Twenty years ago, there was much ado about nothing — or more specifically, the TV sitcom that was famously about nothing — when “Seinfeld,” then a groundbreaking ratings juggernaut and pop cultural phenomenon, aired its much-anticipated series finale.
Concluding nine seasons of micro-observational humor, complex but absurdist intertwining plotlines, dialogue that became overnight water-cooler catchphrases and a game-changing “no hugging, no learning” approach to network comedy, star and executive producer Jerry Seinfeld turned to his co-creator Larry David, who’d left the series two seasons prior, to craft an ending that would, in established “Seinfeld-ian” style, neatly tie disparate threads of the series together. Living up to the hype fanned by network NBC preceding its airing on May 14, 1998, was a lesser concern.
“Larry and I were so good together, if we both thought something was funny, that was good enough for us,” Seinfeld recently told host David Letterman of their overall shared philosophy for the show in general. “If it can get through those two filters, and we both think that’s funny, I wouldn’t even care if it wasn’t funny.”
Seinfeld and David didn’t do it alone, of course: To mark the 20th anniversary of the finale, Variety turned to members of the all-star team that had a hand in the aptly titled “The Finale.” Here, stars-turned-cultural icons Jason Alexander (George Costanza) and Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer); guest actors Patrick Warburton (David Puddy), Larry Thomas (The Soup Nazi) and Phil Morris (Jackie Chiles); executive producer Alec Berg (currently EP of “Silicon Valley” and “Barry”) and supervising producer David Mandel (currently showrunner of “Veep” starring “Seinfeld” leading lady Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and producer Suzy Mamann-Greenberg (whose subsequent credits include 144 episodes of “How I Met Your Mother”) reflect on the series-ender.
Why was season 9 the right time to end the show?
Alec Berg: “Jerry’s always had such an amazing head on his shoulders, and he’s never been in awe of any of it. He handles it all with dignity, and I think he just felt like this felt right to him. [The network] had offered to give him seven gazillion dollars and his own planet if he wanted to do another season. And he thought about it and said, ‘The only reason to do another year would be money, and that would be a shame.’ And he’s never been in it for the money. He’s always said, ‘Do the work and the money will come. But if you chase the money or chase success, you’ll fail.’ …I think he just felt like ‘This is the right call, I’m confident in it, and we’re going to do it this way, and we’re going to make it good.'”
How did working toward the end feel that season?
Jason Alexander: “From the Christmas prior when the announcement had gone out that it was the last season, so there was a frenzy of attention on the show. A lot of magazines, a lot of press, a lot of fan curiosity about how we would go out. …We — and when I say ‘we’ I mean everyone except Jerry and Larry and perhaps a few select writers and producers — had no idea what the finale was going to be. So we were as curious as everybody else.”
Berg: “We were so exhausted. The last two years, Larry had left. And so a bunch of us were trying to do what Larry did, 24 episodes a year. And the level of exposure. …Something like 33 million people a week were watching the show, so if we screwed it up, it would have been a pretty massively embarrassing screw-up. We lived and ate and slept and hung out at the office. And there was a day during the last season when I looked at a calendar, and it had been 59 days since I had [last] not come into the office. I went another two or three weeks before I had one day off. And at that point, having a day off was worthless, because you would just sit at home and twitch. It was a totally unsustainable level of work.”
David Mandel: “There were a lot of other times when it almost was the end, including when Larry left. Jerry made the decision to keep it going, but when Jerry basically was telling us that it was finally going to end, he had, if memory serves, already reached out to Larry. So we knew right from the get-go, yeah, it was ending — which sucked — but Larry was going to come back and do the end with Jerry, which just seemed right.”
Alexander: “Larry and Jerry were the parents of our show — they gave birth to this thing. And then Larry had gone off to explore other things, and the show sailed along beautifully under Jerry’s supervision, but there was always that feeling that we lost one of our creators. …You have to understand that the ‘Seinfeld’ organization was a very unsentimental group in a lot of ways. It doesn’t mean we didn’t care about each other. We cared about each other, it just meant we didn’t hang out a lot together. So the fact that we were all back was very, very exciting.”
Berg: “By the time the finale started rolling around, and Jerry said that he had spoken to Larry, and Larry was going to come back and help write the finale, we were all ecstatic. …Really, Larry could have pitched us anything and we would have said, ‘Fantastic!’ We don’t have to have this burden of coming up with the finale on our shoulders. We were so tired that I’m not sure we could have mustered the energy to do a good version of anything anyway.”
Mandel: “There was no question, as far as any of us were concerned, that it had to be like that, and it was great. We had our last episode, and then we also knew then there was this, and then Larry was coming back. So in a weird way, it was almost like a double ending, which was cool.”
How did David returning change the dynamics at the end?
Berg: “There definitely was a little bit of an adjustment from those of us on the show who had been very much in charge of certain things for the last couple of years. Larry just showed up and was like, ‘I’m going to the job the way I always did the job.’ It’s like a husband had left the house for two years, and the kids had to take care of everything, and then the husband came back, and the kids are like ‘Oh, Dad’s back and I guess he’s going to do those things that Dad does, and we don’t have to do those things anymore.’ But it was just awesome that he was back.”
Michael Richards: “It was like the last day of school. You’re still going to your classes for the last time, but it’s like everyone is carrying their yearbook and we’re all signing each other’s yearbook. It just had that kind of feel to it all. Larry was very, very busy managing a huge show because he had written a script where he wanted all of these past characters to be in the episode. And so it was a really enormous undertaking. And then all those people on the set, and we’re all touching down and going over episodes in the past, just talking.”
What was the genesis of the idea of the trial and so many returning guest stars?
Mandel: “Larry obviously leaned toward his seasons, but obviously we had done two seasons that he was not there for. I remember suggesting a couple of possibilities from our time, could testify, and we definitely landed on Marcelino, a guy that had come out of ‘The Little Jerry’ episode, written by Jen Crittenden. So our era was represented.”
Alexander: “Then all we knew was that a lot of our favorite guests were going to be part of the week, and we were very excited about the prospect of all these people that we have loved and adored. Some of them have become a regular part of our team; others had only come in for an episode, but had scored big. And the excitement going into the last week was about having this giant reunion of people that have meant so much to us versus the underlying sadness of ‘This is it.’ …I also selfishly believed that George was a kind of alter ego for Larry that nobody really understood in quite the way that Larry did and I thought, ‘Well, this is gonna be a particularly satisfying George episode.'”
Patrick Warburton: “I only did two guest spots during the sixth season, and then two years went by where I wasn’t on the show — I was on a show called ‘Dave’s World’ on CBS, and they wouldn’t let me out to do guest spots. But then they canceled ‘Dave’s World,’ and I was helping Jerry out with his American Express commercials — I did Superman in those spots. That’s when he brought up coming back on the show during the ninth and final season. I did seven or eight episodes in the ninth season.”
Larry Thomas: “I was convinced that Larry and Jerry didn’t like me [after my first appearance because they never had me back]. I was at my old day job as a bail bondsman and a court investigator and I was in court in Glendale and my manager called me and she goes, ‘So would you be available to do the “Seinfeld” final episode?’ And I just yelled and everybody was looking at me. ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, they called and they want you to play the Soup Nazi again.'”
Phil Morris: “I was doing another show at the time — ‘The New Love Boat.’ We used to do eight-day cruises to get all the exteriors and the actual locations on the boat with actual passengers. So the night I came back from this excursion to the Caribbean on a Sunday is when I got the script and the notice that I was starting on Monday. I didn’t know that I was even in the finale. I didn’t have a clue that Jackie had so much to do. And to be honest, it kind of freaked me out a little bit, because I hadn’t got my land legs under me and showing up the work the very next day to do this incredible popular culture experience. It was really daunting.”
Just how important was it to bring back so many familiar faces, and what went into pulling it off?
Suzy Mamann-Greenberg: “What a fantastic love-letter to the real fans of ‘Seinfeld’ that have been following all these years, and I was really excited to get it together. It was tough, though, because they decided they didn’t want anything to get out ahead of time – like, nothing. And we started [production] three months before it aired, so that was a real challenge. …Everybody wanted to know what it was about. It was like the big secret.”
Thomas: “As soon as my agent hung up she got a call from Entertainment Weekly asking ‘Is your client going to back for the “Seinfeld” finale as the Soup Nazi?’ and she said yes. And then she called [casting director Marc] Hirschfeld’s office and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, this is going to be a major industry top secret. Larry’s going to have to sign a confidentiality agreement. No one is to know he’s coming back for the finale.’ So before even being told of Larry David’s big secret, we blew it right off the bat. The first day back on the ‘Seinfeld’ set Larry stood up in front of the 50 guest stars and said, ‘This is my dream — this is to remain a major secret. No one is to know what’s going on,’ and I’m just sitting there turning red because I knew Entertainment Weekly was going to come out with their next issue and say, ‘One thing we do know is the Soup Nazi will be back,’ which they did.”
Mamann-Greenberg: “We had 52 guest actors in that episode, so imagine, we didn’t have scripts going out and looked at. At the table read was the only time the full script was read, and everyone had to turn them in at the end of the table reading. Casting put out only the pages that actors were in [and] we never had extras in the same things twice. Everyone in the courtroom were actors except for the jury, which was friends and family.”
Alexander: “Particularly sweet for me is that my wife was a jury member. So my wife, who was taking the journey with me, got to be on the set on the show for that last episode.”
Mamann-Greenberg: “We had fake names on every dressing room trailer that were around the entire lot, stages on lockdown. Everyone had signed non-disclosure agreements. Everything was locked up in my office — the film, the everything. We just didn’t have anything around that could be pieced together. No one had the full story before it aired, so that was huge. …After the show had aired, and then I created scripts for everybody to have as a token of the finale for everyone.”
What did it feel like to return, only to say goodbye again so quickly and so permanently?
Thomas: “Being a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan, I had become a fan of all these other actors that played all the other characters in the series. It was just like a huge party. We all had very little to actually do as far as work, so it was just swapping stories. The late Ian Abercrombie came by one day and said ‘Brian George and I going for a bit of lunch — do you want to come with us?’ The three of us walked across Ventura Boulevard and out of the corner of my eye and I’m noticing people stopping and staring but I’m not putting two and two together. Finally it occurred to me in the restaurant: people are recognizing us and wondering ‘What are the Soup Nazi, Babu, and Mr. Pitt doing together?'”
Morris: “I didn’t show up as Phil. I went right into makeup and wardrobe. I came to the set as Jackie. There’s this whole courtroom full of people, and I say my first line on the first take, and they all broke up. And I turned around, looked at everybody and went, ‘Jackie missed you, too.'”
Warburton: “I only had one word in the final episode, but I didn’t give a crap because it was a great word. Elaine was going off to jail, and across that crowded court room, she says, ‘David, don’t wait for me.’ And I just go, ‘All right.’ Which I felt was great. In that one moment, it truly encapsulated the two of them and their relationship.’
Berg: “I’ve never seen Jerry nervous. I’ve never seen him out of sorts. I’ve never seen him thrown for a loop. …My sense was that was his approach to the finale was just ‘OK let’s make sure this works and that works.’ He was very rational. It didn’t feel like he was emotional or I didn’t see any crying or like. ‘Oh my god, what have I done? I wish we could keep going!’ I think he just felt like. ‘This is the right call, I’m confident in it, and we’re going to do it this way, and we’re going to make it good.'”
Thomas: “In those years after my episode the one thing I categorically refused to do was say ‘No soup for you.’ I thought it would be a big mistake — it would sound like a bad impression of myself. So [on set] Jerry and Larry called me over and Jerry just goes. ‘I think you need to say it.’ And I looked at him for a second and said. ‘Say it? Oh, say it! Really?’ And they both said, ‘We think you need to say it out loud.’ So with dread I walked back into the scene, thinking, ‘I’m totally going to sound like an idiot.’ And for the first time in three years, out loud I yelled, ‘No soup for you!’ Later, Larry crossed the street just to walk next to me for a second and say, ‘You said it the exact same way you said it three years ago!’ And thus began a career of saying ‘No soup for you’ two and a half million times.”
Mandel: “It was so wonderful to see: the [lead cast members] were just savoring it. That’s the best way I can describe it. There was just that sense of ‘This is a magical thing, a very, very special thing, and we’re never going to have something like this again.’ I just felt like they were truly taking in every moment of it in a really wonderful way.”
How aware were you of just how much attention there was on the episode while you were working on it?
Richards: “I was trying to avoid [all the fanfare] because I just stay very focused and as present in the rehearsal process as possible, in view of this finale. That’s the way I work, because there was never much rehearsal time to do ‘Seinfeld,’ particularly when we were doing so many exterior shots, and then by the time we’d get in to do the rehearsal on set and then get prepared for a live audience. …The hoopla was just too much. I mean, people were coming in and out of the soundstage — I don’t even know who the hell they were.”
Berg: “No matter what we did, a trillion people were going to watch it and everybody was writing cover stories about this juggernaut coming to an end. It was super exciting. Every day truckloads of people who had been on the show would come in, and being on that courtroom set was amazing.”
Mamann-Greenberg: “Once [the finale] was announced, every lunatic on the lot — from writers on other shows to people wandering on our stage — they were stealing cereal boxes. I pulled all the original Monk’s menus and replaced them with duplicates. Someone had stolen chair backs from one of the cast members’ [set chairs]. We pulled them all and did duplicates. It was really crazy.”
Mandel: “They put cameras all over the set to make sure people didn’t take anything, and they caught a guy — I think it was a security guard on the lot — stealing some stuff. I think he tried to take the apartment numbers off the door. And then we, the writers, and Jerry hung out way after one of the wrap parties ended, a little drunk, smoking cigars and whatnot, and we proceeded to tear the sets apart. I took a full set of stuff from the coffee shop. I think Alec Berg took a door, Jerry took a door, everybody took stuff. We took it and left, and I guess at some point or another, video was sent to the production office of like, ‘Well, here’s this footage of everybody, all your people, stealing stuff.'”
Morris: “During the wrap party, most of the other sets were kind of dismantled and sold off or taken home by Jerry or Larry or the writers who wrote. But the coffee shop was still there, and I remember sitting at the table with my wife and Bryan Cranston and his lovely wife, and we were just looking around at all of this and going, ‘This is never going to come our way again.’ Well, for Bryan it kind of did with ‘Breaking Bad,’ but most of us, that’s an experience you never, ever relive and revisit. There was a lot of sadness, and an odd sense of relief, like, ‘We did it.'”
When did the fact that this was really goodbye hit you?
Alexander: “We used to do a thing before the cast introductions to the audience at the beginning of every taping. We’d be back behind the set — just Julia, Michael, Jerry, and myself — and we would do this ridiculous thing called ‘the circle of power,’ which was nothing more than the four of us kind of huddling up and going, ‘Have a good show.’ It really was nothing else, it was just silliness. But on our final introduction to the audience on tape night we got into the circle of power and Jerry said, ‘I just want to say something to you guys…’ Already this has a serious tone, which is unexpected. And he said this really beautiful thing. He said, ‘For the rest of our lives when anybody thinks of one of us, they will think of the four of us, and I can’t think of any people that I would rather have that be true of.’ And as we all began to weep over the fact that Jerry had said that, that’s when they started calling our names and we had to go out and pretend that everything’s just hunky dory.”
Mamann-Greenberg: “Everybody knew this was it. It was ten days of intense everything — shooting — and it wasn’t like they cried over people but in the end it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re so in the thick of it’ that it was registering, but it was after when we got to the wrap party when everybody was pretty much letting down and just falling apart.”
Richards: “I always was sort of ready to go after an episode. I never lingered anyway throughout the years. So I was out the door fast, and my bags were packed, so to speak. It didn’t really hit me until much later, really. I would have to even say maybe a few years later, what I had been through, to catch up with it all. I just realized gratitude and was just really in awe of what we had accomplished. …I remember I was calling Larry and saying, ‘I just wanna thank you…’ you know? Probably all of that all should’ve been said while we were making the show, or certainly the night that we ended the show.”
Alexander: “The reality of it done didn’t strike me until August when we normally would’ve gone back to work and suddenly we weren’t going to work. I was developing my next show, but we weren’t coming back together. We have never looked back with any regret on ending the story of the show when we did. We all think that was a very classy exit. What I think we all regret is putting an end to that family. …We all kind of knew that there would probably never be an occasion where we would all gather like this again.”
How do you feel about the debate over whether or not the ending was satisfying for long-time viewers?
Alexander: “I thought was a very appropriate ending, but what do I know? I never would say to an audience member, ‘No, you’re wrong — that was the perfect ending!’ I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect ending. What I always loved about the episode were things that the audience wouldn’t have the same appreciation of. I love that Larry found a way for everybody that was meaningful for us to come back. I love that the last line of the episode was the first of line of the pilot.”
Mandel: “Larry and Jerry made the show they wanted, and they made the finale they wanted. As long as they were happy, I was happy. If you didn’t like it, well, so be it — that’s your prerogative to not like it, but that’s the show. The people who created the show made the finale they wanted, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no other version. That’s how it should be. And perhaps sometimes people liked to forget how maybe sometimes mean and awful those characters could be. They sort of picked and chose what they wanted to say they liked about them, and in some ways, the finale was a reminder of that, in a wonderful way.”
Berg: “It’s so in character for the show. It just felt like it didn’t take itself seriously. And to have a big hug and turn out the light and emotional moment — why start now? I think that would have been disingenuous and not true to the show. At a certain point, the fact that it wasn’t exactly what people wanted, that’s what made the show great. It was different. It didn’t play by those same rules. So I was always very happy with it.”
Richards: “While we were making the show, I certainly knew it would be interesting. I don’t know if it deserved the critique it got. Everybody had huge expectations — God knows what they’re fantasizing — but I thought the overall idea was brilliant. It reminded me of the end of Fellini’s ‘8 ½’’ where all the characters come out and they’re in full circle.”
Given the success of the show in syndication and streaming, how closely connected do you still feel to it, 20 years later, and what does it mean to you today?
Alexander: “It’s the gift that keeps giving. I had a nice lovely career prior to ‘Seinfeld.’ I was doing exactly what I had always dreamed of doing as an actor. I was making a very nice living. I was working in the theater in New York, which was the end all, be all for me. I had no fantasies about film and television. And then ‘Seinfeld’ came and opened up this whole new world of recognition, of financial security. It opened doors to other opportunities that I might never have gotten and continue to get.”
Richards: “Every time I go out — it’s every day — I hear about the show, because it’s running all over the world and here in this country. People still watch it. I’m reminded of it every day. I’m always told on the street, ‘Hey Kramer! Hi, Kramer!’ Twenty years goes by, but it’s still ‘Hi, Kramer!’ And it’s always a good cheer and a tip of the hat my way for how much they love this character and the show, of course, as a whole, because we were a remarkable ensemble.”
Alexander: “I am welcomed everywhere I have ever been like long-lost family. It gives me entré to people I would never have met who feel like they have a common experience with me. And because of that I’ve also met countless people who talk about the hard times in their lives when this show got them through, whether they had an illness or a death in the family. I talked to many, many soldiers that had served in Iraq and Afghanistan who used it as therapy. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘You guys got me through the darkest part of my life.’ And I started to be able to appreciate myself as someone who contributes to the world primarily through this vehicle of ‘Seinfeld.’ That to me is the greatest gift — actually having made perhaps a contribution of value in people’s lives.”