More than just a collection of anecdotes; Seinfeldia is a look at both the broad and the small innovations that made the show so resonant.
Seinfeldia is a book that is perhaps best read while stationed at a computer. Author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who spent a decade with Entertainment Weekly, recounts the inception and behind-the-scenes details of iconic moments from the show about nothing with such clarity and precision that it’s hard to read about them without feeling the need to watch “marine biologist” George Costanza save a beached whale or Kramer drop a Junior Mint into a patient’s open cavity during surgery without feeling the urge to race to YouTube and watch the scene with a whole new level of insight. But Seinfeldia is more than just a collection of anecdotes; it’s a look at both the broad and the small innovations that made the show so resonant, as well as an examination of how the people involved both shaped and were shaped by its success.
Armstrong hits on unavoidable parts of the show’s history, such as its initially failed first iteration as “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” the heavily scrutinized finale and the sidesplitting setups in between. But the author is clearly most interested in the personal dynamics and left-field inspirations that made “Seinfeld” what it was. She writes in an early chapter, “Sure enough, [Seinfeld and David] soon were making fun of the products they found among the fluorescent-lit aisles. Korean jelly, for instance: Why, exactly, did it have to come in a jelly form. Was there also, perhaps, a foam or a spray? The strange foods on the steam table: Who ate those? ‘This is the kind of discussion you don’t see on TV,’ David said.”
Armstrong’s writing is concise and firmly journalistic, which does lead to the occasional slow passage, particularly since she methodically works her way through the show’s nine-year run. But she’s a first-rate reporter and the world she has immersed herself in is at once so familiar and so bizarre that it provides the reader with plenty of excitement and color. The book also offers fascinating context for many of the figures involved, including Jason Alexander, whose turn as the slimy-yet-endearing George is somehow made more impressive by his pedigree as a Tony-winning theatre star.
Household names like David, Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus get plenty of attention, but inevitably some of the most interesting tales come from the background and fringe players, including Larry Thomas, the actor who portrayed the Soup Nazi, the real-life Kramer (who runs “Kramer’s Reality Tour” to showcase many of the locations “Seinfeld” made into New York landmarks) and the show’s revolving door of writers. “Seinfeld” isn’t portrayed as a family, but more as a culture, occasionally veering toward a religion that equally enveloped both viewers and the people who brought it to life.
Perhaps because she’s a writer herself and understands how stressful it can be, some of the most captivating work Armstrong does in Seinfeldia comes when she dives into the lives of the people tasked with turning the minutiae of their daily existence into fertilizer for one of America’s most watched sitcoms. She highlights how David would use writers as idea mines until they ran, and he would rarely retain them for longer than a single season. The details of the “Seinfeld” writing experience—competitive, isolating, incessant—are hypnotizing, and Armstrong makes you feel for these obviously talented individuals as they struggle to find their footing.
The book also does a terrific job of showing younger readers, who came to the show after it hit syndication, just how unique it was at the time. Most people know about the novelty of the “show about nothing” premise, but the relative lack of network involvement and the little deviations from sitcom tropes (e.g. making Jerry and Elaine exes, the sheer nastiness of the four main characters, how the show dealt with sexuality) are especially notable compared to the cookie-cutter programming airing on other networks at the time.
As with any major cultural event, some of the extended universe sections of Seinfeldia are less captivating than others. Armstrong uses a fairly large chunk of text to break down the tension between the creators of Modern Seinfeld (@SeinfeldToday) and its decidedly more vaporwave counterpart Seinfeld Current Day (@Seinfeld2000), two Twitter accounts that attempted to bring Seinfeldian storylines into the present. Reading about David trashing Modern Seinfeld in an interview is amusing, but the section overall is about as exciting as one would imagine reading about rival Twitter pages would be.
There are occasional spurts of drama including contract negotiations, David’s exit and, of course, Michael Richards’ 2006 career suicide standup set at the Laugh Factory, but Armstrong’s interest, like “Seinfeld”’s itself, is in capturing the quiet, seemingly inconsequential moments and interactions that made this show one of the most influential in television history. As a piece of pop culture journalism, Armstrong’s work amounts to a whole lot more than nothing.