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Jerry Seinfeld, the tech blogger’s spirit animal

Last night, the temperature here dipped below freezing for the first time since the spring. Our furnace fired up repeatedly throughout the night, helping us keep the autumn chill at bay. I know that because it’s easy to tell when the heat kicks on; the roar can be heard from every corner of our small cabin.

Apparently, our daughter had forgotten just how loud (and scary) that noise can be. When the heater first started, her frightened cries crackled through the baby monitor. We tried to settle her down, but eventually I set up camp in her bedroom and comforted her until she fell asleep.

Sleep graph
Sleep graph from last night. The purple stretches are sleep. The large gap around midnight was when the furnace scared my daughter.

All that to say, I didn’t get much rest, and (as I type this in the predawn darkness), my body is protesting. It would rather be asleep, recovering from late-night dada duty.

And if it weren’t for Jerry Seinfeld, that might have happened today. Fortunately, I’ve found inspiration in the comedian’s productivity mantra: “Don’t break the chain”.

The basic idea is that momentum becomes its own motivation. Daily habits, once established, are a sort of perpetual motion machine; you string together a “chain” of days, and you don’t want to stop. There’s magic in the streak.

What’s my good habit of choice? As of today, I’ve blogged and podcasted for eighteen straight weekdays. That chain is long and strong enough to drag me out of bed after a sleepless night. My head may be pulsing, my eyelids may be heavy, but I’m here. I’m typing. The streak summoned me to the keyboard.

And I’m scared to loosen the chain, let alone break it. One slip-up might derail me for good. “Just one day off” becomes “two days off.” Two days off becomes a week-long lull. Before I know it, my blog sits stagnant for months. That may seem overly dramatic, but it’s happened so many times before.

Happily, it didn’t happen today—thanks to the chain. I like to think that Jerry would be proud. ■


  1. Calendar artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.

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Interchangeable subplots?

The Big Bang Theory is one of my guilty pleasures. Usually, I demand more from a TV show: great writing, careful storytelling, stellar performances. For Big Bang, I make an exception. Sometimes, you just need a mindless chuckle.

Still, if I’m honest, Big Bang Theory is not an innovative or well-written show. It overuses a stale “setup-setup-punchline” recipe for laughs. And when the jokes fall flat, it fills the silence with an aggressive laugh track—a broadcast trick that should have died decades ago.

I can overlook these faults; almost every other sitcom leans on these genre standards, too. Harder to forgive? The Big Bang Theory’s lazy, haphazardly-written plot lines. Too often, Big Bang’s ‘A’ storyline and ‘B’ storyline have literally nothing to do with one another.

Consider one recent episode: October 2015’s “Helium Insufficiency.” Half the show deals with Sheldon and Leonard buying black-market helium to buoy their scientific research. Meanwhile, the other characters help Amy navigate the world of online dating.

The episode cuts back and forth between the two storylines, but never lets them intersect or even overlap. The separate narratives just plod along, the characters oblivious of what’s happening in the other thread. And then, the episode abruptly ends—or really, ends twice (once for each subplot). For contrast, take Seinfeld, which specialized in cleverly interweaving multiple seemingly-unrelated stories.

I’d posit that you could combine almost any set of Big Bang subplots. Splice them together, and you’d end up with a serviceable episode. For all I know, that’s how the writers chart out each season: come up with a few dozen “hilarious” situations, toss them in a hat, and pull out two or three at a time to conjure up an episode.

That makes writing scripts easier, perhaps, but it hardly makes for legendary comedy.

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George is getting upset.

I couldn’t figure out how to play off of her. Her instincts for doing a scene—where the comedy was—and mine were always misfiring. …. It’s fucking impossible. It’s impossible! And Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] actually said, ‘I know. Don’t you just want to kill her?’ And Larry went, ‘Kabang! … We’ve got to kill her.’

Jason Alexander (Seinfeld’s George Costanza), speaking to Howard Stern re. working with Heidi Swedberg, who played George’s fiancée Susan on the show.

Telling this story on the air was a mistake for Jason Alexander. Two reasons:

First, it’s in poor taste to bad-mouth a guest star on the show that made you rich. You’re (still) one of the most recognizable faces in comedy. She now teaches ukelele to grade school kids and hardly has a platform to defend herself. Plus, Alexander admits that he helped get her written off the show. Why share an anecdote that makes you sound like a jerk?

A second reason why Alexander gets this wrong? Maybe the lack of chemistry made their scenes work better. The audience can sense that George genuinely dreads every interaction with Susan. She makes Costanza—or maybe Jason Alexander himself—ooze discontent.

Heck, for all we know, maybe the actress intentionally made Alexander squirm, just to squeeze out those reactions from him.

UPDATE (6/4/15): Jason Alexander seems to agree that making these comments was a mistake. He posted an apology to Heidi Swedberg on his Twitter account. Here’s an excerpt:

She was generous and gracious and I am so mad at myself for retelling this story in any way that would diminish her. If I had had more maturity or more security in my own work, I surely would have taken her query and possibly tried to adjust the scenes with her. She surely offered. But, I didn’t have that maturity or security. And, Larry [David] and Jerry [Seinfeld] would probably have killed me as it was all playing exactly as they wanted. Clearly Susan and George were coming off just the way they wanted.

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Seinfeld’s Superbowl sketch

Last week, rumors of a pending Seinfeld reunion sent fans of the hit 1990s sitcom into a frenzy. What, exactly, were Jerry and Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) filming on the streets of New York—in costume? When asked about it, Seinfeld played coy.

The results were revealed last night during the (otherwise less-than-riveting) Superbowl. The Seinfeld alums had worked their 90s characters into a mini-episode of Seinfeld’s brilliant web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”:

The spot has its moments. For one, you’ve got to love the car choice; Jerry ferries George around New York in a 1976 AMC Pacer. As Seinfeld snarks, “It doesn’t work; it looks ridiculous; and [it] falls apart—which makes it the perfect vehicle for my guest today: Mr. George Costanza.” Another pleasant surprise? Wayne Knight cameos as Jerry’s arch-nemesis, Newman. His wheezy cackle still makes me giggle.

But this mini-reunion has its problems, too. First, it’s too short. As a series, Seinfeld specialized in comedic payoffs. It took its time, establishing the plot threads, then entangling them hilariously at each episode’s climax. The Superbowl segment doesn’t have space to work this way. The closest we get to a “payoff” is the lame recurrence of a mumble gag established just two minutes earlier.

Another problem with the bit? George Costanza. Oh, he’s still the same neurotic kvetch. Actually, that’s the problem: George hasn’t changed at all. He sports the same wire-rimmed glasses, the same frumpy red jacket—even the same-colored hair (likely dyed). But the self-obsession that made George funny back then makes him unpleasant now. He’s less “charmingly crabby” and more “crotchety crank.” If anything, George seems more cynical and selfish than his younger self. Only now, it’s harder to overlook.

Listen: I’m not ungrateful; I’m glad Seinfeld & Friends shot this piece. We got a whimsical, nostalgic reminder of TV’s best-ever sitcom.

But the brief reunion shows why Seinfeld should never be renewed. Sure, society has generated plenty of script material in the intervening years. No doubt Jerry and the gang would have plenty to say about today’s “excruciating minutiae”: smartphone etiquette, Skype faux-paus, Netflix binges, and “reality” TV.

But would audiences want to hear them complain? The quirks that made these characters funny as thirty-somethings would make them unbearable as fifty-year-olds. Kramer’s wacky antics as a young man were lovably eccentric; they’d seem borderline creepy for a senior citizen. Elaine’s sarcastic narcissism was cute back then; from a middle-aged woman, it would likely grate.

As it turns out, the show’s original finale got it right: it’s probably for the best that these characters were “removed from society.”

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Unpacking Jerry’s apartment(s?): continuity errors in Seinfeld’s pilot.

Television pilots are tricky things. They’re test episodes, meant to gauge whether a concept will fly or not. Seinfeld’s pilot, first broadcast in July of 1989, nearly failed the test. Screenings met with a tepid response from audiences, who complained about pointless stories and uninteresting characters. But when I go back and watch Seinfeld’s opening episode, it’s not the tediously long stand-up interludes, the unfunny writing, or the lagging pace that bug me. No, I’m bothered by Jerry’s apartment.

If that even is Jerry’s apartment. Oh, sure, it resembles the unit 5A familiar from later seasons, but something seems… off. Take the windows, for example. Most of the time, Seinfeld’s producers used this L.A. façade as the exterior shot for Jerry’s building:

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In fact, in every episode but the first, this is the exterior. In that first episode, however, we get this:

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Maybe Jerry’s building underwent some major renovations? And things make even less sense viewed from the inside:

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Wait, what? Neither exterior shot included these tall, warehouse-style bay windows. Perhaps Jerry was the previous tenant at another show’s famous flat:

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Weird. I thought the Friends lived in the Village.

It’s not just the windows that are inconsistent, though. Check out this shot from the pilot:

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Now compare it to this, taken from the show’s second episode, “The Stakeout:”

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The two rooms look alike at first, aside from new decor (Jerry’s taste has improved?). Harder to explain are the changes to the bathroom area. In the pilot, the door at the rear of Jerry’s apartment opens directly into the bathroom. By the second episode, however, the bathroom has shifted deeper into the set. A wide door frame leads into both the bathroom and Jerry’s bedroom (off-camera). Either the super knocked down some walls, or something’s not quite right here.

Of course, one might say that such obsessive analysis points to some mental illness on my part. After all, the pilot was filmed years before the show hit its stride; if the writing improved, couldn’t the set design improve with it? And, besides, the pilot includes much more glaring discrepancies than the apartment floorplan. Jerry calls his neighbor “Kessler,” for crying out loud.

Still, the Seinfeld pilot is canonical! Later seasons prove it. The finale playfully references the first conversation between Jerry and George–which happens in the pilot. Even the premiere’s Kramer/Kessler goof gets retconned (i.e., explained away) in a later episode. So the pilot is authoritative Seinfeld lore. Nitpicky nerds like me are left to wonder how Jerry fit a bedroom where his bathtub used to be.

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Jerry’s apartment two years before the pilot, as portrayed in “The Betrayal” (season 9). Notice the full hallway behind Jerry. The mental gymnastics needed to reconcile this with the pilot floorplan are overwhelming.

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Why I still watch Seinfeld.

Every night during dinner, my wife and I watch TV. I know that’s bad. Mealtime should be a time for conversation, for connection, for relationships. A sacred, inviolable hour for the young family. So sue us. Our most recent addiction has been classic episodes of Seinfeld, king of the 90s TV charts.

We’ve restarted from the show’s earliest days, enjoying some early episodes for the very first time. Sure, the show stumbles at first. Too many stand-up clips sabotage the pacing, and scenes drag on far too long. In addition, the characters don’t quite seem themselves. George, later hapless and lazy, somehow navigates a successful career. And Michael Richards seems more Stanley Spadowski than Kramer at first. Before long (by season 3), though, the show hits its stride.

Why does the show endure? Clever writing, most of all. While Jerry Seinfeld’s “What’s the deal?” routine grates on me as nasal stand-up, it works brilliantly spun out as story. It’s inane and everyday and pedestrian (think “excruciating minutiae”), but it’s familiar and astonishingly funny, too. Funny, especially, because the characters play it so well. They’re quirky, iconic, distinct, and relatable. George Costanza, the neurotic, obsessive societal cast-off. Kosmo Kramer, the lovable, eccentric hipster doofus. Jerry’s conniving failure of a arch-nemesis, Newman. And a long list of one-hit weirdos: the Low Talker. The Soup Nazi. The Wiz.

As these infamous characters prove, Seinfeld created culture, rather than merely imitating it. “Yada, yada, yada.” “A Festivus for the rest of us!” “Man Hands.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The show created touchstones that haven’t yet dislodged from culture. In fact, the show was so influential, it would eventually reference itself. Meta moves were frequent; for example, in one repeating storyline, NBC woos in-show Jerry to write a sitcom based on his stand-up. Another time, Kramer creates a tour based on his own life–just as the real-life inspiration for Kramer did after the show grew popular.

All good things come to an end, of course. Maybe Seinfeld’s reruns will wear on us. Life has changed, after all: cell phones are conspicuously absent from Jerry’s world, and the Internet shows up only as a punch line there. Michael Richards’ unfortunate (and despicable) racist onstage rant certainly tarnished the show’s image–and made Kramer seem more Ku Klux than kooky.

Then again, maybe Seinfeld is something special, something timeless–more akin to I Love Lucy or M*A*S*H than shallow stuff like Friends or Raymond. According to one recent report, Seinfeld has earned $2.7 billion in syndication since it went off the air twelve years ago. That makes it the highest-earning sitcom in TV history. Not too bad for the “Show about Nothing.”