Briefly Noted: Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything — Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

The book is charming and I’m glad I finished, but keep your expectations low. It never proves the assertion in its subtitle and has way too many sections of limited interest about how Seinfeld fared in this time slot or that one or how it competed with forgotten shows (What is Mad About You? again?). Don’t stop reading after the first five pages, which are oddly weak.

seinfeldiaStill, as a case study in creative organization and the risks of not taking risks it’s good. Jerry Seinfeld’s interest in comedy also extends deeply into the past (in college he “wrote a forty-page paper” on comics’ approaches and in his own practice he “tape-recorded his routines, then analyzed them to improve by the next night”). The practice of practice is still underrated. Armstrong writes that when Seinfeld was getting started, “NBC was finishing up its fifth season in first place among the four major networks. It could afford to gamble.” But every non-monopoly organization must gamble: If the last-place network is not doing well, it too must gamble on trying something different if it has already failed at doing the same thing. The worst gamble in virtually every domain except legalized gambling is not gambling.

The NBC line seems like a throwaway, and I wonder if Armstrong did not fully think about its implications and what it means. If she didn’t, that’s okay; neither did the TV executives who wanted to copy Seinfeld’s success without recognizing what went into it:

When [writer] Mehlman went out into the “real world” beyond Seinfeld’s office walls, he found that everyone in television wanted “the next Seinfeld, but they didn’t want to take any of the chances necessary to make such a thing.” They wanted Seinfeld money, but they seemed to resent Seinfeld itself for breaking the rules of television.

Being truly individual is hard. Real gambles are hard. The rhetoric of risk is more attractive than the practice of it. That’s why so many works exhort risk and individuality (like Zero to One) relative to people actually practicing it. I don’t exclude myself from this analysis.

Oh, and one other vital point about organizations: they suffer when their constituent parts seek status more than they do the things they need to do. Larry David eventually left Seinfeld. During the ninth season, “The writers were working most of their waking hours and jostling for power; Seinfeld was writing, producing, and starring; and the main cast members just barely got what they felt they deserved to be paid.” That phrase, “jostling for power” is key. It seems a symptom of organizations past their peak. Facebook tries to minimize office politics. Microsoft brutally encouraged it for many years via its ill-conceived “stack rank” system.

What people do around you matters. Peter Mehlman, Seinfeld’s most important writer apart from Seinfeld himself and Larry David, “moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1989 for a change of scenery,” and “he thought he should take a shot at scriptwriting, since everyone around him was doing it.” There is a propensity to do what everyone around you do does. If you’re in San Francisco you do startups. If you’re caught up among book people you write books. If you’re in L.A. and you write, you write scripts. This implies that you should choose your environment and peer group with greater care than many people (including me) do. People and place exert more influence than we commonly want to imagine. You are not a monad.

Most of the Seinfeld principals justifiably disliked L.A. For Jason Alexander, “In L.A., a veneer of fake niceness covered everything, and it drove him crazy.” By the end of the show, Seinfeld says that he’s “had enough of Los Angeles” and that “I always say that Los Angeles is like Vegas, except the losers stay in town.”

People not intimately familiar Seinfeld should skip Seinfeldia. I wonder if we’ll get a similar treatment for Friends, since, allegedly, Friends is the 20-year-old show that 20-somethings love, according to the possibly bogus trend piece “Is ‘Friends’ Still the Most Popular Show on TV? Why so many 20-somethings want to stream a 20-year-old sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around in a coffee shop.” As with most “What those darn kids are up to these days?” stories, it’s difficult or impossible to gauge its accuracy. Still, the appearance of streaming services “compresses” the historical timeline of TV and movies by making many more shows and movies available easily than was the case.

There are jokes, as you’d expect, like “Larry David was what’s known as a comic’s comic, an acquired taste, ‘which means I sucked,’ he often said.” But being funny, even about a funny show, is hard. That’s why Jerry Seinfeld spends his life studying funny.

Here is a decent interview with Armstrong.

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