Being a writer on "Seinfeld" was all about one thing — the big idea. That was the currency that kept you afloat or got you tossed.
And don’t all businesses run on good ideas? Even if you’re just selling hot dogs, you need to come up with ways to make people want your hot dogs more than the other guy’s hot dogs (like, sell them with papaya juice). Sure, in some workplaces you can get pretty far by clocking in on time, complimenting the boss’s tie and never using more than your allotment of paper clips. But whatever your profession, I bet that sooner or later a good idea will be the thing that gets you noticed.
At "Seinfeld," we learned the importance of ideas pretty quickly. As soon as each season began, the first order of business was to secure time with Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld to go into their office and pitch. (Yes, their office. They were a team who worked with their desks pushed up against each other, like two concert pianists.)
Until you had a good idea that Larry and Jerry both loved and signed off on, you didn’t have squat to write. There were no assignments at "Seinfeld." It was the only sitcom I’ve ever worked on that didn’t have a room — that is, a group of writers sitting around a table littered with junk food, trying to come up with story ideas or beat one another’s jokes. In most places, the writers are assigned a script, and they go off and complete a first draft on their own. But when that first draft comes back, the bulk of the rewriting goes on in the room.
"Seinfeld" was clearly its own animal, which is a big reason I was lucky enough to be hired in the first place. Larry and Jerry specifically wanted to hire writers who had never written on a network sitcom. So the mountain of spec scripts that had been submitted by seasoned writers from Murphy Brown, Cheers and the other hit shows of the time were all nixed. The guys wanted a fresh perspective, from writers who came clean to the task. And being stand-up comics themselves, Larry and Jerry had a bent for hiring fellow stand-ups and buddies.
Pitching your ideas at "Seinfeld" was tough. Especially getting Larry David to bite. Larry had this physical tic when he was bored: he’d stretch his shoulder down from his neck and then move his arm around in a circle, looking like he was in pain. I’d pitch, Larry would listen while doing a lap with his shoulder, then at the end he’d often just shake his head and declare: “No, I don’t love that one.”
The biggest putdown Larry could say after a pitch was, “I could see that on another show.” Ouch! Knowing the visceral disdain he had for sitcoms on network television, that piece of rejection always cut me to the bone.
But when a pitch worked, there was no better feeling. From the first day, I could tell that the number-one rule of pitching to Larry and Jerry was to be concise. One or two sentences, which would hopefully be punctuated at the end by a big laugh from both of them. With anything too long, you could feel them drifting off and almost hear them thinking, “Get to it, man!”
Knowing that, I got straight to the point when I pitched, “George brings a deaf woman to a party so she can lip-read his ex-girlfriend’s lips to find out why she broke up with him.” It broke Larry’s shoulder spell. I knew I’d landed a winner because when he liked an idea, Larry would leap out of his chair and shout, “Yes! That’s a show! We’re doing that!”
The inspiration for that episode came from listening to "The Howard Stern Show." Kathy Buckley, a deaf comedian, had talked with Howard about what a proficient lip reader she was. It made me think that, were she a friend of mine, how I would have mined that superhero skill for personal gain!
Pitching at "Seinfeld" also drove home a valuable strategy I’d learned as a stand-up comedian: to mine my own life — especially my life as a female — for ideas that would set me apart.
For example, it’s doubtful that a male writer would have pitched, “Elaine thinks the manicurists at her nail salon are talking about her in Korean behind her back.” I’ll never know for sure, but I still think the ladies were doing that at my nail place. (Though, who cares? I get free manicures to this day because the owner’s still thrilled that we used the real name of her store on the show.)
Or, “Elaine thinks that the mirrors at Barney’s are skinny mirrors.” I knew this was a unique pitch for sure when I had to explain to the guys on staff what skinny mirrors are.
I was a fake date for a gay male friend once, accompanying him on an evening with his banker boss and wife at the Hollywood Bowl, which became the inspiration for the episode “The Beard.” I can pretty much assure you that not one of the guys on staff had ever been a beard for a lesbian.
And though I never dated a saxophone player, my imagination ran wild about what sexual act, if performed on a woman for too long, would ruin his embouchure — a story point of “The Marble Rye.” (I still can’t believe that in 1995 the network never gave us one bit of resistance to that episode. The perks of being on a hit show — they leave you alone!)
The only pitfall of being on the writing staff of TV’s number-one comedy was the constant flux of people coming up to you to share their brilliant ideas for the next episode.
I usually took those "Seinfeld" suggestions with a polite grain of salt and then tried to move on as gracefully as I could. But when a friend from high school told me how this couple had gone to a dinner party, bringing a bread that was never served, and then they wound up taking the bread back home out of spite, I knew right away this was an idea that would make Larry leap to his feet.
That idea morphed into the core story of the abovementioned classic “Marble Rye” episode. So whatever business you’re in, always keep a friendly ear out for a random pitch that you can spin into something viable. As my mother (and many other Jewish women) used to say , “Y ou never know....”
Side note: As a souvenir from that episode, I got to keep the empty industrial-size can of Beef-a-Reeno (Chef Boyardee wouldn’t grant us permission to use the name Beef-a-Roni) that Kramer’s horse, Rusty, devoured. I have few regrets in life, but one is that when I relocated, the moving men thought it was just an empty can and tossed it. Arghhh!
Working at a show that had no writers’ room turned out to be the best experience a new sitcom writer like me could ever have. Most people are unaware that every episode of "Seinfeld" was rewritten by Larry and Jerry. They had the final pass on each and every writer’s draft, and when they were done, the script always turned out better and more finely tuned than what the writer originally handed in.
To me, this was an opportunity. I pored over their drafts, studying which parts of my script they kept, what they threw out and what they altered. I learned an invaluable amount. Whenever your ideas don’t rise to the top, or if they get changed along the way, it’s important to understand why .
I’ll probably never have another writing experience as brilliant as "Seinfeld." Not only did I learn how to write sitcoms from the masters, but those guys involved each writer in every aspect of the show. They included us in the process from start to finish: casting, editing, wardrobe, props, even down to attending the final sound mix. That doesn’t happen on most shows, and how fortunate I was to be taught all those essential elements of TV production right out of the gate.
The show was the very definition of lightning in a bottle. Where can you even find actors like Jerry, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards, let alone all on the same show? The synergy of those four together created a once-in-a-lifetime cast.
And Jerry and Larry had an amazing chemistry of their own. I liken it to the partnership of Lennon and McCartney: Larry’s more cynical and sullen perspective mixed with Jerry’s sunny and pop sensibility . The combination was comedically lethal. I had so much fun every day that on the weekends — at a party or some other event — I’d inevitably turn to whoever I was with and say, “I have a much better time at work.”
It’s funny that my inexperience as a writer turned out to be the biggest advantage I had going when "Seinfeld" came a-knocking. Not just because Larry and Jerry were looking for writers free of the sitcom way of working, but also because it freed me to focus on pitching my ideas and figuring out why some worked and others didn’t. And it was my experience as a woman that kept me on track in finding story ideas, which kept me employed for more than seventy-five episodes.
Keep your ideas concise, and you’ll find it much easier to pitch them to the appropriate person. (If it helps, pretend you’re pitching to Larry David and his arm’s already in motion.) Keep alert for ideas rooted in your own life experiences or from those unsolicited suggestions that come your way. Keep track of your ideas after you pitch them, so you can learn why some fly and some land with a thud. Also keep a little notebook with you all the time — I’ve been doing so since the first time I set foot on stage in 1977 — because you never know when inspiration will strike.
"Seinfeld" set the gold standard for television comedy, and my time on that show taught me lifelong lessons about how to write comedy. The experience also taught me how to be a boss. Larry and Jerry were the easiest showrunners I’ve ever worked for. They were always fair, direct and generous with everyone on the set. They never treated a crew member differently from one of the network suits. I’ve tried to emulate that attitude whenever I’m in charge of a show and staff.
This situation is especially notable because it all took place during the era of the stand-up comedian in network TV. I heard plenty of stories from writers on other comedian-centered shows (Roseanne, Grace Under Fire) that would make your head spin. But Jerry Seinfeld never had the requisite hissy fits or ego trips that went with a lot of his contemporaries. For him, the show was all about the work. He knew that with his name as the show’s title, it was up to him to set the tone. To this day, he remains the most un-hung-up person I’ve ever known — and without a day of therapy.
The most common question I get is, “What’s Jerry Seinfeld really like?” Simply put, Jerry’s a mensch. (That Yiddish word, mensch, is so much better than merely saying “nice guy,” isn’t it?) A buddy who’s always been there for me in countless ways. Here’s a great example.
One day a few years back, when I was in Los Angeles, I got a distressing phone call from my mom on Long Island. My dad had taken a fall outside their house, hit his head and had some dementia as a result. He was taken to a hospital to recover. Needless to say, I was a wreck.
Jerry happened to call soon after the conversation with my mom, and I filled him in on the bad news. “Well, the good news is,“ Jerry said, “I’m scheduled to go back to New York tomorrow. Why don’t you come with me on my private jet” — the dude has worked hard over the years — “and when we land, you can go out to Long Island and see your dad.” I was ecstatic with his generous offer and, of course, grabbed it.
The next day we boarded Jerry’s jet — and if you’ve never flown privately, I encourage you to try to have friends who are so successful that they’ve earned this perk in life. Jerry had lox and bagels on board, fresh from Nate ‘n Al’s deli in Beverly Hills, and the fun plane ride certainly took my mind off my ailing dad, whom I was so anxious to see.
We landed a few hours later, and off to the hospital I went. When I arrived, my dad was doing so much better than I had hoped — he was way more lucid than I’d imagined, with just some bumps and bad scrapes. My pop was so happy to see me, and I shared the story with him and my mom of how Jerry had graciously lent me a ride. (The folks always ate the show-biz stuff up with a spoon!) When I left that night with my mom, we were both very encouraged by my dad’s progress.
The next morning I arrived at the hospital in an upbeat mood. I ran into the nurse and asked how my father was doing.
“Oh, not too good this morning,” she said. “We’ve definitely taken a step backward.”
“Oh, you’re kidding,” I replied dejectedly. “But he was doing so well yesterday!”
“No, no, the dementia’s back,” the nurse said. “Your father woke up this morning talking about how his daughter flew in on Jerry Seinfeld’s private jet, eating lox and bagels at 30,000 feet....”
So even though he was almost responsible for an extended hospital stay for my dad, they don’t come better than Jerry.
Friends are so important — they help keep you sane every day as you brave the mercurial working world. Where would any of us be without them? If you have a "Seinfeld" or two in your life — and I mean a mensch, with or without a private jet — hold on to them. The saying “You can’t have any new old friends” is a sage one.
Excerpted from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons From a Life in Comedy" by Carol Leifer. Copyright @ 2014 by Carol Leifer. Reprinted by arrangement with Quirk Books. All rights reserved.