Seinfeld's Writers Room Wasn't Run Like Your Average TV Show

How do you write a series about nothing? Steven Koren, an alum of the "Seinfeld" writers' room, shared some insight on the process.

Mel Magazine recently published an oral history on the creation of "Seinfeld" character Izzy Mandelbaum (Lloyd Bridges), an elderly fitness buff who lives in the same Delca Boca Vista community as Jerry's patients. Mandelbaum's debut is one of three storylines in the episode "The English Patient." The others involve Elaine being singled out as the one person who doesn't enjoy the eponymous film and George being mistaken for an attractive woman's (Chelsea Noble) boyfriend.

Koren, writer of "The English Patient," was interviewed for the feature. He didn't recall much of how he pitched the episode itself, but he was able to share how writing for "Seinfeld" differed from other series he worked on. For context: Koren got his start on "Saturday Night Live" and has since followed fellow "Seinfeld" alums to "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Veep." According to him, the writing on "Seinfeld" was much more individualistic than other shows he's worked on past and present.

Writing stories, not just jokes

"The English Patient" was the second "Seinfeld" episode Koren wrote after "The Abstinence." According to Koren, "Seinfeld" writers didn't just need a basic idea for their episode pitches. No, they needed to be sure that they could fill a half-hour-long, two-act story. Koren recalled:

"Unless you could come up with a story in that two-act structure they had, you just didn't proceed. On that show, forget the jokes, each subsequent story beat had to be funny, that was a rule."

Therein lies one reason why "Seinfeld" was so consistently funny, both on a moment-to-moment and episode-by-episode basis. The writers crafted funny stories, not just jokes strung together by a narrative. Many "Seinfeld" episodes flow like parades, the comedy piling up as the characters sink themselves further into embarrassing situations.

Speaking to Vulture, writer/producer Peter Mehlman revealed another wrinkle: "Seinfeld" pitches needed more than one story.

"You really [needed] to come up with four ideas, or three, because you have to have all of the characters engaged. Coming up with story ideas was absolutely the most important part of your job, which is not true of 90 percent of sitcoms where you're doing it as a group."

The three stories woven in "The English Patient" were enough to meet that standard. Still, getting a pitch approved is only where the writing begins.

The rewriting process

According to Koren, "Seinfeld" writers would write their greenlit pitches solo, unlike other writers' rooms where the team would collaborate from the start. Once the scripts were complete, they went to Jerry Seinfeld himself and showrunner Larry David for revision. Koren does that specify that the process changed during the last two seasons after David's departure.

"Originally, Larry [David] and Jerry did the revision, but when Larry left [after season 7], the revision process changed so that the whole group would revise it. You still began by writing your own episode though, and that sense of personal ownership of a story was great on that show."

Not all rewrites were equal. According to Mehlman (via Vulture):

"It all hinged on how good of a job you did. There were times when it was like a complete makeover, and other times where it was more of a massaging. After a couple of years, if there was something wrong with the story and then they figured out a new way to do it, they would always tell me and let me write it because they trusted me. So, where I might've felt a little loss of ownership on the story itself, they were nice enough to let me still feel [like] a part of it.

David and Seinfeld had been hands-on writers from the beginning. They co-wrote all five episodes of season 1 together (barring episode 3, "The Robbery" written by Matt Goldman). Season 2 is when Mehlman and Larry Charles started, but the bulk of scripts are still credited to Larry David, without or without Seinfeld. It's only during season 3 that a variety of voices emerge. The process of writing "Seinfeld" may been individualized, but collecting a wide team of writers was to the show's benefit.