Seinfeld’s Lessons in Product Development

The creative process behind one of the most influential TV comedies of the 1990s is amazing. As it turns out the forming of mass appeal for a popular sitcom has many parallels to modern software development.

The show about nothing. Dating, everyday social life and eating, following four friends in New York City. It’s a story about lean product development and creators sticking to a compelling vision despite strong opposition.

I have to admit that I am biased, as an aficionado I do not have a very objective point of view on the work of the creators of TVs hit sitcom Seinfeld: most notably Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

Becoming almost obsessed with the show and having seen every episode, the ability to come up with such stories and understand the creation of the comedic episodes was fascinating to me.

So I tried to learn more about its creation process and discovered many parallels to modern software development as well as a path of success to learn from.

Build With Conviction & Vision

The show itself and most episode plots originated from real life experiences of the authors, most notably Larry David’s. The portrait pain points of social life and dating are real and very relatable to most of the audience.

With a clear focus on writing, the comedic idea was at the core of each episode. The writers often ignored the difficulties of production – scene building, locations, logistics – in favor of presenting the intended comedic vision of the episode.

“The journey of someone coming in the room with an idea for something and then saying ‘Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s do that!’. Then it going into an outline-form, … a script-form, … a read-through, … a rewrite, … a rehearsal and then more rewrite, more rehearsal, … a shoot-night, an editing process and then finally going on the air is essentially an off-road egg-race where you carry the egg on a spoon. It’s broken terrain, it’s hills and roots, but you have to run.” – Jerry Seinfeld

Measure Your Prototypes

After a pitch of the idea to Larry, the authors turned the best ideas into a first script of an episode. With the text ready before production the script of the shows was read by the actors and often rewritten on-the-spot if parts did not stick or the ensemble added value to it.

“Sometimes after a run-through I would see Larry run back to his office. He would run to do the rewrites!” – George Shapiro

If lines did bomb they were cut or rewritten. Most inside-apartment scenes were filmed in front of a live studio audience. The feedback of the audience towards the lines was a strong indicator for their comedic appeal to the final viewers of the show. When they did not laugh in the studio, the text had to be rewritten on the spot.

Only when the studio audience laughed and thereby approved the product, the acted show, presented to them, the piece would make it to editing.

Cosmo_Kramer
Cosmo Kramer played by Michael Richards,(Wikipedia)

“You get the idea from the writer-stage to the script. It’s funny at the read-through and on the stage. […] You could get it all the way to the edit and it falls apart. […] Even though you had it all the way, just at the last moment … ‘Oh, you dropped the egg!’ – Jerry Seinfeld

Editing gave the episode its final touch. The producers and editors optimized timing, scenes were reduced to their core to fit the tight timeframe of a sitcom format. The MVP of the episode was created so to speak.MVP: The Episode

The team had a ceremony of signaling that a batch of work was done. They crossed the just finished episode from their whiteboard after filming. Afterwards actors and writers would met for a celebratory dinner (with exception of Michael Richards, the actor playing Cosmo Kramer).

Learn: Iterative Process

Look at Seinfeld… in the first four Episodes it wasn’t really Seinfeld. – Dan Carlin

Seinfeld wasn’t as funny in the beginning as it was at its climax. It did not yet have the audience appeal it achieved in later seasons.

The actors and writers shaped their characters, the plots, the whole product bit by bit into the massive success it became during its later stage.

Success

Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have become multi-millionaires not from their salaries as writers or actors in the show but through the show’s syndication rights.

The last part of this success is the discovery that Seinfeld had an international appeal. The story was relatable even across language or culture barriers. Products with universal appeal can often be transferred to different markets. Although the shows main success clearly was inside the US, DVD sales and translated episodes with international voice actors increased the show’s financial success.

How Does This Relate To Product Development?

Seinfeld is the story of limited funds in the beginning, a bold idea and many lead bullets building up a great TV success. The authors first struggled to find a working solution to fit the format that appealed to the audience.

The show had to overcome mainstream opposition from network executives and disappointing reception. Up to the point of near defeat with the show almost being shut down after the pilot.

Continuously improving their product episode by episode, line by line, word by word, it grew into becoming the iconic show of the 90s. By itself it was a dramatic innovation in the space of sitcoms. Its writers did neither shy away from tackling society’s hot topics nor from details of social behavior nor the conflicts with TV censors.

Stick to your idea. Carry it out by building a product that is different and stands out from mediocrity. Don’t be afraid to fail, improve upon feedback and incorporate this into your product production flow.

“Man, That’s An Old Show”

True, but it still has great comedic appeal. Though the used props might be stuck in the 90’s universe, their observations on social life surely are not. If you haven’t: watch it! Get the DVD set or check your local TV listings for reruns. You find many accounts by the actors and writers on the creative process of the show as extras on the Seinfeld DVD sets.

If you’re creating a bold product yourself and aim for international success, we have built a software product that helps you with the whole internationalization and translation process called PhraseApp.

There is a new show by Jerry Seinfeld with free online episodes available called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” which by itself is another great format innovation on the talk show:

Also, often funny is the parody twitter account @SeinfeldToday which features plots of Seinfeld if it were still on today:


Also published on Medium.

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