By David Kronke
The show about nothing changed everything.
Seinfeld began as a comedy that observantly contemplated the absurd minutiae of everyday life. The phrase a “Seinfeld moment” entered the popular lexicon, referring to an absurd real-life experience that could have occurred on the series. In nine seasons on NBC, the show evolved into a freewheeling, meticulously plotted, and sometimes surreal comedy filled with bad, even abhorrent, behavior by its protagonists.
Over those nine seasons, Seinfeld helped change the rules of TV comedy. Although it was a four-camera sitcom shot largely on a soundstage on the CBS Radford lot, directors Tom Cherones and Andy Ackerman’s relentless efforts to make the show look more ambitious and cinematic than the average sitcom have informed the polished look of many of today’s single-camera comedies. Cherones and Ackerman directed nearly all of the shows themselves. Cherones directed 80 episodes in the show’s first five seasons; Ackerman tackled 89 in its last four.
“People would say, ‘Can’t you make this look more like a sitcom?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t want to,’” recalls Cherones, who won a DGA Award in 1992 for directing the classic episode “The Contest,” in which the gang bets on who can go the longest without masturbating. “Usually on sitcoms, everything’s lit up [on the set] and you don’t get pretty pictures—we avoided that,” Cherones points out. “I hired old-timers who could really light a multi-camera show to look pretty good. I’ve done a lot of sitcoms that looked like sitcoms. I was happy to do a single-camera-looking show.”
Ackerman, who joined the series in its sixth season and won two DGA Awards for the episodes “The Rye” in 1996 and “The Betrayal” in 1997, agrees. “In terms of bringing a rich, single-camera look to a multi-camera sitcom, I wanted to get away from the multi-camera flatness.”
Ackerman was the beneficiary of a block-long facade of a New York street that the production company, Castle Rock, added on the side of a soundstage on the Radford lot for the show’s sixth season. “I got to break in the new New York street set, which was cinematic look to it. I was able to use longer lenses, more crane work for the walks and talks. I was able to create more depth when we went outside. It was just a richer look.”
If the show didn’t look like a conventional sitcom, that was consistent with the series’ humor and quirky characters. Seinfeld starred as a wry variation of himself, a comfortably self-absorbed stand-up comic. Jason Alexander played the petulantly whiny George Costanza, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the frantically shallow Elaine Benes, and Michael Richards as the epically twitchy Kramer, whose oddly Zen attitude transformed his underachievement into unlikely overachievement.
Two keys, Cherones says, contributed to Seinfeld’s more sophisticated look: shooting the series on film at a time when most sitcoms were still shot on videotape, and hiring Wayne Kennan as the show’s cinematographer in 1992. “Once we hired Wayne, the look of the show really improved. He made a lot of progress with the way he did it over the years too.” Kennan shot 140 of the series’ 180 episodes.
The pilot had been shot on film and when Cherones came onboard he said, “We should absolutely shoot this on film, and Castle Rock said OK. They were a film production company not a videotape company.”
“The network guys worried about [the single-camera look],” Cherones says. “Fortunately, our relationship was with the variety department. They told us, ‘Just do what you do.’ If we had been under comedy, they would have ruined it, like they do most things.”
Cherones made only one big change from the pilot: “I didn’t like the coffee shop—there was no depth to it, no real visual impact, so I had a new coffee shop designed.”
The show limped along, with a mere four-episode season one and a 12-episode season two before receiving a full-season pickup in its third year. Then, in season four, NBC moved the show to Thursday evenings after its mega-hit Cheers and, overnight, created another huge hit. Seinfeld won an Emmy for outstanding comedy series that season.
That was the season Cherones directed “The Contest,” which even inspired a porn version of the episode. “It was not as funny as ours,” Cherones deadpans. Otherwise, he says, “It was a pretty straightforward episode. We all had a good time; it was a fun episode to do. There were some concerns that we might get some resistance, but it was pretty carefully written and constructed by Larry [David]. There were no offending words. In the table draft, George used the word ‘tugging,’ but that was taken out. We got in no real trouble.”
Technical challenges in that episode were minimal—mainly creating a silhouette of a sexy nurse giving a buxom female patient a sponge bath on the sheet separating them from George’s mother’s hospital bed. Estelle Harris was introduced as George’s mother in this show, but she couldn’t be on hand for the taping. “We shot the scenes with Estelle earlier in the day,” Cherones remembers. “Fran Drescher filled in for her during the audience show.”
As the show grew in popularity, so did the challenges Cherones encountered. “Larry was writing more scenes—he wanted to make episodes move faster,” he says. “There’d be 20, 25 scenes in a 22-minute show. I’ve never run into that since. That was Larry David’s voice. It was a New York pace.”
Another headache, Cherones recalls, was building sets in a timely fashion when there was no script and the episode was scheduled to be shot in a couple of days, which he recalls was a particular nightmare for production designer Tom Azzari.
“We didn’t get scripts early,” Cherones says. “We’d say, ‘Tell us what the scripts need; we’ve got to build the sets.’ We’d barge into [David’s] office and tell him, ‘You’ve got to tell us now.’ Sometimes, we’d build a set we didn’t need and not have a set we needed.”
Ackerman and Cherones both marveled at how quickly Azzari could erect the necessary sets. “Sometimes we’d shoot on sets and then the sets we shot upon would be replaced in the morning by new sets,” Ackerman says.
“That never changed,” Cherones confirms, adding that Azzari deserves credit for renting a warehouse to store old sets that could be reused after walls were moved around and a fresh coat of paint applied. Cherones says perhaps his toughest shoot was the early season three episode “The Parking Garage,” where the gang wanders endlessly around in a parking structure, getting into sundry trouble, in a near-fruitless quest to locate their car.
“It was expensive,” recalls Cherones. “We had to take the [show’s a fantastic, fresh new element that opened up the show visually,” recalls Ackerman. “We were able to spend more time outside and it brought a more egular] sets down, and put the new one up. We had to strike all the lights—we basically cleaned up and started over. Azzari built ceiling pieces for the garage. We talked about shooting it in an actual parking garage, but I knew that you couldn’t control that. We told Castle Rock how much it would cost and they let us build it.
“We made it look like three different floors, plus there was the set for the security people,” continues Cherones. “On each end of the studio, we put up Mylar mirrors, which made it look bigger than it was. If you look at a long shot in that episode, freeze the frame, and you’ll see a little distortion on the sides due to the mirror. We had 50, 60 cars and would change the cars around. The columns were movable and we’d change the colors to indicate different levels. We made a 20,000-square-foot studio look like an entire parking garage. The sound was much better on our stage than if it had been shot in an actual parking garage.”
Cherones found other creative solutions to logistical problems. For instance, for another season three episode, “The Parking Space,” he created a makeshift studio audience by building a grandstand outside on the lot where much of the action took place. People on the lot would come by and watch for a while. “Larry and Jerry and I discussed it,” recalls Cherones. “We said, ‘We’re not going to have a regular audience and we’ll be there all day. This way people can stop by and we’ll get a little response from the audience,’ which the actors always appreciated.”
Cherones shot all over the lot but rarely ventured onto a real location. When he did, he figured out clever ways to work quickly and not fall behind.
“When we’d go outside, we’d still take four cameras,” he says. In the season four two-part opener “The Trip,” Jerry, George and Kramer travel to Los Angeles, with the requisite mayhem ensuing. “Even when they were driving down Ventura Boulevard, we’d put three cameras on the car and shoot crosses,” Cherones explains. “It saved time, and the gaffers and grips could do it, so why not. The actors were used to shooting that way. It’d make the day go quicker.”
That was important, because not only was Cherones directing just about every episode, he was producing as well and watching the show’s budget. (He says he didn’t mind wearing the extra hat, but notes, “After I left Seinfeld, I told my agents, ‘I’m not producing anymore—only directing.’ That cut down a lot of hours.”)
One advantage, however, of being director and producer, he laughs, is that “when the producer and the director had a fight, the director always won.”
“After the first four episodes, I didn’t have to call budget people about anything,” Cherones recalls. “They were in a deficit from the beginning, but they had an inkling they’d get their money back. We’d say, ‘Can we do this?’ And the attitude was, ‘All it takes is time and money.’ How lucky! We didn’t change anything to accommodate a budget. On some shows, you have to do that. That part was groundbreaking; I didn’t realize until later that it was special.”
But even special things must come to an end, and after season five, Cherones and Seinfeld parted ways. “Jerry wanted a change—that’s the way it is,” he shrugs. “They changed writers every year. I was surprised I lasted so long. We remain friendly. He did an episode of NewsRadio for us when we needed a boost.”
Enter Ackerman. He had worked on a pilot with David’s then-wife Laurie, which David was on hand for, and afterward, as they were walking to their cars, Ackerman told him, “If you ever need me to work on your show, give me a call.”
David did just that two weeks later. Ackerman met with Seinfeld and David at Du-par’s in Studio City and was offered the job two days later. “It was an offhand comment, and it changed my life,” Ackerman marvels, even today, though he admits that on his first day on the job, his prevailing thought was,“God, I hope I don’t break this thing.
“I couldn’t believe I was there,” says Ackerman. “I remember I was sitting at the first table read, and got very nervous reading the script and couldn’t believe I was there among these folks. It was very daunting, and I didn’t want to blow it. So after the table reading, we started rehearsing, and it was interesting because I guess I’m more present on the set so I’ll be walking more with the actors, and they were not used to that, so that was an adjustment: ‘Why is this guy standing here?’ But the four of them accepted me immediately.”
Ackerman didn’t start to impose his directorial style on the show immediately. “It took me a couple of episodes just to get to know the camera crew, to get everyone to trust the new guy, and I’m sure everyone was checking me out, who I was and if I knew what I was doing and if I was any good or not,” he recalls. “It was tricky because I had to do it in a way without slowing things down.
“I had to sneak things in because it would involve pickups that would require getting a different shot on the fly, without dragging it out for the audience. It was challenging, but I had to pull it off.” Ackerman recalls setting up an elaborate shot from a toilet’s point of view as Jerry gazed in with dismay at a toothbrush he had dropped into it. He shot the scene before the studio audience showed up. “It took two hours to set up a shot that was about a second and a half,” he laughs.
Stylistically, Ackerman had strong ideas about how he wanted the show to look. “It being a four-camera show, I’d try to stage it so it wouldn’t be such a flat master, so that it would be a raking master,” he explains. “It’s more of a master angled off to the side of the set, so there’s more depth, kind of an anti-proscenium setup. I tried to stay away from proscenium looks—as opposed to making it look like it was a play; it looked like it could’ve been more of a four-wall set. Since I was staging for more interesting camera shots, I was trying to create more depth and mine more comedy than what was on the page.”
After season seven, Larry David left the show, which led to big changes in the series. First, Jerry’s stand-up scenes, which had been slowly whittled away as the show progressed, were axed completely.
“Jerry was on his own in terms of running the show, and it became too taxing for him to write the stand-up stuff in addition to all his other responsibilities,” says Ackerman. “It was all on Jerry’s shoulders now. And also, the stories became more and more intricate, and time was precious, so Jerry decided to jettison the stand-up. It freed him up and it also freed up our storytelling more.”
Moreover, after David departed, Ackerman says the show got, “for lack of a better word, a little sillier. I don’t mean to demean this, but it got a little more cartoonish, but in the best sense of the word. It loosened up a little bit in the sense of the funny. When Larry was there, there was more analyzing, there was a little bit more of a microscope on a situation. When he left, and the writers had to step up to help out Jerry, it became a little more freewheeling.
There was a lot of the small stuff, but the stories got a little bigger and a little goofier.” As the series progressed, Ackerman continues, “There were so many scenes. Usually in the scene breakdown, you have scene A, B, C, D and most of the time you’re done by R. But we were going into the double letters and sometimes triple letters. We had a lot of half-page scenes. The writers did an amazing job of having four different stories with the characters that all tied in at the end.”
Ackerman credits his 1st AD, Randy Carter, with helping to rein in the increasingly complex production. “Randy was a huge help. He found a way to make our day possible when it seemed impossible,” Ackerman asserts. “He was instrumental in mapping out our shooting schedule and moving things along. And the great thing was, he would play a guest part when an actor wasn’t there in the few times we got to rehearse. He would pinch-hit and be a lot of fun. The cast got a kick out of him.”
Perhaps no episode of Seinfeld was crammed with as much narrative as “The Betrayal,” the famous “backward episode” inspired by a Harold Pinter play with a similar theme and structure. Telling the story of how Elaine inadvertently destroyed a frenemy’s wedding in India, it began with Elaine, Jerry, and George returning from their disastrous trip and ended up 13 years earlier, revealing at long last why Kramer felt justified in kinetically violating Jerry’s living quarters whenever he wanted. Even the credits played backward, with the usual closing credits opening the episode and the writers’ and directors’ credits closing it. And the episode also managed to work in the appearance of a live elephant, which Ackerman requested half-seriously but got—something you don’t see on many sitcoms.
“As we did each scene, we really had to make sure we were doing everything correctly,” he recalls. “It was tricky; [writers] Dave Mandel and Peter Mehlman and Jerry and I had to watch each other’s backs to make sure everything was tracking properly, because we literally had to think backwards. We had an ambitious production meeting beforehand. We had to re-create India on the Radford lot, so we needed a couple of more soundstages.”
Ackerman was thinking big, literally. “I was blessed with a generous budget because the show was successful, so I could get away with asking for an elephant—I knew it couldn’t hurt to ask. No one raised an eyebrow. And the elephant was wonderful; it was mellow and did what was asked. It was just a quick shot but it brought so much value to the production. He just had to walk from point A to point B, and with the great costuming, it really sold that we weren’t in New York City anymore.”
Ackerman welcomed such circus-like mayhem as the stories became more complex. “They felt like they trusted me so that they could throw anything at me, which was very gratifying. I had the attitude too that they could throw the kitchen sink at me because I was open to the challenge. That was the fun thing. The script would just have a paragraph of detail, and it would be, ‘Have at it—see what you can do with it, Andy!’”
“The Betrayal” wasn’t even the most complex episode he shot. That honor would fall to “The Puerto Rican Day,” the series’ penultimate episode. To simulate a parade, Ackerman had to wrangle the congestion of car traffic and extras. Another one of Ackerman’s favorite bits was choreographing George traversing the New York set carrying an arcade video game in season nine’s “The Frogger.”
The story line went like this, recounts Ackerman: “The one good thing George accomplished in his life was he had the highest score on this Frogger machine in a pizza place that was closing and so he didn’t want his one, solid representation of his one great moment in his life to disappear. So he had to figure out how to move [the video game] and maintain it.”
In the game a frog traversing a stream had to avoid all manner of wacky obstacles and dangers. So in order to replicate the look of the arcade game Ackerman had the crew build a special rig for a camera looking down on the New York street set; he also acquired 30 cars of the same make and had them painted candy colors. George then had to negotiate, in a highly choreographed sequence, all of the cars as he pushed the arcade game across the street on a handcart.
“On paper, it looked like the craziest thing, but we did it and it was a really funny bit, and something that had never been tried before coming together,” Ackerman says, smiling broadly. “The sequence probably took most of a day to shoot, but it only lasted about a minute, so it was an example of what I was talking about: ‘See how you can do this, Andy!’”
Keeping a show fresh into its ninth season could have been a burden, but Ackerman says he never experienced it that way. “The crew and I were just happy to be there and we loved doing the work. The work ethic was still strong despite how hard it was. Considering it was their ninth season, and they were all financially successful, [the creators] could have gotten lazy, but I never saw it.”
Ackerman directed the series finale, which Larry David returned to write, in which the characters received their legal comeuppance for their years of selfishness and flippancy.
“A scene in the judge’s chambers, which was the last scene we shot, was tough to get through because we knew it was the last scene,” Ackerman remembers. “Michael got very, very quiet, he was very melancholy. Julia started tearing up; we had to take a little break so people could get composed.”
Ackerman smiles thinking back to that time. “That last night was quite a night. We were all just exhausted, but on top of that, just the emotion of it being our last night was palpable.”
That the last show—one of the most watched in TV history—got less than ecstatic reviews only underscored the influence of Seinfeld. Afterward, finales of beloved series would be subjected to much more scrutiny.
Still, Ackerman has only fond memories. “I would seize any opportunity to do a finale of a show,” he says. “Just to be part of that human experience, not only to give the series its due, but also just for the powerful emotion of it. When you think of graduating from high school or college or any big life change you make, it’s something you never forget. And being part of Seinfeld was something I’ll never forget. I was privileged to be a part of it.”