Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's "Seinfeldia"

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where she spent most of her time putting on shows in her parents’ garage, studying TV Guide, devouring Sweet Valley High books, and memorizing every note of every George Michael song. This finally came in handy when she got a job at Entertainment Weekly, where she worked for a decade. She’s now the TV columnist for BBC Culture and also writes for several other publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York‘s Vulture, The Verge, and Dame. She’s the author of the New York Times bestseller Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing that Changed Everything and a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. She now lives in Manhattan.

Armstrong applied the “Page 99 Test” to Seinfeldia and reported the following:
Bill Masters spent the better part of a year on the writing staff at Seinfeld, helping make scripts for episodes such as “The Movie,” in which the main characters—Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer—keep missing each other at the theater. It was the show’s fourth season, just as it was starting to rise in popularity. And then, near the end of the season, in the spring of 1993, Masters even got to be in an episode.

He was terrified. He had to play a shuttle van driver picking Elaine and Jerry up at the airport, and he had to actually hit the gas of a real van on location, with crew members standing just feet away. What if he hit it too hard and killed them all?

This is the dilemma Masters faces on page 99 of my book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. It’s a very specific little anecdote, but it works pretty nicely as an indication of the book, which is built on specific little anecdotes from those who worked on and were affected by the hit ‘90s TV show, which remains outrageously popular today in reruns.

Some of the best parts of the book hinge on these behind-the-scenes stories from the show’s writers. And a lot of them are at least this stressful, if not far more so. Another writer around the same time, Andy Robin, came to the show as a young man fresh out of Harvard who was already a fan of the show—he was sure he’d somehow end up ruining his favorite show. And he was, in fact, sure he did when he wrote the episode “The Junior Mint,” in which Kramer drops a piece of candy into the body of a guy getting surgery. (If you haven’t seen it, you’re too far behind for me to start explaining now.) He thought the episode was ludicrous; his bosses, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, loved it. So did America. Others struggled to get David and Seinfeld to approve their story ideas so they could write scripts. All of them felt the pressure of a show gaining in popularity and brilliance every week.

Masters did not end up hurting anyone. He did end up off the show, however, at the end of the season. David and Seinfeld usually let most of their writers go at the end of each season, keeping only a few mainstays. Writers tended to use up most of their own interesting, story-worthy experiences within a year. Then David and Seinfeld would bring in a new crop the following fall to pick over.

Masters felt grateful for his time on the show. He went on to write for another sitcom, Grace Under Fire. He’d have Seinfeld on his resume for the rest of his career, and that was no small thing.
Visit Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's website.

My Book, The Movie: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

The Page 99 Test: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted.

--Marshal Zeringue