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.
If you had done another season, what would you have done with the extra money?
Jerry Seinfeld: Given it away. I still give plenty away, but I would have had to have given away that entire thing. I mean, I’m not against a lavish lifestyle – don’t get me wrong. It was just too much. I didn’t need it, you know.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I don’t know. Bought more T-bills. Just socked it away, truthfully.
Jason Alexander: That’s mad money. Though I can tell you that, despite all the attention that our salaries have gotten, we were not satisfied with negotiations in any sense of the word. The million-dollar figure [the fee per episode that he, Richards and Louis-Dreyfus demanded for the final season; they settled for $600,000] was a very considered figure – it wasn’t plucked out of a hat. Anyway, what I would have done is what I probably will do with most of this season’s – bank it.
Michael Richards: Carl Reiner slipped up to me at some awards show – you know, his son Rob is part of the Castle Rock team, and we were sweating over negotiations, and we were asking for a lot of dough. And he slides up to me and goes, “Yeah, get it, get it, get it – it’s all ‘fuck you’ money.” I supposed I would have just stored it away in something where I could get some interest. I have enough now – I don’t need any more.
Wednesday, April 1st
In the morning, they shoot outside on a studio lot. (There are trees. When you look closely, you see that they are dead wood, but that green plastic foliage is bound to the lifeless twigs.) The full cast is gathered. Michael Richards tends to stand apart from the others, rehearsing his lines and his body language. While everyone else is chatting and waiting around for a camera change. I watch him privately perform one scene to a wall.
Later, Richards walks up to me. It is our first meeting. “What’s in your bag?” he asks. “Oranges?”
He has no reason on earth to suspect that I would have oranges in my bag. And I don’t.
“What’s this?” he says, reaching in and taking out a book. “Have you read anything that’d make a good movie? Read any comedies?” He looks at the book: the latest issue of the English literary magazine Granta. It’s titled “The Sea.” “I’m into the sea myself,” he says. “I’m reading my way through Melville. I like to read the classics. I’m five books in, working my way to Moby-Dick.” He leafs through my book and immediately finds a photograph of two elderly naked men on the Christopher Street pier in New York, one of them with his mouth buried in the other’s groin. “One man blows another in the open in New York,” he exclaims with glee. “There’s hope for the world yet!”
This morning they take the official cast-and-crew photo from a crane. The four principals stand in front and hug. “Let’s take a real cast photo!” Richards shouts. “Let’s do it naked! We’re approaching the millennium. We’re all naked. You won’t see that on Murphy Brown!”
“Everybody sing the theme,” suggests Alexander and begins to sing it himself, though the idea doesn’t catch on.
“It’s too sad, man,” says Seinfeld, though he is laughing as he says it.
Richards points out that he has just driven the Kramer-mobile for the last time.
Seinfeld nods. “Everything is a last,” he says.
In the afternoon… no. I will tell you about the afternoon of April 1st later.
Larry David had made noises about leaving Seinfeld very early on. His logic was characteristically self-abasing. “I always want to leave, whatever I’m doing, because I think everything’s better if I’m not there,” he reasons. “Because I think, ‘How could anything be good if I’m there?’ Hence George Costanza.” Seinfeld used to say they wouldn’t do more than five seasons – an early totem of his determination to not let the series dribble on or dribble out. “I used to remind him of that,” says David. But each deadline passed. At the end of year seven, amid reports of some bad blood, David left, but Seinfeld continued regardless. “I just wasn’t ready,” Seinfeld says.
Was it heartbreaking to know it would continue without you? I ask David.
“Yeah. It’s like abandoning your child and now somebody else is raising it,” he says.
“It’s like the parents splitting up,” says Seinfeld.
“We were like the parents, and they felt like they were the stepchildren.”
But you got custody, I say to Seinfeld.
And now, after two years, you give him nine days’ custody with the kid? And then you say you’re killing him off?
“That’s perfect. That’s a perfect story for us.”
David wrote a movie, Sour Grapes, which has just been released. He would still write down Seinfeld ideas – some of which are in the final episode, and some of which he may use for other projects – but to begin with, he wouldn’t even tune in to NBC on Thursday nights. There are still episodes he has never seen.”I was worried – I couldn’t bring myself to watch it at the beginning,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be too good, and I didn’t want it to be bad. I had very strange feelings about it. If it was too good, then what the hell have I been doing?”
“It’s like your ex-girlfriend,” chips in Seinfeld.
“You want her to be happy.” Pause. “In a way.”
“In a way, yeah,” laughs David.
But not as happy as she would have been if you’d still been together?
“Right,” says Seinfeld. David nods.
What was different without your influence?
“It was a little wilder, I think,” says David. “A little crazier, would you say?”
“Yeah, I would say,” says Seinfeld. “A little bit more wide open.”
“A difference in sensibility, I guess,” says David.
“I had to depend more on the writers,” says Seinfeld. “But also my sensibility is a little different from Larry’s. Maybe a little less realistic. It doesn’t bother me sometimes when things are a little sillier. A little less depth I think I have than Larry.”
And you say that with such pride.
“I do,” Seinfeld smirks. “I take great pride in that.”
Nonetheless, last Christmas, Seinfeld announced that the show would end in May. So what had changed in the two years?
“The arc of the diver,” he says. “You know – Stevie Winwood, “Arc of a Diver.’ It’s the arc, you know. There’s that moment that the surfer pulls out of the wave after it’s reached its full crest. And we were still at the peak. We had a long peak. It’s like anything else – when Larry and I would get an idea for a bit, or some jokes about a subject, you make a certain number of jokes. How do you know when you’ve made enough? You just know. There’s this feeling that, ‘OK, I think we got all of this one.’ And I had to have that feeling about the show: ‘OK, I think we’ve got all of it.'”
Thursday, April 2nd
At today’s location, Jason Alexander walks up, rubbing his hands. “Today’s the day for the big scoop,” he says, playfully.
There are no big scoops, I say. Just a trickle of small ones. (He’s talking nonsense. I’m talking nonsense. This happens in Seinfeld- land.)
“That’s what we’ve been saying!” he says. “No one believes us. There’s no information! That’s what we’ve been telling them for ten years!”
Yes, I say. But you couldn’t keep quiet about it, could you?
“No. We told them. There’s no story here. It drove them crazy!” An Alexander chuckle. “There’s no Story Here. That’ll be the headline. Flip by, readers. The next three pages are complete bullshit.”
I point out that it will be more than three pages, and Alexander stares at me rather sadly. More than three pages? About this?
That afternoon, Seinfeld and Alexander are between takes when a man unexpectedly bounces into the scene and sits down. “Pussies!” he says. “One more year! Come on! Pussies! Pussies!” And then Garry Shandling grins. “Excuse me for interrupting,” he says. “Ignore me.” He stays about two minutes. “I came to say congratulations and so on and so forth. I came with my support and love. I don’t want to impose….”
Time passes. Alexander looks at his watch. Each day, as the clock marches on, you feel the same pressure with Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus: the desire to stay and be irresponsibly funny, all night being challenged by their need to get home and spend time with young children. (They each have two.) “We can do this!” Alexander declares. “I can see these children!” Tonight he will. Soon afterward they are done.
I Can’t tell you much, but I can tell you this: You may have wondered whether the creation of comedy is a messy, hands-on, somber and profoundly unjoyous process, whether its progenitors and co-conspirators stand steely faced as each arduous laugh is coaxed into existence. Perhaps, somewhere else, it is like that: sad, dark souls sacrificing and suffering to make the public laugh.
On the set of Seinfeld, it is different. They chortle. They splutter. They collapse onto the floor in pathetic, gut-splitting, childish giggles. The filming of one part of the final episode – an extended speech by a guest character – is prolonged for some time because the principals simply cannot control their mirth. Only the guest actor keeps a straight face. “You are amazing,” Alexander praises him. “You have four idiots sniggering along at you, and you are just clown free.” (“I go,” the actor responds, firmly, “to my rock.” This statement, quite naturally, triggers further merriment of its own.)
I wonder whether this chuckle-y mood is somewhat atypical, a side effect of their final-episode demob spirit. Alexander assures me otherwise. This is funny business as usual. “We find ourselves endlessly amusing,” he says.
Which is your favorite “Seinfeld” contribution to the language?
Jerry Seinfeld: [Long pause] Oh, that’s a hard question. I don’t know. They really went nuts on “yada yada,” didn’t they? Every article has “yada yada.” It’s become quite irritating. I think it actually superseded “nothing.” Before that, it was all “nothing.” Much ado about nothing. It actually overtook “nothing.” But I don’t have an answer to that question.
Jason Alexander: There was one that I actually thought was going to be huge that didn’t quite catch on, which was the idea of, when someone sneezes, saying, “You’re so good-looking,” instead of “God bless you.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: I have no idea. They all tickle me. Every single one. I just love this show. I’m a big fan of it.
Michael Richards: I like to make up languages [for Kramer]. Sometimes I call somebody “boodk-ggaba.” Or “jabaa-a.” Or “ragonnen-nett-tt-tt-o.” See, that’s what’s so good about it – it can’t be spelled: “tattotid-dao.” Sometimes I’m put up against the wall, so to speak, and I’ll kind of back off by saying “ntt-ttt-ttd-dtt-ddd.” And there was the “giddy up.” I say that every once in a while. I can’t tell you what the other words mean. [Smiles] I don’t know. I think that what you’re asking me is to define God. Are we making any progress here? Is this horseshit?
Friday, April 3rd
Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus gather around the craft-service table, where copious supplies of food and drink are available all day. (Alexander tells me he is powerless against this. “I’m starting Weight Watchers on Thursday,” he says. “For some reason, whenever we have conversations here, it’s always by the brownies and not by the celery.”)
Right now, Alexander is thirsty. “Water,” he says. “I want some water.”
“How about some coffee?” Louis-Dreyfus helpfully suggests.
“Nuhhhhhhhh,” he says, in full, dismissive George Costanza voice, shaking his head. “Done that.”
They act out a scene in which Richards does some complicated physical comedy. One take goes much further than intended. A prop comes loose, Richards takes full, risky advantage and ends up sprawled horizontally. The others laugh, until they realize that he has actually bumped himself quite badly. It goes quiet. Richards stays on the ground, rubbing his head. Finally, he looks up. “It was funny, though, wasn’t it?” he says. Later, after plenty more of Richards’ physical comedy, and of the cast’s ensuing laughter, he will ask, with mock insult, “Is my character being used as a device?”
The cast gets trapped in another scene. Jason Alexander cannot lose the giggles. “Let’s all get serious,” he beseeches, but the next time the action and reactions around him make him explode midway through the take, and he actually falls to the floor, laughing convulsively. “You fuckers,” he splutters. Louis-Dreyfus does a little jig around his body.
Michael Richards is the one who usually manages to hold his Kramer face until the director yells, “Cut!” “I very rarely break during a take,” he says. “It’s just part of my training. If I ever broke character in front of Stella Adler” – who was his acting teacher – “she’d have had my head.”
What would Stella Adler have made of Seinfeld?
“Oh, I think she would have enjoyed it. Although she always thought that anybody that rides around in a Mercedes is impertinent.”
And you have a Mercedes?
“I have a Mercedes.”
And even knowing she thought that, you got one?
“Oh, fuck Stella Adler,” he says. He says this for comic effect, and we both laugh, though later he worries about this. It is a joke, but he still has links to her acting school; he is concerned they will think he is disrespectful. “You could get me into a lot of trouble. I’m saying it playfully, but in print it could make me look like, ‘Fuck my teachers.’ I’ve been with them for years. So, I have a Mercedes, big deal. I got it on the Iooth anniversary. I didn’t realize we got paid for two shows because it was a one-hour show, so I sent the check back to the lady in the office, saying I’d been paid twice. And she said, ‘No no, you get the extra money.’ So I was, ‘Wow, what do I do with this?’ Julia just got a new car, so I thought, ‘I’ll go get a Mercedes.’ So I went out and plopped the money down and I drove off with a Mercedes. I was going to put Iooth epi, then I thought: ‘Now I’ve really become Hollywood.’… But there are many actors who have Mercedes, and they can still function.”
The Seinfeld cast wonders how to play the next, rather dramatic scene. “The worse the better, basically,” counsels Seinfeld. “The stupider it sounds …” Richards thinks of a new, universally approved line for Kramer to whoop at this juncture. “You know,” he says, “this is going to shake up a lot of people who think Kramer is Jewish.”
George Shapiro comes over to talk. He has been with Seinfeld for eighteen years. Shapiro, who at the time he first met Seinfeld had Andy Kaufman as a client, saw Seinfeld do stand-up: He liked that his material was sharp, and he liked that Seinfeld was the comedian the other comedians wanted to see. He talks to me about the meeting in which Seinfeld finally decided to refuse all of NBC’s enticements to do a tenth season. “I think he just knew it was time to get off the stage,” Shapiro says. “As a stand-up, his instinct is incredible for when to leave the stage. I feel exhilarated by his decision. I mean, from a strategy standpoint – he’s just doing it from instinct – it gives him a mystique that is going to keep him hot for the rest of his life. He did it because he had to, but it’s great strategy.”
We move to Stage Nine, the stage that has been Seinfeld’s home in recent years. Here is where you will find the Jerry’s-apartment and coffee-shop sets. Stage Nine is now policed by its own security guards – as the show ends, the pilfering has begun. The Superman statue on Jerry’s bookcase has been stolen (the one seen in the final episode is a replacement). This week, the nameplate on Michael Richards’ parking space disappeared.
Saturday, April 4th
Today they are shooting on an outdoor set at another studio complex. They have been assured by seven weather organizations that there is zero chance of rain today. It begins drizzling at around eight in the morning, and for much of the day it will pour. “You fucking live in L.A.,” says Seinfeld, mixing both comic and real exasperation, “month after month after month without a drop…” Today, Richards, Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus only work for a couple of hours in the early morning, then they are allowed to go home. Seinfeld stays all day. He has no more scenes in front of the camera, but whenever they are filming, he is pretty much always there, watching, thinking, suggesting, approving, improving.
When they are getting ready to film Barney Martin, who plays Seinfeld’s father in the show, Martin asks him, “You know what the best thing for dandruff is?” Seinfeld waits. “A light-gray suit.” Seinfeld sort of laughs. “I haven’t told that joke in forty years,” says Martin. When someone says something to Seinfeld that he seems to find truly funny, he will sometimes lose himself in laughter, but often he will just nod warmly and say, slowly, “That’s very funny,” like a gourmand savoring a prized delicacy.
Sunday, April 5th
Larry David is fretting. Kramer, his one-time neighbor whose name David took, along with certain details of temperament and biography, for the fictional Kramer, is coming to Los Angeles to see the final taping. “He’s staying at my house,” says David. “My wife doesn’t know yet.”
Seinfeld, David and some of the writers hand round a copy of Swing magazine, which contains an article on the show. One of them comments that Swing sounds like a Fifties porn mag. This triggers other thoughts.
“Is Juggs still published?” David wonders.
“I don’t think published is exactly the word,” Seinfeld smiles. “Are they getting it out somehow? Yeah. I think so.”
He is handed a bottle of water, one of many he will drink today. He brandishes it. “Suddenly water is so popular,” he says. “Fifty years ago, nobody had a glass of water. Nobody. And what is the difference? Does anyone look any different?”
They film some short sequences to frame the clip show. I chat with one of the final-year producers, Jeff Schaffer, who tells me some of the ideas they never got to: one that started with George giving change to a homeless man, then seeing him playing video games; one in which George is invited to a business lunch at somewhere like the Fashion Cafe after he has already eaten, so he orders a sweat shirt instead and, when he gets into trouble, vehemently argues, “But it cost less than the steak…”; a guy who says, “knock on wood” inappropriately after saying a fact. (He offers, by way of example, “I’ve been writing for this show for four years, knock on wood.”)
A conversation with Jerry Seinfeld about life afterward:
Me: What are your retirement plans?
Seinfeld: A low profile. Keep a low profile.
Me: Obviously, people expect you to make a movie.
Seinfeld: Yes. Perfect reason not to do it.
Me: The people around you all seem to believe you will do one.
Seinfeld: I’m sure I probably will. But not for a great while.
Me: What’s the drawback?
Seinfeld: Size. I don’t like the size of movies. They’re perfect for an evening, but they’re too big to think of and write and make, and they’re just so ponderous. So invasive. And they’re so self-important. You know, just the idea of making a movie makes it seem like you think you’re so great. You think your ideas are so terrific that people should go to a special place and sit there and just focus on that. And all the money that’s spent. I don’t know. I’m not a maximizer, I’m a minimizer. That’s why I like the idea of a commercial – it’s so humiliating. Not only do you only have thirty seconds, you have to sell something, too, in addition to entertaining. It completely hems you in.
Me: Through history many people have noticed those drawbacks and denigrated the art.
Seinfeld: Of commercials? Yeah. But to me, I like that challenge. Anyone can make a movie. They give you zillions of dollars. But it’s ponderous, as Casey Kasem once said. Ponderous, man.
Me: And there’s very few good, funny movies.
Seinfeld: Very few. It’s very hard to make a funny comedy. I don’t know if comedy wants to be a movie.
Me: So you’ll continue making those American Express ads?
Seinfeld: [Nods] American Express gives me a certain freedom, and I like the product – it’s a good product.
Me: Presumably, they pay you, too.
Seinfeld: They throw me a little.
Me: Um, I don’t have an American Express card. Should I have one?
Seinfeld: [Sincerely] Oh yeah – it’s the greatest. It’s the greatest company in the world.
Me: But it costs you loads of money.
Seinfeld: [Passionately] Do you know what a Visa card costs? It costs the average card holder $300 a year in interest. That’s on average.
Me: But I’m a smart Visa card holder, so I don’t pay that.
Seinfeld: If you were really smart, you wouldn’t even have one. Use American Express. Visa, it encourages irresponsibility.
Me: Oh. So it’s a moral thing.
He has vague plans to launch an ad agency that would make commercials for companies who would agree to having no input. “I like a nicely made little thing,” Seinfeld says. “I like the size of the form. I find a great commercial to be very uplifting, because it’s right in the middle of all this crappy TV, and they’re selling me something, and if you can somehow make that fun for people, it just seems like a great service to provide. I’m very appreciative of people who put work into making commercials entertain them, because we have to watch them.” But his primary work plan is to return to stand-up. And he will not be making things easy for himself. After a short tour and an HBO special, I’m Telling You for the Last Time, he has vowed to retire all of his material permanently. “That is my solemn promise,” he says. “I’m pledging that in my special. To push myself forward, so I have to do new things.” He’ll work on new material – a slow business for a comedian – and when he has twenty minutes of stuff he likes, he says he’ll go on tour as a supporting act to one of his peers. “Fame has never interested me,” he says. “[Stand-up] is a way that I can stay vital and keep growing. It’s really what I’m best at. To really master it is a rare thing, and even if it’s not seen by millions and millions of people, the people, who do see it will be seeing something very special. That’s what’s important.”
And aside from that?
“He’s going to have fun,” says George Shapiro. “He’s going to go skiing, he’s going to race cars. We’ll go on the Cyclone in Coney Island again. He’s like a little kid. He loves fun. His child is very much alive and doing very well.”
Will he ever grow up?
“He’ll never grow up. That’s why he’ll be a great father.”
I am reminded of Jason Alexander’s thoughts: “I think I could objectively say he would like to have a great relationship with a woman, and I think he’d like to have a family. I’m just not sure how willing he is to alter some of the other things about his life that he values in order to achieve that.”
Can Jerry Seinfeld wear sneakers all his life?
Jason Alexander: Sure. Absolutely. Who’s going to stop him? Who’s going to question it? He wears sneakers all the time – he’ll wear them to a funeral, he’ll wear them to an inauguration, he’ll wear them to the grave, I would imagine. He’s a sneakers kind of guy. Jerry is forty-three now, and I would put, for the most part, his emotional age at about nineteen. What does a nineteen-year-old wear? Sneakers. When he’s sixty-seven, I will still put his emotional age at about nineteen. It’s innocence with an attitude. And it’s a funny attitude.
Larry David: Sure. Why not? By the way, I got him into wearing shoes. I told him that shoes look much better with jeans. He copied me in that department. The shoe move, I’ve been working on it for a few years. But he’s not sneaker free, no. He’ll never be sneaker free. Over the years we made little changes in each other’s habits. If one of us got something, the other would have it in a day. Like the Oral-B/Braun electric toothbrush.
Michael Richards: Oh, definitely. Not on all occasions, but they will be there. It’s a comfortable shoe!
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Sure he can. Actually, he’s stopped wearing them as frequently. He’s been wearing a sort of brown-suede hiking boot, which is sort of in between a shoe and sneaker. Soon he’ll be a man. He’ll be shoe in about ten years. I think he’d like to be a grown-up. Moving on in life. Family. Stuff like that. He’s on his way to shoe, definitely.
Jerry Seinfeld: Mmm-hmmmm. I see certain old men doing it, and it seems like they’re pulling it off. Do you consider these sneakers? [Lifts up his brown Gore-Tex boots] These are the kind of shoes I wear now – kind of a hiking shoe. And I like hard shoes at night. It doesn’t seem like you’ll be doing any running at night. I don’t wear sneakers anymore – these kind of shoes give you more support. I still like the attitude, it’s just my feet feel better – I don’t have really good feet. The attitude is: “I don’t work.”
Monday, April 6th
Seinfeld spots me browsing through USA Today.
“Is that the Life section?” he asks. “Am I mentioned?”
I say that I haven’t spotted his name yet. “I must be in there somewhere,” he says. He’s always in there. “Every single day. For years.”
I search carefully. Today, he is cruelly shunned in favor of the Milli Vanilli death and important details about the prevalence of baked, as opposed to mashed, potato eaters across various regions of America. (But he has a point. His name will appear in the Life section every day for the rest of the week.) “I love the Life section,” he will tell me, a curious lilt in his voice. “And I can’t think of a better section to be in. You don’t want to make that Times kind of news every day – you’d have to be the president of Uganda or something.”
It is beginning to hit him that the end is near. On Wednesday night, two days from now, all this will finish. “I’m not going to have Thursday,” Seinfeld says. “Wednesday and Thursday are going to be one day. I’m going to go straight from Wednesday to Friday. Thursday is just going to be late Wednesday night.”
Later, I talk to Richards as he eats his lunch. “I don’t chew,” he says, taking a bite from a leg of chicken. “Will that bother you?” Richards is readying himself for a new life. “I think this is it,” he says. “The hair will go. The sideburns will go. The clothing will have to go. The mannerisms.” He has a majestic plan: “I’ve had fantasies of getting pictures of Kramer maybe thirty feet by fifty feet, four of them, and performing some kind of rite out in the desert. We’re going to burn him out of the American psyche so they’ll accept me as other characters. Through the fire and the smoke, you’d see me flying over a sand dune – I’d have long wings on. Probably long hair. Maybe no hair at all. I’d be naked. I’ve had a couple of artist friends in New York who really want to do it. I’d like to get Dead Can Dance to score it. I think it would be kind of neat to do it. I would like to burn the character. I think it would be marvelous. And I will rise out of the ashes. I think it’s really the only way to do it. You’ve really got to let it go. It’s over. It’s really over, folks.”
Some people still won’t believe it.
“What? You think you’ll see him again? Where? At some carnival? Game shows? Oh, God – listen, will you do me a personal favor? If I’m on a game show as Kramer a few years from now, will you come to my home and just put a bullet in my head?”
Lunch finishes. I watch them act from a hiding place in the middle of the set. Alexander spots me.
“What’s your article going to be about?” he asks. “Isn’t there a gist?”
“That we’re miserable bastards?” suggests Louis-Dreyfus.
“He’s writing that down,” sighs Richards. “And – look! – he’s writing that down.”
It gets later and later. “Are we going to plow through?” Louis-Dreyfus asks Seinfeld. “Because otherwise this audience is leaving. And so am I.”
“Well,” says Seinfeld, smiling, “aren’t you a sunny day? Aren’t you a glass of lemonade?”
Around 10 p.m., they all start yawning. The director calls a five-minute break. The cast stretches and waves its arms and breaks into the Carpenters’ “Sing.”
“Oh, God, please, please, make it end,” says Louis-Dreyfus.
“Tomorrow is the same deal, right?” Seinfeld asks David, who nods.
At 11:15 they are told that there is still another hour and a half to shoot tonight.
“Another hour and a half,” Seinfeld exhales. “That’s hard to believe.” In the next scene he breaks into giggles. “We’ve all just had it,” he says.
“When is the cutoff?” Alexander asks.
“There is no cutoff,” says Seinfeld.
A few minutes later, Alexander, Louis-Dreyfus and Richards huddle together. They wonder whether to simply stop. “Together!” says Alexander. “Remember how we rocked those negotiations! Stick with me now.”
They do nothing. Louis-Dreyfus sighs. It’ll never end. “At the end of the night,” she says wearily, “we’re going to decide, ‘Do another season!'” But it is she who, at midnight, with three more scenes to shoot, acts unilaterally. “I quit,” she says, standing up. “I’m going home.”
“You’re going?” says Seinfeld, evenly. “Now?”
The shoot is over for the day. I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you this: From the set, Jerry Seinfeld will take, as keepsakes, the front door, the couch, the chair, the coffee table, the pictures on his apartment wall, a coffeeshop booth and the grip table used for readings. For now he’ll put them into storage. “Maybe when I’m old, it’d be fun to set them up somewhere,” he says. “I mean, really old. I’m sure to some of your readers I’m already old…”
Tuesday, April 7th
Today is quite an exciting day,” Seinfeld tells me at lunchtime. “Today is the last day I go to work. I go to work, I leave work. Tomorrow is different. Tomorrow is insanity. Tomorrow is going to the moon.” He got a little sad driving to the studio today. He was listening to the Billy Joel and Ray Charles duet “Baby Grand.” (He looks slightly miffed when I tell him Billy Joel isn’t quite my thing. “He’s from Long Island,” Seinfeld says. “There’s so few people from Long Island.”) And that song got to him. “It’s about how everything in life has failed them, except for the piano.”
I ask Seinfeld what the equivalent of the piano is in his life.
After saying that it doesn’t quite apply to him – not everything has failed him – he answers. “Bits,” he says. That’s the Seinfeld speciality. Not large pieces of anything. Bits.
They shoot a scene, but they can’t hear some of the dialogue.
“We could do with a monitor in here,” Seinfeld suggests.
“Also,” says Richards, straight faced, “some kind of vibrating chair would be nice.”
There is a key line of dialogue near the end of the episode that doesn’t satisfy David. He puts his head together with some of the show’s writers. (Many of them have been hanging around during these last days, just because they can.) David himself comes up with a better alternative, then Alec Berg trumps him.
“That’s a great line,” says David. But he foresees a possible legal problem. “I don’t know if we’re allowed to do it.”
“Do yours too,” Alec suggests, “and we’ll have an option.”
“Let’s not give ’em an option,” says David. “Fuck ’em.”
They are running late. They had hoped to finish filming these scenes tonight and to spend tomorrow preparing scenes for the audience taping. But there isn’t time. They debate options. One possibility is to film these unfinished scenes tomorrow night after the audience has gone. “That’s a bit of a bummer finish,” says Seinfeld. “Three hours of work after the curtain call.” They decide to work until midnight tonight, to come in at 10 a.m. (the actors have a statutory twelve-hour-minimum break, which they agree to waive), and to postpone tomorrow’s audience taping from 6:30 p.m. until 8:30. Any danger that any of them might overindulge in emotion has been chased away by the sheer, arduous work it will take to finish the episode in time.
Wednesday, April 8th
The final day. There are TV-news crews outside both gates at the studios. Just before 10a.m., I walk into a bleary Jason Alexander, wearing a blue-and-white number nine Seinfeld Alexander football shirt. On his last day of Seinfeld, he had to take his kids to school. There was no point going home afterward, so he came into work at 8:30 a.m.
Today Seinfeld drove in with the radio on. “I was listening to Mega 100 and McDonald’s commercials, and my sunglasses were fogging up,” he says when he arrives. “I can’t believe we’re here….” Later, he will tell me that it was on this morning drive that it all hit him the hardest: “It was like a ton of bricks – it was like the whole nine years crashed into the side of my face. It was heavy, man.”
They gather on the set of Jerry’s apartment. “This is it,” says Richards as he walks in.
Any incipient sentimentality is interrupted by a most Seinfeld-esque etiquette debate. Seinfeld wants to know whether he should have explicitly invited some of his peers – those he characterizes as “close friends I don’t see that much” – to tonight’s taping. “They’d call if they wanted to come, right?” he argues. And he doesn’t want to make them feel obliged to come. But… what if they are waiting for an invitation and are feeling snubbed? What, precisely, are the social rules which govern Filming the Last Episode of America’s Most Important Comedy of the Nineties?
Louis-Dreyfus arrives. She is yet to be filled in on the subject of conversation.
“Can I ask you something?” Seinfeld says.
She shrugs. “The answer will be,” she mugs, “‘Who gives a shit?'”
“Did you invite Mario?” Alexander asks.
“No,” says Seinfeld. Mario Joyner is a comedian friend.
“Is he coming?” Alexander asks.
“Yes,” Seinfeld nods. “But that’s a different orbit of friendship. He’s a close close friend.”
The debate goes on. David and Richards lean toward doing nothing; Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus toward calling. As far as I can tell, Seinfeld decides not to call.
I sit off to the side with Louis-Dreyfus. She points to some lines under her eyes: “I think that this week I have literally aged overnight. About four days ago I woke up and this had happened to me.” I ask her what Jerry Seinfeld wants. “I would have to say happiness,” she says. “And perhaps just one more car.”
Her desires are equally straightforward. “I know I’m going to make breakfast in the morning for my kids and drive them to school and pick them up in the afternoon. I’m committed to absolutely nothing right now. I’m reading film scripts, but to be honest with you, I haven’t seen a single thing that I liked. This is quite a lot to live up to, and I don’t wan