Seinfeld's co-creator talks about the show, his background, and his feature-film debut, the black comedy Sour Grapes.
As a director, writer, and co-creator of the NBC sitcom Seinfeld, Larry David has quickly become one of television's most influential figures. But he walked away from the show two years ago, opting to take time to write screenplays and get some rest. The first result of that decision is his screenwriting and directorial debut Sour Grapes, a black comedy starring Steven Weber and Craig Bierko that contains many of David's hallmarks: the characters who never learn from their mistakes, the observational asides, the seemingly benign situations that bring about outrageous circumstances both tragic and comic. David recently spoke to The Onion about Seinfeld (he recently returned to the show to work on its series finale), his troubled year at Saturday Night Live, and TV shows full of hugging and learning.
The Onion: How tired are you of talking about Seinfeld?
Larry David: It's okay, I don't mind. I can do it.
O: How much have people been bugging you about it?
LD: Um, the maximum. [Laughs.] Maximum bugging is going on.
O: Are you looking forward to that being over?
LD: Yeah, I'm actually looking forward to just getting back to writing the new movie that I'm working on. Because I haven't been able to work on it in a while: I've been writing the show and filming the show, and now I'm going to be editing the show. That's taking up a big chunk of time. You'll like the last episode, I think.
O: How is the process of promoting the movie going?
LD: Um, you know, it's okay. It all depends. If I think somebody liked it, then the interview goes a lot better than if I think they didn't like it. If they liked it, I can tell immediately. Just the way they're talking to me: They'll say something, and then I'll... I used to say in my act, if [Nazi war criminal Josef] Mengele gave me a compliment, we could've been friends. "Larry, your hair looks very good today." "Oh, really? Thank you, Dr. Mengele!" So, if anybody has a little compliment or praise about the movie, we're good pals. But on the other hand, I see some people, and they don't mention it at all, and I get a little tighter.
O: Well, some people in our office liked it, and others didn't.
LD: Well, that's okay, you know? Not everybody is supposed to like it. First of all, a lot of people go and think they're going to see Seinfeld. And it's not Seinfeld; it's different. The writing style is the same, obviously. How could it not be? But it's a completely different story; the story works on its own. It's different characters, you know? Come on, give me a break. You're not going to like it because you're expecting Seinfeld? It's not Seinfeld. He's not there. Jason [Alexander] isn't there. Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] isn't there. Kramer (Michael Richards) is not there. Kramer isn't gonna be in the movie. I don't know what people want. I mean, what's not to like? It's a good story. It's funny. What's the big deal?
O: Sour Grapes is being rolled out pretty slowly, opening in just a few cities to start. How do you feel about that?
LD: Oh, I'm fine with that. I don't care. It doesn't matter. I don't like to make a big splash anyway. I like to be quiet, and let people find me rather than having to shout at them. It has a good chance to do well; it's only starting off in four cities, but they'll put it in a lot more.
O: What kind of budget were you working with?
LD: I think it was $13 million.
O: It seemed like a fairly modest production. The locations were pretty simple.
LD: Yeah, yeah. I don't even know why it cost that much. It seems like it should have cost like five.
O: What are you working on right now?
LD: I'm working on another script. Another black comedy.
O: What's that one about?
LD: I'm right in the middle of it. It's too early to talk about, really.
O: So you're sticking with movies right now? Not a whole lot of TV stuff?
LD: Yeah, I doubt I'll go back to TV for a while, if ever. It doesn't seem like it. I think I'm pretty much done with it.
O: Seinfeld has been successful in spite of being removed from the mainstream of people hugging and loving one another and learning a lesson at the end of the day...
LD: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] I was always sort of struck by that garbage, you know? How they thought they had to impart some sort of lesson at the end of these shows, where we can all take something from it and incorporate it into our daily lives, as if we were going to go out and emulate those characters the next day. I don't know. That was certainly something I didn't want to do, obviously.
O: How did you feel about working within those confines? Not that you followed those rules, but is that why you wouldn't want to go back?
LD: No, I had pretty much total freedom. Except for some obscenities, I could pretty much do whatever I want—although I couldn't have done any of the stuff I did in this movie on the show. I didn't feel confined at all. We pretty much did whatever we wanted to do. After we did "The Contest," we were open to do anything. Yeah, TV worked out... The thing is, it wasn't my ambition to go into television. The whole thing was a fluke.
O: You were a comic at the time the series was conceived, right?
LD: I was a comic, yeah. I was having fun doing that. I was in New York; I was okay. And then everything took a right turn, and I'm sitting here.
O: So why wouldn't you ever want to do television again?
LD: The grind is too much. If you're really a perfectionist about what you're doing, it's just too much. It's seven days a week once you start production, and I get very involved in every aspect of it. I just don't think I want to commit myself to that kind of workload again.
O: Did you stop doing stand-up when the show hit?
LD: Yeah. I stopped, and you could hear that big sigh of relief all over the country.
O: Did you tour comedy clubs, or...
LD: No, I never really did the road too much. I had a taste of it, and I hated it. I didn't like being away from my house. [Laughs.] When I cried at night, I wasn't in my own bed. I didn't do the road too much—just New York, mostly.
O: Do you have any thoughts of going back to that?
LD: Yeah, I'm having some thoughts. I gave a funny speech at my wife's birthday party, and I'm thinking, "Hey, I've still got it." So maybe I'll go back and torture the people some more.
O: You worked on Saturday Night Live for a year [1982-83]; I have to ask for the obligatory SNL failure story, the worst nightmare you encountered there.
LD: My nightmare is that when I worked on the show, nobody talked to me. I had an office that faced the elevator, and hordes of people would go out to lunch, and my door would be open, and I would be sitting there looking at them, and I'm waiting for the wave of, "Come on, Lar, we're going to lunch! Come on with us! You want to have lunch with us?" No. It was the only place I ever worked where I really, truly did not make a friend. I couldn't believe it.
O: Is it true that you worked there for a year and only got one sketch on the air?
LD: One sketch. It was the last sketch of the night, the one that's on at, like, five to one in the morning. I had a lot of them cut after dress rehearsal. I hated the executive producer, Dick Ebersol. In fact, one time, he had cut my sketch, and I went into his office. He was sitting in his director's chair with his name on the back, and he had his headphones on, waiting for the show to begin; it was 11:25, five minutes from showtime. I walked up to him, and I said, "That's it, I quit! The fuckin' show stinks! I've had it! I'm gone! I'm out of here! Goodbye!" And I walked home, and on the way home, I'm adding up all the money that I'm going to be losing. And I'm going, "Holy cow, this thing could cost me like $50,000. What am I, nuts? I could live for another two years on that." And then I got home, and I said, "Shit, what the hell am I going to do?" And I decided that I was going to go in Monday morning and pretend it never happened. And, of course, I wrote about it on a Seinfeld show.
O: So, what happened?
LD: Well, I came back in, and nobody said a word. The writers looked at me kind of funny, like, "What are you doing here?" But [Ebersol] never said a word to me. I just went into the meeting like George did, but George got caught.
O: You lasted the whole year?
LD: I lasted the whole year, yes.
O: What was the sketch?
LD: It was... I actually used an element of that sketch in one of the shows. It was a sketch about an architect who was showing his plans to a developer. The developer is looking at the plans; Harry Shearer is playing the developer, and looking at the plans, going, "Yeah, everything looks good. What's this?" And the architect looks over his shoulder and says, "Oh, that's the elevator." And the developer goes, "No, no, this thing here." He goes, "Oh, that's a stool for the elevator man. It pulls out of the wall." And he goes, "A stool? I don't want my elevator man sitting on a stool!" And they get into a big fist-fight, and that's the end of the building. I did a [Seinfeld episode] where they had George feeling sorry for this security guard, that he wasn't sitting. He had to stand all day in the store, and George finally bought him a chair. I remember the conversation in the coffee shop between George and Jerry, with George deciding what chair he should bring in. [Laughs.] They're going over the different kinds of chairs that the guy could sit on. I really love that scene. So I got to incorporate an element of that sketch into the show.
O: And then, of course, the security guard falls asleep in the chair...
LD: And the store gets robbed. That was the perfect ending to that, if I do say so myself. That was the Maestro episode.
O: Was that the one that introduced the Maestro character?
LD: Yeah, the guy wanted to be called Maestro. See, that's the thing about writing for Seinfeld: You're watching an interview on TV, and they're calling the guy Maestro. And it's just funny. Where else are you going to be able to write about that?
O: Do you miss it?
LD: I know I'm going to miss writing it. I'll miss working with Jerry. I'll miss the people and everything, but I've been gone for two years. I'm obviously more adjusted to it than the others. But I think they'll be fine. I think that what people imagine they're going through is much worse than what they are going through.
O: People have seen a lot of tearful finales, where the cast of Cheers takes 20 minutes to take bows and hug and cry, and they do a special commemorating 11 years of laughter... Maybe they think Jerry Seinfeld is somehow going through the same emotional upheaval.
LD: Well, he did get a little emotional, but I think he's fine.
O: There have always been discussions about the show being based on your experiences. How much is that actually the case? How much is George Costanza really you?
LD: He's very much like me. [Laughs.] And I'm not ashamed to admit that. He's very much like me; there's no doubt about it. I can't think of too many things that he does or thinks that aren't things that I have thought of or wanted to do, or have done. And I'm not ashamed of that. I sort of bristle when I hear people, like, "Oh, he's a putz, he's an idiot." "Well, what are you saying that for?" But there are elements of me in the other characters, too; there's just a little bit more in George. He is sort of like me.
O: You said you don't like Sour Grapes being thought of as like a Seinfeld episode...
LD: I just don't want people to go in expecting a Seinfeld episode.
O: Because Craig Bierko's character has certain elements of George Costanza, and even Kramer.
LD: Well, any character I write is going to have part of George Costanza, and part of Larry David. You know, that's just the way it is. There are parts of me in the other characters, too. There's just no getting around that. Now, if I chose to be in the movie, people wouldn't be saying, "It's George Costanza." They'd be saying, "It's Larry David acting in the movie." And it's possible that I might, at some point, do that.
O: Well, you've done acting work. You're in Sour Grapes, for that matter.
LD: I was. You saw that incredible performance. In a way, I am writing myself a lot of the times. I'm just not in it.
O: In the movie, you've got a sitcom called Guys & Gals, which is, of course, a pretty straight-ahead jab at Friends. What do you think of Friends?
LD: Somebody just asked me this before, and I told him, off the record, that it's extremely derivative. You can put it on the record; I don't care. It is extremely derivative, isn't it? Is that just me, or am I crazy? Without Seinfeld, would there be a Friends? Would that show have ever been done without Seinfeld? That format, what they're doing? No.
O: And it's funny that when all these other shows popped up, people called them Friends clones.
LD: Yeah. I really take issue with that. I'm glad you noticed that. That really annoys me. Friends clones. Like that's not a clone.
O: What TV shows do you like right now?
LD: Um... The only TV show I watch with any regularity, believe it or not, is Party Of Five. My wife got me into it. It's all hugging and learning, and I can't get enough of it. That's the only one I watch with any regularity. The others... I can't really say I watch anything. I catch little snippets and pieces of things from time to time, but I never really sit down, like, "Oh, this is on, and I should watch this or watch that." I don't really watch anything.
O: Seinfeld has had these sort of milestone episodes that weren't just milestone episodes for the show, but for television. Like "The Contest" and Susan Ross [George Costanza's fiancée, played by Heidi Swedberg] dying of envelope-glue poisoning. I had read somewhere that that episode was a sort of "Fuck you" to the network. Is that true?
LD: Yeah, I read that, too. And why would I say "Fuck you" to the network? All they did was put this show on the air and let me do whatever I wanted to do for seven years, without any censorship at all. Why would I possibly say "Fuck you" to them? It's insane. I wanted George to be happy. [Laughs.] It all came out of my desire for George to be happy, and I thought the irony of him being too cheap... She's so thrilled about the wedding invitations. You know what people are like when they make out wedding invitations. And she was flying so high from that, but George didn't want to do it. He didn't want to spend that much money on the envelopes; he's always been a little tight with the dollar, so he got the cheapest envelopes he could get. And the irony of her licking these envelopes, and getting toxic poisoning from it... How could you pass that up? You know? I mean, come on! It was the perfect way to end that season. Perfect! No, I don't regret a moment of that. My mother hated that episode when it came on, as did a lot of people; we got a lot of letters about that. But my mother later saw it syndication. She called me up, and said, "You know, I have to say, I really laughed a lot. It's really funny." Now she loves the episode. So, ha ha.