Why I Bet on Seinfeld
You’ve got to listen to your gut.
Warren W. Littlefield is an American former television executive. A protégé of Brandon Tartikoff, Littlefield developed Cheers, The Cosby Show, and The Golden Girls as senior and executive vice president of NBC Entertainment under Tartikoff. During his time as president of NBC, Littlefield created hit shows for the network throughout the 1990s such as Seinfeld, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Wings, Blossom, Law & Order, Mad About You, Sisters, Frasier, Friends, ER, Homicide: Life on the Street, Caroline in the City, NewsRadio, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Suddenly Susan, Just Shoot Me!, Will & Grace and The West Wing.
When we developed the Seinfeld show, we took a bet on Jerry Seinfeld, who was not a household name. But Jerry had a voice. He was appearing on Late Night, on The Tonight Show, had some commercials out there, his voice of observational comedy, looking at the world around him, that voice was really starting to come into its own.
So Jerry was on the bubble and his manager said, “What about Jerry,” and our response was, well, okay. Now, no one knew quite what the show would be, but, ultimately, Jerry and Larry David decided that they wanted to write about characters that they knew, about the lives and the way people talked and what they did, the kind of stupid, little, crazy things that they did. And we said that's sounds interesting. Let’s take a shot.
And we read the script and it was without the normal story drive of most comedies. It meandered and yet it was funny. And we thought we’ve got to give it a shot and it screened well. When we screened that pilot, we said, hey, we might be on to something here. Then, the research came in, a disaster, absolute, unmitigated disaster. They knew, a number of people knew Jerry Seinfeld, they just didn't like the show. They thought if we did anything, keep going with Jerry just doing stand-up. And, of course, in many of the early seasons, Jerry did a little bit of stand-up and that teed up the episode. But that research report was so negative that it scared us, and we picked up a couple of shows that were terrible and they failed quickly. And we asked ourselves, should we let this get away?
So we ordered a grand total of four half-hours of Seinfeld, and Jerry and Larry David went to work. We did give them one note, add a girl, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was added to the show. And there was something about those episodes, as crazy as they were, “The Chinese Restaurant, “Parking Garage,” not a lot happened, but you kind of loved those characters and they were funny. Put them on in the summer, no original competition, it did okay, not great, but our gut said there's something here.
And I think that's really the key, is you’ve got to listen to your gut. When in life do you get a black and white printout that says this is what you should do? It just doesn't happen. We started to think about what were the things that we wanted to watch. We stopped thinking that the audience was some alien robotic someone out there and we were guessing how to make them happy and said, how do we make ourselves happy, how do we want to race to television set, and I think that was a key to our success. We listened to our gut, we ignored the research and we then a vision, in this case Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, their vision made us very uncomfortable. Where they were going, no one had ever gone before. And yet, rather than say no, rather than use our power, shut them down, we took a deep breath and said I don't know if it’ll work, but if this is what you believe in, go ahead and take a shot.
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