And the second the show was showing some signs of age, he knew it was time to walk away.

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