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'Seinfeld,' a Cinderella Story That Went From Fable to Legend

Television * The comedian's managers, friends since boyhood, recall how they had to fight for the show that has earned $2 billion so far.

April 02, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Howard West, it couldn't get any better than this.

Jack Welch, the legendary chairman of General Electric, was putting on a full-court press for him, partner George Shapiro and their client Jerry Seinfeld, hoping to woo the comic to return for a 10th season of his eponymous NBC series.

In the course of the late-1997 exchange, Welch stated matter-of-factly that if Seinfeld agreed to another year of the show, the combination of salary and stock options on the table could ultimately be "worth a couple of B's," as in billions.

"It just rolled off his tongue," marveled West, who soon adopted the line as a sort of in-joke.

Welch didn't get that extra season of "Seinfeld." Indeed, the comic and his managers took a long walk through Central Park--sitting on the same bench where Seinfeld first told his father he was going to go into comedy. Despite what West calls a "magnificent" performance by Welch, Seinfeld stuck with his instinct--that it was time to leave the stage.

Yet even without that final season, "Seinfeld" is indeed worth "a couple of B's"--not bad for a series that nearly didn't make it beyond the prototype stage.

It is a level of success West and Shapiro could not have imagined "in five lifetimes," as West put it, reminiscing on the "Seinfeld" phenomenon as the show prepares to begin its second cycle of reruns in syndication, which have brought the show's total revenue to the $2-billion mark.

Sales went so well once it was announced "Seinfeld" was coming to an end that in several major cities the incumbent station was outbid--including Los Angeles, where the show moves beginning today from KTLA-TV to KCOP-TV, which has scheduled it at 7 p.m. weeknights opposite "Friends." (KTLA is owned by Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.)

Boyhood friends who bolted the William Morris Agency together to form their own management firm in 1974, Shapiro and West had a front-row seat on TV history as Seinfeld's managers and producers of the series. Small wonder they keep a framed copy of NBC's initial audience research regarding "The Seinfeld Chronicles," which labeled the pilot "weak" and contains such observations as, "None of the supports were particularly liked. . . . George was negatively viewed as a 'wimp' who was only mildly amusing--viewers said he whined and did not like his relationship with Jerry."

Shapiro called the fact "Seinfeld" made it to the level where the chairman of NBC's parent company was pleading for another year ("That's the highlight of his whole career," he quipped of West) a Cinderella story. Added his partner, "We went from begging for a pickup the first three to four years to being begged to stay on. That's a very warm feeling."

*

Sitting side by side in a conference room at Columbia TriStar Television, which is charged with selling reruns of the show, Shapiro and West play off each other with the ease and familiarity of a veteran vaudeville act. They are asked, for example, if West--the more practical-minded and business-oriented of the two--is the bad cop to Shapiro's good cop.

"We don't like that term," West said.

"But it's accurate," Shapiro interjected.

The well-worn "Seinfeld" story takes on an epic quality as the two recount it--how the research was negative, how NBC brass were cool to the show, how the network's executive in charge of specials, Rick Ludwin, sacrificed two one-hour specials to fund four episodes through his department--still perhaps the shortest order of a prime-time series on record.

"When that research came in, we believed we were dead," West said. "We went to Fox, and they passed."

"We never had people from the comedy department on the set giving us notes," Shapiro chimed in.

NBC gave the four episodes a trial run in the spring of 1990 and brought the show back in January 1991. The premiere, however, was abruptly postponed because the Persian Gulf War broke out.

Ratings languished (including a stint opposite ABC's "Home Improvement," which defeated "Seinfeld" soundly head to head) until 1993, when Ted Danson decided it was time to close down "Cheers." Desperate to find a replacement, NBC moved "Seinfeld" to Thursdays, setting the stage for its success.

"I hugged [Danson] at a party later," Shapiro said. "He didn't know why."

Until then, the duo never even fantasized about the show becoming a major hit. Survival, they say, was their sole aspiration.

Before the fateful move to follow "Cheers," West said, "I'd look at [the ratings] and I'd say, 'George, "Jake and the Fatman" is kicking the [expletive] out of us. Look at that. How could that be?' . . . We were nothing until [we got] the Thursday slot."

"It was a show we were proud of that we never expected to have a big audience. New York Jews running around, it has to be a limited audience," Shapiro said he thought.

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