How Seinfeld’s funniest moments came to life

The table-reads were a disaster, the network hated the scripts and the writers worried theyd ruined the whole show from the Chinese Restaurant to the Contest, heres the truth behind the sitcoms best bits

The Chinese Restaurant

Jeremiah Bosgang and his boss Rick Ludwin found themselves in a real bind after a table-read for a Seinfeld episode in 1991. The script theyd just heard had Elaine, George and Jerry doing nothing except waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant. There was no action beyond a pay phone call and an attempt to bribe the maitre d. The pair had championed many of the shows stranger moments, but now they were considering shutting it down.

Theyd been worried about the script from the get-go. Was this thing missing pages or something? There was no story! What would the other NBC executives say? To Bosgang, it confirmed the networks worst fears about Larry David and Seinfeld that they couldnt hack it making a sitcom long-term. They didnt think they could sell a concept this flimsy. Theyd gone to the table-read in hopes of seeing progress but thered been no change. Now they sat in Bosgangs car and agreed that killing the script was too provocative. David, especially, would not take this lightly. But they also knew how precarious Seinfelds future was. They had to say something.

Indeed, David balked even when Ludwin said gingerly If you feel passionate about this, which you obviously do, go do it, and well hope for the best. He took David for a walk around the lot and allowed him to vent. David was adamant it was a funny half-hour of television about lifes little frustrations. It was Seinfeld. If the network didnt like this, they didnt like the show.

In fact, the script baffled even the man who played the Chinese restaurant host. Actor James Hong expressed his confusion. The director Tom Cherones saw it as similar to his own early feelings about the show. That doesnt matter, he told Hong. Just go with it.

There
Way too flimsy a concept? the Chinese Restaurant episode. Photograph: Seinfeld

The episode did not go down well with Ludwin and Bosgangs colleagues, but no one stopped it from airing. And when it ran, critics understood what NBC did not. Like real life, but with better dialogue, wrote Kit Boss in the Seattle Times. Seinfeld doesnt feel like sitcom television, New York magazines Chris Smith said. It feels more like a conversation with your funniest friends. Over time, the episode would stand as a turning point for the series and a groundbreaking bit of television.

Everyone won: the producers made the show they wanted, and the network looked good for airing it. In fact, the Chinese Restaurant showed that a sitcom could tackle more highfalutin qualities than had ever been attempted before: this was TVs version of Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot.

The Junior Mint

They
They let some amateur in and he came up with this stupid, unsterile story the Junior Mint. Photograph: NBC via Getty

Andy Robin got his first Seinfeld script assignment in the fourth season, when he was already a fan. He felt a kinship with David and Seinfeld. Although he was in his 20s, he loved stuff from the 50s and 60s, smooth crooners like Johnny Mathis and Petula Clark. He knew he could throw some Burl Ives into a Seinfeld script and Larry and Jerry would get it.

He had been editor of the Harvard Lampoon and worked as a writer at Saturday Night Live. When he got the call from the Seinfeld office, he knew hed stumbled on something big and felt a huge responsibility to keep the show great. How would he maintain that quality? Or would he be the one to ruin it?

Now he couldnt write a thing without ripping it apart. His desperation led to some bizarre pitches, none more than the one that became his first episode, The Junior Mint.

He had some reasonable plots lined up: Jerry dates a woman whose name he cant remember; Elaine visits an old artist boyfriend in hospital to rekindle their romance when she sees hes lost a lot of weight; George buys a piece of art by Elaines paramour in case he dies in surgery and the value shoots up. Tying them all together was the tough part, out of which came one of the shows first memorably absurd moments: when Jerry and Kramer observe the artists surgery from the gallery above while they snack on Junior Mints, only to drop one into the open body cavity below.

The Junior Mint.

Robin was happier at Seinfeld than hed been at Saturday Night Live. SNL was a surprisingly corporate environment; all anyone talked about were ratings. Everything felt overly cautious and full of fiefdoms. People who had been there for decades were protective of their power.

He was happy to have escaped. But now hed wrecked his career, and possibly the whole show, with this dumb Junior Mint plotline. Robin couldnt believe David approved it; this was crazy. People would say, They let some amateur in and he came up with this stupid, unsterile-hospital-environment story.

He called David mid-draft and said, This cant happen.

Davids reply: Just write it.

When Robin finished, he was proud of one part: the storyline in which Jerry forgets the name of the woman he was dating. He tries to find out his girlfriends name through acts of subterfuge, like digging in her purse. She mentions that her name rhymes with a female body part. Exasperated, he guesses: is it Mulva? Bovary? No, but she realises: You dont know my name, do you?

Jerry finally figures it out when she leaves in a huff, and he shouts his final guess after her: Dolores. Could this have been the first network-television acknowledgment of the clitoris? It seems likely. Cloris was the scripted choice for her real name, but when the warm-up comedian asked the studio audience to guess her name, someone said Dolores. David and Seinfeld decided it was better and subbed it in at the last minute.

Director Tom Cherones liked Robins Junior Mint script more than its author did. He always enjoyed Seinfelds weirder challenges, like the climactic fall of a piece of candy into a body mid-surgery. The small chocolate disk wouldnt show up on camera in flight, so he shot a York Peppermint Pattie about four times the size instead. Viewers wouldnt be able to tell the difference without other objects in the shot for comparison.

Robin was shocked no one complained. The audience at the taping laughed, but when he saw the edit he still hated it. Finally, it aired. The public revolt he expected did not happen, but he was still convinced hed ruined the show. It wasnt up to his expectations of himself or Seinfeld.

In fact, Seinfeld himself cited the episode as a milestone: if it could pull this off, it could do no wrong. Anything was game. Even Jerrys character reached a new level of darkness in this particular script. As Kramer begs Jerry to join him in the surgical gallery, Jerry sighs, All right, all right. Just let me finish my coffee, then well go watch them slice this fat bastard up. Seinfelds face can barely contain the glee at getting away with this line.

After the episode, Robin could barely function, so cowed was he by the pressure of working on Seinfeld. He often started a script, then scrapped it two-thirds of the way through when it didnt click. And the acclaim for The Junior Mint only made matters worse there was so much pressure to top his first try.

The Contest

Master
Masters of their domain The Contest. Photograph: Seinfeld

After each raucous table-read, David held court in the office he shared with Seinfeld. The two would sit at their facing desks, surrounded by writers. The network reps had no place to sit perhaps by design. A rep might offer a small suggestion: Jerrys too harsh in this scene. David would fidget with the golf club he kept in the corner, then answer: Nah, I dont think hes that harsh. David and Seinfeld were in charge now they were on their way to their vaunted Thursday-night time slot and No 1 ratings ranking.

But all the writers braced themselves for a confrontation over The Contest, Davids masturbation episode in the fourth season. The trick, in a broadcast sitcom, was to launch this as a plotline without offending standards and practices. George explains it to his friends this way: My mother caught me. Doing what, asks Jerry. You know. I was alone. I stopped by the house to drop the car off My mother had a glamour magazine So one thing led to another George explains that his shocked mother screamed, fell, threw her back out, and ended up in hospital.

But the real action begins when George says to his friends, Ill tell you one thing. I am never doing that again.

What, in your mothers house? asks Elaine. Or altogether?

Altogether. Georges certainty elicits groans all around. What, you dont think I could do it?

Well, Jerry says, I know I could hold out longer than you. George smirks. Care to make it interesting? George, Jerry, and Kramer wager $100 each on who can hold out the longest. Elaine wants in, too, but the guys balk. Its easier for a woman not to do it than a man, Jerry protests. We have to do it. Its part of our lifestyle. But they relent, as long as she gives them odds; shell put up $150.

Seinfeld
The Contest. Photograph: Seinfeld

To keep this up as the main thrust of a primetime show, the writers had to come up with a euphemism for masturbation. They went one better: they came up with a new term. To abstain from masturbation was to be master of your domain. This allows the characters free and easy discussion of their sexual thoughts and exploits without one dirty word. The humour came from the scripts abstinence from even the word masturbation, much less anything more graphic. An early draft had George using the word tugging, but even that was cut. Kramer caves because of the woman walking around her apartment naked with her shades open, and later sleeps with her. Elaine caves when she stands behind John F Kennedy Jr in a workout class. Sly scenes depicting each character in bed at night clarify the status of each contestant: those who are still masters toss and turn, while those who have been satisfied sleep well.

As with most Seinfeld plotlines, it came from a real-life bet David was involved in. (He claims to have won.) The table-read went well, with even more laughs than usual. Still, the subject matter left the writers sure that the network would protest. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, kept waiting for the executives to object specifically to Elaines participation. A woman talking about masturbation in primetime seemed an obvious place to draw the line.

Instead, a shock. Its perfect, the network said. Dont touch it. They had come a long way since the showdown over The Chinese Restaurant. The episode helped Seinfeld win its first Emmy, and master of my domain became the shows first catchphrase.

This is an edited extract from Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. The book is available in the US and Australia now and in the UK on 28 July.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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