It’s a formidable task to write an entire book about a show that's supposedly about nothing. But journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong set out to do just that with Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything ($26, Simon & Schuster), an archeological look at the beloved NBC sitcom's making and cultural impact.
As anyone who's actually watched Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David's comedy knows, Seinfeld isn’t really about nothing. During its nearly decade-long run, the show covered friend-zoned exes, workplace paranoia, eccentric parents, eccentric neighbors, rude restaurant owners, masturbation, birth control, gay rights, fashion, movies, dating, parallel parking, cultural taboos and more, all through the lens of its self-absorbed, upper-middle-class, white Manhattanite characters. Phrases like “the yada yada” and “master of my domain” immediately became part of the pop culture lexicon and served as not-so-secret conversational handshakes for fans.
Armstrong explores the extent to which the show and its fans are intertwined. While it was one of the first series to rise up during the burgeoning internet age of hard-core dissection and media scrutiny, Seinfeld was — and continues to be — adored for its multilayered storylines and social commentary more than anything else.
“It’s hard to have escaped it if you were of pop culture age in the ’90s,” Armstrong says. “It was everywhere; everyone watched it, everyone talked it. It totally dominated the time it was on and it still does to some extent.”
As with her previous book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, which was about the making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Armstrong meticulously researched and interviewed many of those responsible for Seinfeld's success and the indelible mark it left on society.
Neither Seinfeld nor David participated in the book's creation. Instead, Armstrong concentrates on the lesser-known people of the Seinfeld universe, specifically the writers. Since a lot of Seinfeld hinged on the authenticity of its storylines, Armstrong says that much of the show’s writing process involved David sapping a season of writers dry of their personal anecdotes before dumping them for fresh blood the following year. (A few, like Peter Mehlman, escaped this fate.) Many of these scribes still have stories to tell.
Armstrong also recounts some “bizarro” success stories from the show. TV producer Joe Davola was minding his own business at a party when David told him he liked his name and wanted to use it in the show. Davola and then-Fox chairman Peter Chernin signed off on it, not realizing the “Crazy Joe Davola” character would become a sensation. (But Davola did start to get better tables at the Ivy.) Kenny Kramer, David’s former neighbor and the basis for Michael Richards’ character on the show, still hosts a “reality tour” around New York. And Larry Thomas, the actor famous for playing the Soup Nazi, still wields a ladle on promotional tours and appears at autograph junkets to repeat his 20-year-old catchphrase for fans. He also recently became the spokesman for the Original Soup Man, the restaurant owned by the guy who inspired his character — another example of how the show has spawned its own kind of reality.
But not everyone Armstrong chronicles had Hollywood endings. Andy Robin couldn’t handle the pressure he created for himself after writing the infamous “Junior Mint” episode and left the business to become a doctor. John Peterman, founder of the J. Peterman Company, was so elated to see a version of himself and his mail-order catalog with its languid descriptions on the show that he rapidly expanded into brick-and-mortar shops, only to have people not realize his was a real company. He then filed for bankruptcy. Just this year, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to relaunch his business. His spokesman? Actor John O’Hurley, who played a version of him on Seinfeld.
“This show, more than others, has this ability to affect people’s lives more than other shows,” says Armstrong.
Because we all want to be masters of our domain.