Comedy’s most awkward performer, on his uncomfortable year on Seinfeld

Comedy’s most awkward performer, on his uncomfortable year on Seinfeld

If Ray Romano were a human pit of infinite despair, he’d be writer-comedian Fred Stoller, a sad-eyed comedy lifer who has played everything from losers to schmucks to poindexters to luckless humps to jerks to grating nudniks over the course of his career as a comic character actor. Stoller’s name might not strike a chord, but chances are good most people have seen him debasing himself for a paycheck in some television show or movie, be it Joe Dirt or Wizards Of Waverly Place

Stoller is the emotional equivalent of Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass in Unbreakable. A stiff wind or ambiguously unkind word are all it would take to annihilate Stoller’s fragile self-esteem and sense of self. Yet he didn’t just choose one profession where rejection and failure are the only constants: He chose multiple professions where rejection and failure are the only constants. As a stand-up comedian, character actor, and writer, Stoller toiled in three fields that ensured doors would be shut in his face, roles would be given to actors with less of an overpowering loser vibe, and jobs would constantly go to performers younger and more confident than himself. 

Stoller embodies a strange quirk of the entertainment industry. Some of the most fragile, sensitive souls in the universe—artists, writers, poets, performance artists, and various other artistic creatures—throw themselves into creative callings where they’re promised a long, unrelenting gauntlet of humiliation in exchange for even the fuzziest shot at big-time success. In the Darwinian ecosystem of the entertainment industry, some folks grow strong and resilient, while others crumble under the pressure. Stoller, not surprisingly, was a crumbler. As he recounted in a depressing installment of WTF, Stoller didn’t retire from stand-up comedy so much as he finally just gave up in a resigned funk. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. A man seemingly paralyzed by even the most minor social interaction just couldn’t bring himself to haul his sorrowful carcass out on the road in a desperate attempt to make drunken, belligerent strangers laugh. 

But it isn’t just stand-up that ultimately proved prohibitively difficult for Stoller. Just about everything seems to fill him with unshakeable dread. The world is an almost unfathomably cruel place for him, filled with people and experiences he does not understand and finds strange and threatening. Stoller recently left his fortress of solitude to appear on podcasts like WTF and Sklarbro Country, where the hosts were sensitive toward him, perhaps out of an understandable fear that he would never stop weeping uncontrollably if they uttered the wrong word. 

The Sklars and Marc Maron aren’t that much younger than Stoller, yet they handled him like a depressed uncle who needs to be checked on regularly to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself. Because Stoller is so patently uncomfortable with himself—he seems like the kind of person who would crawl out of his own skin if given a chance—he must be difficult to be around, yet the professional sad-sack nevertheless stumbled into a potentially career-making break when Larry David gave him a staff job as a writer on Seinfeld, a doomed gig documented in Stoller’s e-book My Seinfeld Year. 

My Seinfeld Year’s fatal flaw is that Stoller’s story doesn’t develop in any unusual way. The book pretty much follows a straight line foretold by the title: Stoller worked on a really great show called Seinfeld for a year. Then he was let go for reasons just about anyone familiar with his oeuvre can imagine. That was pretty much that. Stoller didn’t come away from his experiences with material for a great book. He didn’t even come away with a book. He came away with enough material for an e-book that feels like an anecdote. It’s not even a particularly good anecdote. It’s less the kind of story that has everyone riveted than the kind of meandering, go-nowhere account that has listeners desperately checking their watches and searching their psyche for excuses to leave. 

My Seinfeld Year opens with Stoller in a familiar position: He’s a bit player on Wizards Of Waverly Place, playing one of his trademark doofuses, in this case a doorman who attempts to impress a group of young people by doing The Dougie, a dance that Selena Gomez graciously teaches him. Then an intense, ambitious 19-year-old co-star asks Stoller whether it’s true he once used to write for Seinfeld. The young man has a hard time imagining how a career that involved writing for one of the most beloved shows of all time led to being taught how to do The Dougie while playing the latest in an endless series of losers on ridiculous children’s shows.

My Seinfeld Year then travels back to the halcyon days of Stoller’s youthful prime, to the fateful surprise party where Stoller ran into Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, who told Stoller he should follow in the path of just about every aspiring television-show writer out there and write a spec script for Seinfeld. Stoller dipped into his rich treasure trove of personal and professional humiliations and came up with a script that impressed David so much, he offered Stoller a staff position as Seinfeld writer, even though Stoller is one of the most awkward people in the history of the universe.

Stoller is the antithesis of an insider, and My Seinfeld Year is the opposite of an insider tell-all. Instead of the inside scoop, My Seinfeld Year offers a quintessential outsider’s chronicle. By his own admission, Stoller was too awkward to really bond with his fellow writers, and his few attempts to win over the cast proved clammy and counterproductive. For example, when Stoller gives Michael Richards a ride home from the set after work one night, he tells Richards—who earlier asked him to turn off the radio so Richards isn’t subjected to subliminal thoughts—that he’s put some great physical comedy for Richards in an episode he’s writing. Harmless stuff, right? But when Stoller later tells Larry David about the innocuous conversation, the mercurial show-runner explodes at him for talking to the cast without his permission. 

Stoller has so few meaningful encounters with David and Jerry Seinfeld that even their most minor exchanges are plumbed for deeper meaning, as when Seinfeld and David rag Stoller for wearing an unflattering belt, or rib him about the shirt he’s wearing. In his bid to understand the complicated, imposing world of Seinfeld, Stoller acquires an unnamed mentor who compares the show’s environment to the trenches of Vietnam, and ultimately does everything to sabotage Stoller and ruin what little chance he has of having his contract renewed. My Seinfeld Year consequently has a villain, but he’s thinly developed, and the book as a whole fatally lacks conflict, suspense, and characterization: Readers spend an awful lot of time swimming around in the sour sadness of Stoller’s mind, but learn precious little about the culture of Seinfeld or its central players. 

Stoller honestly didn’t fare too poorly during his year at Seinfeld. He got one script made and scored a story credit on a second, and when his contract wasn’t renewed, he scored a juicy guest turn on Seinfeld playing a loser Elaine becomes obsessed with because he can’t remember her name, no matter how often he runs into her. This secondary quasi-fame leads to My Seinfeld Year’s juiciest and most dispiriting story. In exchange for a free place to stay in New York, Stoller agrees to appear as a special added attraction on a Seinfeld-themed bus tour run by Kenny Kramer, the hustling real-life inspiration for Michael Richards’ Kramer. This extravagant public humiliation at the hands of a schemer intent on exploiting Seinfeld’s legacy is far more compelling in a train-wreck fashion than Stoller earnestly trying to stay on at Seinfeld and failing. 

My Seinfeld Year isn’t a bad book, just an unnecessary one. Stoller is a fine writer, and the book is too short and brisk to wear out its welcome, though it never justifies its existence, even as an online impulse buy for Seinfeld fanatics. Seinfeld was famously a show about nothing. My Seinfeld Year is ultimately a book about nothing, but Stoller lacks the show’s gift for making nothing into something wonderful. 

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