Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The backstage drama that nearly brought down ‘Seinfeld’

By Larry Getlen
July 10, 2016

Michael Richards, Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander pose at the Emmy Awards in 1993.Photo: AP

Ask any self-respecting “Seinfeld” fan who the worst dancer on the show — heck, in the world — is, and they’ll immediately think of Elaine Benes’ herky-jerk performance from Season 8’s “The Little Kicks.” Benes (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) boogied so awkwardly at a work function, it endangered her professional reputation.

But most people don’t know her dance was inspired by “Saturday Night Live” boss Lorne Michaels.

The story is told by “Seinfeld” writer Spike Feresten, who started out as an “SNL” receptionist, in the new book “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed ­Everything” (Simon & Schuster) by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.
Feresten’s job at “SNL” included manning the door at the show’s notorious afterparties. At one such gathering, he told Armstrong, he saw Michaels “dancing as if he’d never seen another ­human being dance before. The man heaved and gyrated to a rhythm only he could feel.”
To his delight, Feresten “even got to give Louis-Dreyfus a little dance lesson during production, schooling her in the singular Michaels method.”
“Seinfeldia” tells the complete tale of this New York institution (actually filmed in LA), which finished either first or second in the ratings for five years straight, from 1994 to 1998, and in 2002 was proclaimed by TV Guide the greatest television show of all time.
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry ­David conceived “Seinfeld” in November 1988.
After performing at the Upper East Side comedy club Catch a Rising Star, the two ventured into nearby Lee’s Market and began riffing on some of its obscure items, like Korean jelly.
“Why, exactly, did it have to come in jelly form?” they mused. “Was there also, perhaps, a foam or a spray?”
“This is the kind of discussion you don’t see on TV,” noted David.
By this time, stand-up comic Seinfeld was a hit on late-night talk shows, and his manager, George Shapiro, had been hounding NBC executives about getting his client a show on the network.
But when he finally secured the much-desired meeting, Seinfeld felt differently.
“He was a little annoyed at this meeting screwing up his whole afternoon,” writes Armstrong. “He’d become a comedian partly to have his days free from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. This meeting was at 5:15 p.m., cutting right into his free time, but he sucked it up and went anyway.”
NBC wanted a show concept from Seinfeld, so he worked with David to develop the idea they had at Lee’s. They quickly agreed the main characters should be Seinfeld and a David-type — who became Jason Alexander’s George Costanza — plus a neighbor.
Luckily, David’s own “eccentric” neighbor was Kenny Kramer, “a jobless schemer with whom David shared a car, a TV and one pair of black slacks in case either had a special occasion.”
As complementary weirdos, David and Kramer couldn’t have been better matched, and that is how “Seinfeld” evolved.
“David and Kramer would leave their doors open so they could wander in and out of each other’s places at their leisure,” writes Armstrong. “Kramer wore a bathrobe as he grazed in David’s refrigerator while David watched Knicks and Yankees games. Kramer would ask the score, then leave again.”
At times, the two sound like a married couple.
“David would cook for comedian friends, promise them dessert — meaning ice-cream bars — then scream at Kramer when he found the bars were missing. ‘It’s embarrassing!’ he would yell. ‘I have company!’ ”
Michael Richards was the perfect actor to play Kramer.
Richards had worked with David on the late-night ABC sketch show “Fridays,” and from Armstrong’s account, he was just as odd as his character.
“On ‘Fridays,’ he was known for his one strange contract demand,” Armstrong writes. “Give him a thousand pounds of dirt on the set, he said, and he’d do the show.” (The dirt was for a one-man tour-de-force sketch featuring Richards as a kid playing with toy soldiers and annihilating them.)
Richards’ performance as Kramer was so frantic that the crew kept extra hinges handy, in case he destroyed a door during one of his character’s manic entrances. It created problems, though, since Richards’ antics made his castmates laugh during filming and break his focus.
Armstrong writes: “When Alexander laughed during a scene . . . Richards begged, ‘You can’t, please. You don’t know how hard it is for me.’ (Because the laughter meant they had to reshoot the scene.)”
Because of Richards’ intensity and immersion in the role, his co-stars, writes Armstrong, “didn’t feel like they knew him, even later, after years on the set together.”
Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus — both of whom were concerned early on about the show’s lack of conventional plot lines — had their own problems: Each believed they weren’t getting enough screen time.
Alexander — who initially modeled George on Woody Allen, only to realize in Season 2 that he was playing David — was worried that George, Jerry’s best friend and confidante, would have a diminished role due to Jerry’s strong connection with Elaine.
His anxiety peaked in Season 3, when the third episode, “The Pen,” featured only Jerry and Elaine visiting Jerry’s parents in Florida. Alexander and Richards had no roles in the episode.
For Alexander — who, as a Tony-winning actor, had other options — it was the final straw. After the episode’s table read, he pulled David aside. “‘If you write me out again,’ he said, ‘do it permanently.’ David tried to explain the difficulties of servicing every character equally every week. ‘Don’t tell me your problems,’ Alexander snapped. ‘If you don’t need me here, I don’t want to be here.’ ”
Louis-Dreyfus was no happier, feeling “she wasn’t getting material as funny as the boys.”
All this almost became moot. As the writers and cast sought their unified voice, NBC was ready to cut “Seinfeld” loose.
The network hadn’t been comfortable with the show early on, given its meanness and intentional dismissal of character growth.
Even late-night boss Rick Ludwin and his programming associate, Jeremiah Bosgang — the show’s strongest supporters at NBC — were stumped by the second season’s “The Chinese Restaurant,” which featured the cast waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant in real time, and nothing else. The two execs couldn’t understand how they would rationalize a plotless episode to their bosses and considered ending production.
Ludwin talked gingerly to David, expressing their concerns, while David vented that the episode was “in the spirit of the show.”
Despite their reservations — and to their credit — the execs allowed the episode to proceed. The day after it aired, the reviews were effusive, and in time, it was seen as “a groundbreaking bit of television.”
As the show became a success, the cast found themselves in strange situations, including a bizarre feud with Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold.
After Louis-Dreyfus inadvertently parked in Arnold’s spot on the CBS studio lot (where the show was filmed), Arnold left a note on her windshield saying, “How stupid are you? Move your f—ing car, you a–hole!”
After she, Alexander and David confronted him, she later found “a Polaroid of someone’s buttocks left on her windshield and the word ‘c–t’ written in soap” there.
The scuffle went public.
“Barr called Louis-Dreyfus a bitch on ‘Letterman,’ then added derisively, ‘They think they’re doing Samuel Beckett instead of a sitcom.”
Asked about the incident later, Alexander commented, “I am willing to bet that she has never read anything Beckett ever wrote.”
An exhausted David, the show’s primary force behind the scenes, left the show after Season 7, with Seinfeld running it solo for the final two. NBC offered Seinfeld an astounding $5 million an episode to do a 10th, but the comic — who already earned $1 million an episode in Season 9 and was tremendously wealthy — felt he and the show had gone as far as they could.
“Seinfeld” ended, after nine seasons, on May 14, 1998, with an episode that found the cast in jail for failing to help a man in need.
The show turned its cast into New York City icons. But, as they learned the hard way, New Yorkers were just as quick to keep them humble as they were to treat them like A-list stars.
“The four core cast members decided to go out for dinner,” Armstrong writes of an outing the group made after being photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1993. The show had been on the air three years.
“They wanted to sit outside, and they figured people were going to freak out when they saw the four of them together, outside, in New York, right on Columbus Avenue. But no one stopped except for a homeless man asking for money.”

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