Tuesday, 11 January 2011

What I learned from Seinfeld

Occasionally, I watch a TV show that is so good and perfect that I'm at a loss to know what I can learn from it. It's like looking at a Picasso or, my personal favourite, Claude Lorraine.

I mention this because recently, my latest TV treat has been Modern Family and I have almost nothing to say about it. It's an astonishing piece of work, reviving the family sitcom like a whiff of smelling salts. It has all the verve and brio of Arrested Development, and all the heart of, well, Arrested Development. And yet it's a domestic family sitcom, split over three households, with familiar storylines, retold in a stunningly original way.

Some time ago, I had similar feeling about Seinfeld. I've got every single on DVD (or at least I did until my friend Luke lost my Series 7, even though he swears I loaned him Series 5. It's okay, Luke. I forgive you.) I'm a huge fan and was always sad that BBC never committed to showing it at a decent time on BBC2, when the show has such British anti-sentimental sensibilities ('No hugging, no learning'.)

After multiple viewings and thinking about things, I spotted one thing that Seinfeld has the courage to do that no-one else seems to do. It makes peripheral characters funny. Really funny. In most comedies, the regular cast are the funny ones, and anyone else who is brought in for the week is normally played, or scripted, very straight. Harrassed shopkeeper, or disgruntled customer or whatever.

A good comedy actor knows the importance of playing straight, so that the comedy in the established funny character is heightened. But Seinfeld showed that his doesn't always have to be the case. Who can forget the Soup Nazi? Or the Bubble Boy? Or the infuriating Bania? Or Kramer's insane lawyer Jackie Chiles? Some of the characters, like Bania or Chiles, were so strong, they could recur again and again. And many recurred in that final (ill-advised) courtroom episode and we had no problem remember who any of them were and why they would be happy to stitch up the regular characters.

In some ways, the strength of these minor characters is typical of the show. Despite being a successful comedian, and having his name on the show, Jerry Seinfeld did the smartest thing he could have done: he effectively gave the show away to George, Elaine and Kramer - and to the comic genius of Larry David. Jerry is almost the straight man in the show, since he is always reluctant to get involved in Kramer's schemes or humiliate himself. The comedy world revolves around Jerry - his parents, his Uncle Leo, his nemesis Newman among others. You know you've got a hit on your hands when you create a 'world', and find yourself smiling when you even start thinking about it. (How many people reading this thought to themselves 'Hello Newman'.

There's no doubt that creating this kind of world is easier when you're doing 26 episodes in a run, and after four years find yourself shooting episode 100. But it is still easier said than done. Conventional wisdom says that all comedy should be focussed on the regular characters, since they are the ones that the audience have invested in. This is true - but there is another way. If you can get it to work.

So that's what I learnt from Seinfeld - and one day, I'll learn something from the flawless Modern Family.

In the meantime, here's Jackie Chiles in all his glory.


For more of this sort of thing, you might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"A MUST Read for Aspiring Comedy Writers. This book gave me the feedback I needed and the tools to change and greatly improve my script." Dr. Rw Fallon


  1. Good piece! This is also what makes The Simpsons such an extraordinary show: the breadth, diversity and - well - comedy of its peripheral characters.

    I guess I should watch Modern Family, then. Unfortunately, if it has just one flaw, it's got appalling adverts...

  2. I have yet to see a single episode of either of those, a situation in need of immediate remedy! Thanks for this great post. I hope I can contribute more to the conversation shortly!

  3. Fun read. Just thought I might point you to a piece I wrote about 'Seinfeld' about a year and a half ago.


    To be honest I don't now entirely agree with all of what I wrote in that piece, but I DO still have great admiration for the finale so I'd be interested to see why you thought the final episode was 'ill-advised'.

    Anyway, I enjoy your writing and pointing to other people to find out about - I plan to learn a lot more about Harlan Ellison after your link to that video.

  4. This post made me remember Nick Voleur, Bernard's dodgy accountant from the first(?) episode of Black Books. First: his name is brilliant. Second: even HE is frustrated by the immensity of Bernard's financial incompetence, so it develops Bernard's character too.