Notes From the Sitcom's Deathbed

At Seinfeld, we got crateloads of spec-script submissions. The show's situations were so real, people felt their lives were episodes. So they wrote scripts, mailed them in, and waited for fat checks and thin Guild cards. After a few lawsuits charging we stole ideas we didn't steal, Castle Rock — the show's production company — made us return all specs unread. To acknowledge the work and dreams invested in these scripts, I wrote a thoughtful, apologetic boilerplate rejection letter. One season, Idaho was the only state that didn't have a resident submit a Seinfeld script. Michigan alone was responsible for over 70. Eight from Oklahoma, two from North Dakota, and more than 30 Missourians sat in their homes writing about four New Yorkers who had no clue about what it was like to live in America.

Once, when people felt the urge to write, they wrote books or stories or plays. TV was a high-paying reward you fell into after years of high-quality, low-paying writing coupled with the backlogging of life experiences not juicy enough for a novel but fine for television — like beef going to the Alpo warehouse instead of The Palm. Now it's a beeline from college to laugh-sweetened dialogue. And not witty, 1590-on-my-SATs dialogue. See, networks aren't solely responsible for horrid sitcoms. Writers are unindicted coconspirators.

You'd think people who want to write would aspire to their own level of greatness. But sitcom writers don't want to write, they want to be in show business. Luckily, most never have to write. Life is spent in a room all night barking out jokes. If one of the jokes sticks to that day's draft of the script, you proudly get to call yourself a writer, just like Philip Roth or Joan Didion. Your name gets on scripts that you were in the vicinity of, like Derek Jeter getting the call despite never touching the bag when turning the double play. Of course, Derek Jeter could touch the bag if he needed to. Most sitcom writers couldn't knock together a suicide note without help from a roomful of 22-minute personalities.

''Guys, can you punch up my suicide note? It's just . . . lying there.''

Before the '90s went out of business, being on a hit show was hitting the lottery. Pre-Seinfeld, I'd barely written any dialogue in my life. Just as I was clueing in to foreign concepts like ''dramatic structure,'' production companies swarmed to sign me to multimillion-dollar contracts. A first-year MBA student would have vomited at the lack of research behind the offers. People threw money at me to create a hit show for them without ever asking ''Do you have any ideas?'' It was lovely, but I vaguely wanted to justify it, to state my case, to say that Seinfeld was the only show in which you came up with your own story lines or you were gone. There was no ''writers' room.'' You wrote and rewrote your own scripts before kissing them off to Larry David and Jerry so they could dose it with magic. I was ready to say I did bad work on ''The Visa,'' better on ''The Sponge,'' really good on ''The Implant.'' I was ready to argue that my episodes showed signs of a sensibility: A bunch dealt with radically changing one's appearance; a clump with contraception; a batch had people trying to be someone else; almost all had friends drastically at cross-purposes. My story lines were truly ''about nothing.'' (Except when they weren't: It took me weeks to realize that my friend's experience with a valet parker's BO would make a funny episode. Too broad of an idea for me to see.)

1 2 3 4 5 7

From Our Partners