The End of 'Seinfeld'

Rolling Stone's 1998 cover story chronicling the nine-day filming of the hit show's final episode

May 31, 2012 4:10 PM ET
The cast of 'Seinfeld' on the cover of Rolling Stone
Mark Seliger

This is from the May 28th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

The 180th and final episode of Seinfeld, to be broadcast on May 14th, was scheduled to be filmed over nine days, from March 31st to April 8th. Rolling Stone was there the whole time – for more than 100 hours on set – watching. Hiding in corners. Being nosy. All Jerry Seinfeld asked in return was that the ensuing story not reveal anything. This is that story.

Tuesday, March 31st
This morning the Seinfeld principals sit down with Larry David, who helped create the show and wrote the final episode, for the table reading. (Which is where actors sit and read a script aloud. Round a table.) Jerry Seinfeld stands up at the beginning of the reading and says, "You're going to hear me say 'thank you' a lot during the week – here's the first one." Before they even start reading, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in tears. It is the first time the three other principals have learned in any detail how everything will end. "It was a little emotional," says Jason Alexander afterward. "It's creeping in, slowly."

That afternoon the first scenes are shot. Most sitcoms are filmed in one evening on three or four sets on a single Hollywood sound stage in front of an audience, with maybe one day's shooting on location. For the final episode of Seinfeld (which is planned as an hour, though it may end up being longer), they will film on a number of sound stages and at a number of locations until next Wednesday, before shooting some final scenes in front of an invited audience.

As they watch some supporting cast members rehearse, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David discuss, with amusement, an editorial in the New York Times that links New York's perceived Nineties rebirth, in part, to Seinfeld. "The image of the city is this fun, silly place with these colorful characters," says Seinfeld. And it's because of their show. "The lead editorial!" he says. Seinfeld, who grew up on Long Island, will move to New York after the show is finished. He has already sold his Hollywood home. "I've had enough of Los Angeles," he tells me. "I always say that Los Angeles is like Vegas, except the losers stay in town."

That's going to make everyone else here feel good when you leave.

"I really don't dislike Los Angeles. I just love New York. That's where I belong. New York is the only place in the world that I do prefer – the rest of it is, to me, all off."

The rest of the world? You're not keen on it?

"No. There's a couple of other places I like. A few cities. I like London and Paris and Austin, Texas. But not to live. For me, New York is the only place. It is the center of the humor universe, New York. That is where all humor is born. Everything else is just imitating that."

Seinfeld wanders over to the snack table and pops a piece of dried fruit into his mouth. He picks up the plastic packet, holding it out at head height, surveying the label. Dried Mango with Li Hing Mui, it reads. Watching, it is very easy to imagine that the comedy cogs are in motion, that in this little piece of everyday life's detritus, he is finding a new amusing riff. Maybe. Maybe not. He turns away. "Oooh," he sighs. "That dried mango is fantastic."

Between takes, I briefly ask him some questions. Larry David listens in and, finally, must interject.

"I am watching the greatest interviewee ever," he says. "This is a beauty."

"You have to embrace reality and then pervert it," Seinfeld continues. He is offering some of his comedy philosophy. "It's like a good magic trick – it looks like they're not doing anything: It looks quite ordinary. The movements look quite ordinary, and then something extraordinary comes out of it. It's all sleight of hand. [To David] I'm just making this up."

"I thought I heard you do the magic thing once," says David, deadpan.

"Someday I'm going to have the collected volumes of all the interviews," Seinfeld says. "Bound volumes."

"It'd be a great book," says David.

"Just call it My Horseshit. Larry always marvels at my ability to just come up with horseshit for these interviews."

"I've probably read over 200 interviews," says David. "Each one is different: always something new about the show, about life, about something. I'm amazed. I stand in awe. The greatest bullshitter on this planet."

"It's good bullshit," says Seinfeld. "Good, salable bullshit."

Should I be aiming for a truth beyond the bullshit?

"That is the truth," says Seinfeld. "I make no distinction between truth and good bullshit. What do you think philosophy is? All these philosophers and all their... Immanuel Kant and the inevitability of will. What is that? It's just a notion. It's a piece of bullshit."

"It's good bullshit," nods David.

"Yeah," says Seinfeld. "It's good bullshit. You set up a premise and then defend it. This is all comedy. It's all proving theorems. False theorems, especially. You set up something and then you prove it with logic, and for some people, that makes people laugh."

Why does it make people laugh?

"I don't know," he says. "I don't know. For some reason they enjoy the chicanery, I think. They like being fooled. Everybody likes a good magic trick, you know."

I can't tell you much, but i can tell you this: There is a moment in the film Gandhi that has always stuck in Jerry Seinfeld's head – his being a head in which small details are known to keenly accumulate long before any useful rationale for their retention might be found. It is the scene in which the passively resisting Indians are marching forward, row by row, to be bludgeoned outside the Dharasana Salt Works, and Martin Sheen – playing an American journalist sending his outraged report by telegram – dictates portentously about the awful day's events, "It went on and on, into the night." For some reason it was a line that Seinfeld remembered and that would sometimes seem funny to re-quote at inappropriate moments. On several days during the filming of Seinfeld's final episode, he would quote the line to those around him and begin to laugh. "Anything that is taken from such a dramatic context that we would use in our silly comedic world is really funny to me," he says.

Seinfeld began as a pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles in 1989. Jerry Seinfeld was a stand-up comedian looking for a suitable TV vehicle. Larry David had been a somewhat misanthropic stand-up on the same circuit, and they agreed to create a show based upon the kind of obsessive conversations they would have in real life. Seinfeld would play a character who was more or less himself, and a characters called George Costanza would represent David.

The pilot's very first dramatic scene was in a coffee shop. (Not, yet, the coffee shop.) Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander sat at a small circular table. (It would take a little time for them to realize that these were characters whose endless dialogue of Platonic pointlessness was more naturally suited to the face-offs encouraged by rectangular tables and booth seating.) The first few episodes were a little clunky, but the show still hit its essential tone right away, in its very opening seconds:

Jerry looks at George. "See, now, to me," he begins, apropos of nothing whatsoever, "that button is in the worst possible spot. The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it! It's too high. It's in no man's land...."

Naturally, George gets defensive. And so nine years of quibbling begins.

"NBC had a lot of trepidation," recalls George Shapiro, one of Seinfeld's two manager-partners. "It felt like such a narrow audience. It seemed it was about a few Jewish people in New York City. It didn't have broad appeal." But something in there worked: "Larry's a great sufferer and Jerry's a great fun guy," Shapiro diagnoses, "and it just blended." Nonetheless, it took time. Shapiro estimates that the show's account went $10 million into debt before it began to get hot in the fourth season.

It is no longer in debt. Current estimates suggest that once Seinfeld has been sold for its second run of syndication, it will have generated $1.5 billion.

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