It’s “Seinfeld” appreciation night at the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league stadium in Coney Island, and the Elaines are dancing absurdly in the outfield. It’s 2014, some 16 years after the NBC sitcom went off the air, but intense fandom for the show is still potent: Fans standing in the bleachers competed in a Junior Mint toss, a cereal-eating contest and a pick-or-scratch match, played with mock seriousness by people wearing Jerry Seinfeld puffy shirts, bushy Cosmo Kramer wigs and Vandalay Industries hardhats. Vendors hocked “Master of My Domain” sweatshirts and “Assman” vanity license plates.
But baseball? There was a game happening on the field, but it was the last thing on anyone’s mind. This anecdote opens Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything,” a behind-the-scenes dive into the history, catchphrases, fake holidays and fiction-blurring story lines that have sustained the popularity of “Seinfeld” long past its original 1989-1998 run.
“It was like a ‘Seinfeld’ convention,” Armstrong, reached by phone in Manhattan, says of the sitcom-themed baseball game. “I was just obsessed by this question: What is it about the show that makes people do irrational things, to throw out catchphrases and take pictures with the Soup Nazi? ‘Seinfeld’ was definitely made for the Internet age.”
Armstrong, who will appear Friday and Saturday as part of the Broward County Library Foundation’s 2017 Literary Feast, says “Seinfeld” fandom remains rabid now because it blurred fiction and real life. “Many ‘Seinfeld’ acolytes share an urge to express their fandom in some grand, public way,” Armstrong writes early on in the book. “Knowing Elaine’s dance, or the Keith Hernandez joke, or the ‘master of my domain’ joke, is like knowing a secret password.”
“Seinfeldia” is Armstrong’s word for the show’s cultural staying power, from “yada, yada, yada” to “no soup for you!” and “double-dipping” potato chips. The book is layered with trivia: Cosmo Kramer, Seinfeld’s wiry, door-slamming neighbor? He was based on show co-creator Larry David’s real-life neighbor, Kenny Kramer. J. Peterman, the theatrically weird clothing magnate and Elaine’s boss? He was inspired by the real J. Peterman Company, so eager to cash in on its “Seinfeld” name recognition that it opened several stores across the country. (J. Peterman filed for bankruptcy one year after the series’ finale.) The Elaine dance? That was the invention of a writer who witnessed “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels awkwardly busting a move at a friend’s party.
Armstrong, a former Entertainment Weekly staff writer whose research included interviews with “Seinfeld” writers, chat forums and online articles, says the Lorne Michaels detail was the juiciest revelation. (The main “Seinfeld” quartet — Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and Michael Richards — declined to be interviewed.)
“That was my perfect scoop,” Armstrong says with a laugh. “When I interviewed the writers, I had a list of their known episodes, like Soup Nazi. I would ask, ‘How’d that come together?’ When I got to the Elaine dance, Spike Fereston, the writer, was like, ‘It’s time that someone knew.’ I felt like Woodward and Bernstein in the garage. I had to keep all calm, but I was freaking out when he told me. I checked afterward, and couldn’t find that detail mentioned anywhere online.”
Often, Seinfeld and David would treat the writing staff as a factory assembly line, squeezing out the best ideas and hiring a fresh batch of Harvard graduates before the start of each new season.
“It was every writer for herself or himself, and they had to pitch four story lines,” Armstrong says. “It was a miracle that even one episode got done. It sounded like an intense environment to work on this show, so it was probably a good thing the turnover rate was so high.”
After the finale aired in May 1998, even actors who played the show’s fringe characters, including the Soup Nazi and Kenny Kramer, cashed in on their fame. While “Seinfeld” found a second life in syndication, Kramer earned a living giving “Seinfeld”-themed bus tours around New York. Larry Thomas, the actor who played the Soup Nazi, turned his two appearances on “Seinfeld” into a living, with high-profile gigs in Super Bowl commercials and at fan conventions.
“It’s crazy that these incredibly ancillary people can make a living being Seinfeld-adjacent,” Armstrong says. “I started this book by asking why ‘Seinfeld’ was such a phenomenon. There are no huge moments in ‘Seinfeld.’ It’s just ‘Elaine starts a muffin-top business’ or waiting all episode in a Chinese restaurant. It doesn’t sound dramatic, but if you were choosing between Chinese and catching a movie, it feels dramatic to you. Our daily lives don’t include life-and-death situations like on ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ Most people live lives waiting at Chinese restaurants. ‘Seinfeld’ depicted that, and it wasn’t easy to make it compelling.”
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong will discuss “Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything” 6-8 p.m. Friday, March 31, during LitLive! at Barnes & Noble, 11820 Pines Blvd., in Pembroke Pines, and 6 p.m. Saturday, April 1, during Literary Feast at Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six, 2301 SE 17th Street Causeway, in Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free for LitLive!, $175-$325 for Literary Feast. Call 954-357-7382 or go to BPLFoundation.org.
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