Sein of the Times

Seinfeld: a television series

by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David

Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld; drawing by David Levine

It is just another day in the Republic of Entertainment, and as always a major story is taking shape. DANGER SEIN, reads the headline of the Daily News for May 9, 1997, over a photograph of the stars of NBC’s phenomenally popular sitcom Seinfeld: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards. They are clearly out of character, huddling cozily together and beaming with an appearance of warm feeling entirely inappropriate to the needling and conniving personae they embody on TV. The issue in the story is money, specifically the one million dollars per episode that each of Jerry Seinfeld’s co-stars is demanding for the impending ninth season of what the News reporter describes as “television’s first billion-dollar sitcom.” THREE STARS HOLD OUT IN HIGH-STAKES BATTLE OVER NBC MEGAHIT: only the language of hostage-taking and terrorist attack (the actors “imperil” the series with their “hard-line demands” and “it is essential that the impasse be resolved soon”) can do justice to the drama of the event. (The impasse was resolved a few days later for roughly $600,000 per episode.)

A few days later, a counterattack of sorts takes place, in the form of a New York Times Op-Ed piece in which Maureen Dowd professes shock at the “breathtaking” salaries demanded by the “surreally greedy” actors and proceeds to a ringing denunciation of the “ever more self-referential and self-regarding” Seinfeld: “The show is our Dorian Gray portrait, a reflection of the what’s-in-it-for-me times that allowed Dick Morris and Bill Clinton to triumph.” For backup she cites Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, who describes the show as “the worst, last gasp of Reaganite, grasping, materialistic, narcissistic, banal self-absorption.” (Neither addresses the question of why it is greedy for veteran actors who are indispensable to the most successful show on television—and who cannot reasonably expect another comparable windfall—to insist on a fair chunk of the money that would otherwise flow into the NBC kitty.)

In any event the diatribe scarcely registers, crowded out by celebratory cover stories in TV Guide (“Michael Richards: Still Kramer After All These Years… Seinfeld’s slapstick sidekick strikes it rich!”); Business Week (“Seinfeld: The Economics of a TV Supershow, and What It Means for NBC and the Industry”); and an encyclopedic special issue of Entertainment Weekly—“The Ultimate Seinfeld Viewer’s Guide”—including a plot summary of the series’ 148 episodes to date (an admirably meticulous piece of scholarship, by the way).

The ramifications extend: a franchising company will turn a soup restaurant called Soup Nutsy (inspired by the Seinfeld episode about the Soup Nazi, itself inspired by the allegedly intimidating proprietor of Soup Kitchen International on West 55th Street) into a name-brand chain, that is if it is not outflanked by another chain, Soup Man Enterprises, which (according to another story) has struck a deal with the man from Soup Kitchen International (although the latter is duly appalled by “‘the hateful name’…he…

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