In 1988, I auditioned for an ABC sitcom, but they picked Howie Mandel instead. I regret not being cast in Past Imperfect to this day. If that had happened, I would have had to do a lot less work.
My life was going well at that point – regular spots on The Tonight Show, 300 club dates a year, I was doing big concerts, I’d bought an apartment on Central Park West. There was no game plan for the future. I don’t even know why I was reading for Past Imperfect. I definitely did not want to be in a sitcom.
Then my manager sent a note to Brandon Tartikoff at NBC, and they called me in for a meeting on November 2, 1988, at 5:15. We sat in there and chatted about “What do you think you might like to do? Would you be interested in a talk show?” And we kind of settled on doing a special in the Saturday Night Live time slot.
A couple of weeks later, I did a set at the Improv, and I was hanging in the bar afterward talking with Larry David. We went to the Westway Diner, on Ninth Avenue, and we started having this conversation about a show with two comedians walking around during the day, with no story. Larry had mentioned this idea once before; we were in a Korean deli on the East Side one night, by Catch a Rising Star, and we were making fun of some of the food on the steam table. And Larry said, “This is what the show should be. Just two comedians making fun of stuff.” And that’s how it started.
Originally the George character was a comedian too. At that time, stand-up had a little more novelty than it does now. It seemed like it might be an interesting thing for people to see, how comedians come up with their material, because people always ask me that question.
It was originally going to be called Seinfeld’s Stand-up Diary. It wasn’t clear at the beginning that the city itself would be such a big character in the show. It was supposed to be set in the period of time before I had a TV show. So a comedian’s life is ordering Chinese food, going to movies during the day, and sitting in coffee shops for endless hours. I really think one of the secret appeals of the show is this kind of utopian existence of living in Manhattan and not having to work.
Kramer came into it months later, when we got into writing the pilot, which was about February ‘89. Larry told me about his next-door neighbor, and we put him in. We called the coffee shop Monk’s because there was a Thelonious Monk poster in the office where Larry and I were writing, and we just needed a name.
The idea that the show is about nothing – it’s funny how that caught on. It was in that script where George and I were pitching the pilot to NBC. When we did pitch the show for real, we didn’t tell them it was a show about nothing. It was never something we said. I still wouldn’t say it. To me, it’s a show about anything.
It kind of happened very slowly, the recognition. It’s still not bad when I go home – New York is a great place to be a celebrity. Most people, even the people who do have things to say, they’re usually fairly cool. They give you the head nod, or the “hey.” They don’t get all goony about it. I can still go to a coffee shop at two or three in the morning, like I did a few weeks ago. I had dinner with a friend and we ended up sitting around pretty late. I like to go downtown, to the West Village – it’s kind of a zoo. And I like to go to the zoo.
Before the show, I did not get courtside Knicks tickets. It’s not the best fringe benefit, but it’s close. The best benefit is the people who go with you to the Knicks – heh, heh. I also have a great field box at Shea Stadium now. Right over the third-base dugout, which is where I’ve always wanted to sit my whole life. I’ll be there every night this spring. Mets all the way, baby!
I think the show became a hit because we took a little step forward in comedic tone. We gave it our own style. When it first came on, it didn’t sound like other sitcoms that were on at the time. It didn’t sound like Coach – shows with all that regular processed-comedy feeling. We got much more specific, and more neurotic, and more New York. The show sounds like it was written by a couple of comics from New York.
The thing I remember most about that night at the Westway Diner is that I had two cups of coffee. And I don’t drink coffee. So I remember sitting there, having a second cup of coffee – and that was kind of an indication that we were onto something. Maybe that’s where the whole show came from – too much caffeine.
Interviewed by Chris Smith