Most Americans conscious in the 1990s are familiar with “Seinfeld”, the show that famously turned waiting in line for a Chinese restaurant or riding the subway into must-see TV. In her new book, “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong explores the history of the show, which ran from 1989 to 1998, and the fan culture surrounding it.
MarketWatch spoke with Armstrong about how the show changed the television industry and the role money played in the lives of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. The interview has been edited and condensed and we’ve included some editor’s notes in italics, so even casual “Seinfeld” fans can follow along.
MarketWatch: Money can be one of the most serious, taboo topics, so it’s kind of surprising that in a show about nothing, financial issues are involved in so many plotlines. What is the role of money in the show?
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong: It does come up a lot. It’s because “Seinfeld” is really about everyday stuff so that’s part of everyday stuff. It’s also a huge part of living in New York. Since the 1990s it’s been more expensive to live in New York than in other places and money also solves a lot of problems in New York. If you have enough money you can solve any problem at any hour of the day in New York City. That’s why it ends up coming up so much.
There’s a lot of job stuff as well, which is partly a New York thing probably, but also just a person thing. There is a significant amount of time devoted to Elaine and George dealing with changes in employment, weird bosses, all of those things.
MW: Were jobs featured more prominently than in other shows of the time?
JA: They were, just in the sense that it’s not necessarily a workplace comedy. These were friends who were not employed together, but we saw them go to their jobs, at least the two who were gainfully employed most of the time.
It’s because “Seinfeld” is so concerned with rules and obligations. Those are two big obsessions. What do we have to do to get through every day and what are the rules involved in that? Work has a lot of weird rules to question and that’s really what they end up doing. There’s a lot of this: George taking naps under his desk, is that OK? There’s a lot of those sorts of things that they deal with. Elaine has the eccentric, rich boss who eats his snickers with a knife and fork and she has to complete strange tasks for him. How far do you go for this person?
There’s a lot of these questions, why do I have to follow these certain rules at work? What are my obligations to this place that helps to pay my bills? They’re not concerned with normal things at work for the most part.
Once they get into the Yankees (George’s employer) and J. Peterman (Elaine’s employer), that’s toward the end, both of them end up at these places that become characters in themselves.
MW: What role do products and brands like the Yankees play in the show? What was the relationship like between the show and those companies?
JA: There were a couple of things that went on that were pretty interesting for the time. One of which was this very ubiquitous product placement. A lot of it has more to do with them wanting “Seinfeld” to feel like it was part of the real world that we lived in. There is a difference between people seeing Snapple (Jerry regularly offers guests a Snapple from his fridge in the show), which is a real thing that they recognize, and seeing a can of cola. That’s really important to people. It’s different to see the Junior Mint episode connected to Junior Mints than to a generic chocolate mint candy.
(In this episode, Jerry and Kramer accidentally send a Junior Mint into the body of Elaine’s ex-boyfriend while he’s having surgery. Armstrong said that as far she knows the companies didn’t pay to appear in the show. In a 2014 interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, Seinfeld quipped that he had invented product placement and chose to name specific brands in the show because the jokes were funnier that way.)
The other part is this even more intense relationship with real companies like the Yankees organization and J. Peterman with whom they really did have a relationship. They kind of had to after a while, they could have risked all kinds of problems if they didn’t work with those people a little bit. My impression from reading things before he died was that (famed Yankees owner) George Steinbrenner actually really liked the weird portrayal of him as kind of this doofus on the show. The fact that Larry David did the voice is even funnier. They had so much Yankees stuff in there and that’s one more way where it also felt really real, that’s New York, it’s such a New York institution. It felt right to me that George would end up working there.
With J. Peterman, this really was a real, but small company. (Elaine’s fictional boss) John Peterman is a real person. He didn’t even know the first time he was going to be portrayed on the show. He got back from a trip and his staff kept saying to him, “you were on ‘Seinfeld’ last night” and he kept saying, “no I was in California” or wherever he was on his trip. He finally saw the episode and the “Seinfeld” people got in touch because they wanted to keep using the character and then they were sending him scripts and all this stuff.
It was generally smart [for the company], it really raised awareness to some extent. There are still people now who don’t realize that this was a real company. I see people posting, “this is an amazing, elaborate parody site of this company from ‘Seinfeld,’” and I’m like no you can buy clothes from them. They’re real. They had this weird trajectory where you would think that “Seinfeld” had helped them, but it kind of ended up expanding so fast because of it that they went bankrupt. Now they’re back in business again, but it’s a very weird and complicated situation.
(J. Peterman, which started as a mail-order clothing business, filed for bankruptcy in 1999 after a rapid expansion fueled in part by the attention from “Seinfeld”.)
MW: How do the brands and businesses work to make the show more realistic?
JA: Part of the reason the Soup Nazi became a national sensation is because he’s real. It’s a good catchphrase, the “no soup for you” thing is useful, but I don’t think that character would have been quite as enduring, except that it hit right at the peak of “Seinfeld” mania, plus the fact that the media knew right away that he was real because they’re all in New York. They all immediately went, “I know who that is” and they immediately had stories.
(The episode famously chronicled the characters’ experience in a restaurant with delicious soup served up by a finicky owner.)
That incident shows, in a weird way, the importance of also having things like Junior Mints or Snapple or whatever because it makes people feel like the show is actually in their real world. It also allows [fans] to make references. They see a Junior Mint box and it reminds them of “Seinfeld.”
MW: What are some of the biggest industry innovations that came from “Seinfeld”?
JA: You always hear these stories about how television executives are horrible and they don’t know anything, but there are times when they take a chance and it pays off and “Seinfeld” is one of them. It really showed how having faith in something and letting it build and grow a little bit can pay off. They really buried the first episode in the middle of summer. They did just enough to put it on the air, but barely enough, because they put it on July 5. [The plan was] only to run this pilot and nothing else, but an executive named Rick Ludwin liked it just enough that he killed one Bob Hope special that he had planned for the next summer, which would be two hours, to make the budget for four half-hour episodes of “Seinfeld”.
It really allowed the show to grow and if you look at the early episodes, they’re fun and they’re funny and they’re nice, but they were really figuring out “Seinfeld” as they went and it shows you just how many other shows out there just never got the chance to find that.
MW: Any other innovations?
JA: This is not mind-blowing, but it was still really smart. Jerry Seinfeld had no interest in acting, he had no plan to act. They asked him if he wanted to do something and he felt it would be stupid to say no, so he tried it. But he really surrounded himself with three of the best ever. They’re just brilliant and it didn’t even stop there. Every little character that even came on for one episode, so many of them had an impact. They really created those characters beautifully and also cast them beautifully. He created a great show and then he surrounded himself with the best possible people. It’s this lovely balance of take chances on people plus hire really good people to back them up.
MW: We always like to ask people their biggest money lesson or biggest money mistake. So what are some money lessons we can learn from the characters of “Seinfeld”?
JA: Do the opposite of what George would do in any situation in business and you will do fine.
Don’t buy cheap envelopes, there’s your money lesson: Spring for the better envelopes.
(George’s fiancée dies from licking the cheap envelopes — with toxic glue — for their wedding invitations.)
View more information: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/in-seinfeld-the-show-about-nothing-money-comes-up-a-lot-2016-08-11