How to Write a TV Show: Secrets from Seinfeld

The man who gave the world "yada, yada, yada" and "shrinkage" gives you an inside look at writing the best sitcom ever.

department of wit seinfeld
Steve Wacksman for Reader’s Digest

Before instructing you on how to create the next ratings-busting, pop-culture-cracking, bazillions-earning sitcom, I offer this cautionary tale:

In 1992, when Seinfeld struggled for Wednesday night ratings, “The Virgin” episode featured a plotline in which George Costanza inadvertently caused his girlfriend, Susan, to lose her job. NBC executives took offense, calling George callous and unlikable. The writing staff tinkered, making George more regretful and less unlikable.

A mere four years later, when Seinfeld was a hit on Thursdays, an episode called “The Invitations” featured a plotline in which George inadvertently caused Susan to … die.

The same executives had no objections.

The moral of the story: If you compromise in order to stay on the air, your show may survive long enough to become the sitcom of your dreams. (And oh: When you get a better time slot, don’t emulate Larry David and say to a reporter that if people didn’t watch on Wednesdays, you don’t want them on Thursdays.)

Producing a sitcom is a walk through a minefield. At any moment, a wrong step can doom any project. How to navigate this minefield is a mystery roughly equal to man’s rise to the top of the food chain. The (somewhat) good news is, through years of heady success and blistering failure, I can (maybe) steer you toward a (slim) chance of sitcom glory.

OK, let’s get to work.

department of wit seinfeld
Steve Wacksman for Reader’s Digest

When conceiving your show, I recommend borrowing (stealing) from the past. TV executives won’t want you, a sitcom novice, to reinvent the wheel—even though the sitcom wheel has become square, rusted, and divorced from its axle. Your best bet is offering a sitcom reminiscent of previously successful shows. Hence, I’d suggest a sitcom set mainly in a suburban American home and named something like All in the Modern Family Ties or Two and a Half Mad Men. See? Right away, you’ve given the TV powers-that-be a familiar, comfy-cozy feeling.

Forcing TV executives out of their comfort zone is risky. In 2004, I proposed a genre-bending show called The Ripples, about a couple who, through an ancient miracle, had been married for 4,000 years without ever aging. When I finished my spiel, the network executives looked at me as if I’d spoken out in favor of acid rain.

Now, once you have a wonderfully derivative idea, try to boil it down to one catchy sentence. Attention spans in Hollywood run from half a minute to three seconds, so the faster you hook people, the better. For instance: “A handsome, prosperous black couple decide to adopt a white baby.”

See? In one sentence, you’ve proposed a comfortably plausible, fish-out-of-water family sitcom with an innovative twist.

Hey! That’s pretty good. Back off! That’s mine!

It bears mentioning that when Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld met NBC executives, they did not overtly pitch a show “about nothing.” Their single sentence was more like: “A show about the everyday life experiences that give a comedian his material.” When Larry added, “But there aren’t any real stories,” Jerry just laughed and flicked an elbow into his rib cage.

So don’t be fooled: Your sitcom must be about something. And to convey that something, you must make your characters likable. Or, failing that, make them lovable.

OK, granted: While flawed but nice neurotics make decent sitcom characters, self-absorbed, vindictive psychotics make for great sitcom characters. Unfortunately, no one will let you create a show around thoughtless misanthropes. It’s sad, I know, but what can you do? Well, my sneaky suggestion is, make your lead characters 90 percent wonderful but leave 10 percent of them open-ended. This way, over time, you can subtly add juicy/distasteful/funny aspects to their personalities.

Example: In an episode of Seinfeld called “Bubble Boy,” there was a moment when the Bubble Boy’s father told the sad story of his ailing son to Jerry and Elaine in the coffee shop. Tearful, Elaine passed out napkins. As she and the dad dabbed their eyes, Jerry, in an ad-libbed gesture (!), used the napkin to mindlessly wipe crumbs from his mouth. It got a huge laugh without anyone really focusing on how insensitive Jerry was being. That moment is what opened the door to years of Jerry becoming more coldhearted and a lot funnier.

Lesson learned: Laughter is such a strong spice, it’s hard to taste anything else. If you write something funny enough, you can get away with murder.

Now, I mentioned making your characters lovable. There are varieties of lovability. Among your male characters, you should have one intelligent, moralistic, insecure, tortured, neurotic hypochondriac. Viewers like that character type because they love feeling superior to someone on TV. To balance that guy, add a radically uninhibited, shameless, lustful, irresponsible clown—someone who blurts out what everyone else is too scared to say. (Prime example: Kramer telling a girl she needs a nose job.) Then I would suggest (but not insist upon) a clinically quirky but unthreatening female character. In short: Zooey Deschanel.

Now that you have this group of extreme personalities, the big trick is making them lovable as a group. The best way to do this is by adding one last character, someone adorably attractive to both men and women. On TV, gorgeous people can neutralize the messy humans around them, and—this is important—if you can get viewers to love one character, they will eventually fall for all the others.

The best example is how Jennifer Aniston’s pretty, magnetic appeal to men and women elevated Friends into a monster hit. I mean, really, don’t you think the other five characters, left to their own devices, were pretty annoying?

Julia Louis-Dreyfus brought a similar (but brainier) intersex appeal to Seinfeld with both her looks and her comedic acting. Sometimes on the set, I’d stand next to Jason Alexander, who would inevitably smile and say, “Boy, Julia can push that adorable button like nobody’s business.”

Of course, finding a performer with Julia’s appeal is difficult, but don’t worry … casting comes much later in the process. For now, you need only to worry about your pilot episode. So when you write the pilot, just remember to describe at least one character with words like gorgeous and/or irresistible and/or the sexiest two-legged mammal to ever walk the earth. TV executives seem to like those adjectives—don’t ask me why.

Finally, I’d like to offer a tip that is a personal favorite. Most successful sitcom writers would disagree with me, but keep this in mind: I’m right, and they’re wrong.

My tip is this: Think of your pilot episode as a pop song with a great hook. Consider some of your favorite Seinfeld episodes, and you’ll notice there were catchphrases or terms that viewers wound up saying in their own lives:

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it.”
“Master of my domain.”
“Yada, yada.”

Larry David has an acute ear for such phrases, as evidenced by the origin of the now nationally known term shrinkage.

While writing the episode “The Hamptons,” I had Jerry see George’s girlfriend topless. George gets so upset, he demands to see Jerry’s girlfriend topless. All great, but I didn’t know where to go with the story. Then Larry suggested a surprise twist where Jerry’s girlfriend sees George naked moments after he’d been swimming in a cold pool. I said, “Oh. You mean George had … shrinkage?”

Larry said, “Yes, shrinkage. And use that word. Use it a lot.”

And that, my friends, is how pop culture history is made.

I know I said that was my last suggestion for creating a successful sitcom, but, actually, I have one more tip: Ignore all my tips, and write a show you would like to watch.

Peter Mehlman’s new book is Mandela Was Late.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest